Long May It Wave

The Smithsonian embarks on an ambitious project to preserve the Star-Spangled Banner

The power of objects is a lesson I have learned well since coming to the Smithsonian in September 1994. It was brought home to me again recently when an unsolicited letter came to my attention. The letter was written by a 10-year-old after her music teacher told the class that the Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History was in danger of deteriorating. The letter reads as follows: To: Whoever this concerns, I think you should try to stop the American flag from fading. The flag is very special to me and it's been in America for so long I don't want it to fade. Please try to save it for me and for America."

It is a great satisfaction for me to be able to report to that little girl and to all of you that we have recently embarked on one of the most ambitious conservation projects in our history. The subject is the flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 when Baltimore was under attack by the British. On September 13, Francis Scott Key, a prominent lawyer from Washington, D.C., was on a flag-of-truce ship during a brutal bombardment that lasted through the night. Extremely anxious for our fledgling nation, he feared the worst until, "by the dawn's early light," he saw that "our flag was still there." Overcome with emotion, he took a letter from his pocket and composed some verses that were later published and set to the music of a familiar English melody. In 1931, "The Star-Spangled Banner" officially became the national anthem.

The flag, which was made by Mary Pickersgill of Baltimore and her 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, was donated to the Smithsonian in 1912 by the grandson of the commander of Fort McHenry. The donor stipulated that it never be removed from the Institution, so that anyone visiting the Smithsonian would be able to see it.

Since acquiring the flag, which is made of wool bunting with cotton stars, the Institution has endeavored to preserve it properly, using state-of-the-art conservation and exhibition techniques. For many years it was displayed in a case in the Arts and Industries Building before its move to American History in 1963. The flag was last cleaned in 1982, and a flexible screen was installed to protect it from light and dust. Twelve years later, the cables holding the screen failed, prompting us in 1996 to convene a world-class team of experts who could advise us on the safest and most advanced methods for ensuring the flag's stability.

Early on in our deliberations we determined that the flag should continue to be on view throughout the conservation process (which may take three years) so that the public could observe and learn from it. In the fall, we will construct a laboratory in the museum with large glass windows and an exhibition describing the flag's history and the process of conserving it. Substantial educational outreach is planned as well, including video documentaries and curriculum kits that will be distributed to schools.

The challenges of moving the flag are daunting due to its age (185 years), fragility and size (it weighs about 150 pounds and measures 30 feet by 34 feet). To minimize stress and risks, it will be lowered this fall by attaching cables to the top and wheels to the bottom of its present aluminum frame. After the flag is laid horizontally in its frame, conservators will work in prone positions on a movable bridge assembled above it.

The conservation of the Star-Spangled Banner has been designated by the White House as a key element of Save America's Treasures: The Millennium Program. Fortunately for the American people, the Pew Charitable Trusts has stepped forward with $5 million for the project, with the expectation that the gift will be matched with federal funds.

Our need for funds, however, doesn't end with the flag. When it is reinstalled at American History, it will be the visual centerpiece of a significantly refurbished museum that will include more clearly defined spaces, a new visitors' center, new exhibits on American life and electronic access to objects behind the scenes.

It is this vision that we hope will engage corporations, foundations and American citizens of all ages, who will see themselves and their diverse identities reflected, explained and celebrated. We want to preserve the flag that uniquely symbolizes our unity, but also the millions of objects in our care that constitute precious reminders of our rich and complex heritage. And to do that, we will need your understanding and support in the months and years ahead.

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