Why Save the Flag?

Preserving the Star-Spangled Banner reflects our ongoing effort to establish a more perfect union

Smithsonian's commitment to preserving the Star-Spangled Banner. On July 13, the President and First Lady came to the National Museum of American History to officially launch Save America's Treasures: The Millennium Program. After they pledged allegiance to this precious banner, surrounded by a group of America's children, I offered the following remarks:

As Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, I am often asked which of our more than 140 million objects is our greatest treasure, our most valued possession. Of all the questions asked of me, this is the easiest to answer: our greatest treasure is, of course, the Star-Spangled Banner.

And yet, when you think of it, this remarkable piece of cloth fails many usual tests of value. It is certainly not the finest example of the flag-maker's art. It undeniably shows the ravages of time. And it was not, even in mint condition, made of the finest materials.

The Star-Spangled Banner's meaning, of course, is what lends it value beyond measure, the meaning that one American gave it when he sighted it above Fort McHenry and, thereafter, generations of Americans have given it as a symbol of their nation and the ideals it stands for. Each American flag bears some symbolic weight, but this one has endured for nearly two centuries as material witness to our national purpose.

The Smithsonian is committed to the preservation of this great icon for future generations and we are deeply grateful to President and Mrs. Clinton for sharing that resolve. But I know that we all share as well the belief that for this historic banner to flourish in our national future its renewal must be spiritual as well as material.

There are, after all, many ways to keep this flag vital.

In my mind, I link President Clinton's commitment to a "conversation on race," and to the goals of a society inviting full participation by all its members, with his commitment to the preservation of our national icons. "Can we," he asked in a speech last year, "fulfill the promise of America by embracing all our citizens?. . . In short, can we become one America in the 21st century?"

It is the quest for a just society for all Americans that gives these icons meaning, that makes them priceless in our national imagination.

We at the Smithsonian recognize our important roles as custodians of some of our most loved national treasures. But we see as an extension of that responsibility our obligation to provide a national place where the many communities of America can learn about each other and honor each other's past and present. We are bound together as a people not in uniformity but in shared hope and, if we get it right, mutual respect.

In this museum, not far from the flag we honor, there is an exhibition put together by the museum's director, Spencer Crew, entitled "From Field to Factory," describing the African-American migration to the North earlier in this century. It has been an important exhibition, of course, for our African-American visitors, but other visitors too have found remarkable echoes of the search for a better life by their own ancestors, of the sacrifices and aspirations that mark so many American migrations. By honoring differences we have also discovered fundamental commonalities.

The search for a more perfect union has characterized this country from its origins and shows no signs of abating in the future. It is true that there is a tension inherent in American democracy, but it is the tension marking our society's recognition of the gap between our ideals and our circumstances. It is the inability to tolerate that gap that marks us as a great people and continues to earn us our stars and stripes.

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