The StarSpangled Banner, the majestic symbol of a young America’s victory and an icon of patriotism to generations of its citizens, is fraying.
The flag, according to the preliminary inspection by Smithsonian experts, needs repairs - because of age and the effects of temperature and light. The flag is badly soiled on both front and back. The linen lining, installed by a group of “needlewomen” some 80 years ago, is showing its age. Some of the threads attaching the lining have broken. And the banner is stretched across an aluminum linen-covered frame that has begun to bow. The weight of the flag, according to the Smithsonian, is now supported on the sides and top. Linen tapes used for the installation are frayed and torn.
In addition, an examination showed traces of naphthalene, an insect repellent, on the flag. If not treated, its fibers could become brittle.
“Those factors pose grave risks to the stability of the flag,” said Ron Becker, associate director for capital programs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. “We will clean the flag, and one of the purposes of our conservation and consultation work is to conduct the necessary tests to determine the strength of the flag.”
For 89 years the flag has been a prized possession of the Smithsonian Institution. For now, it will stay where it has been for the past 33 years, in the Museum of American History. But in order to decide how to protect the fragile flag for the future, the Smithsonian is organizing a conference for the end of November that will include specialists in fabric and flags, museum exhibits and climate-control systems. “And some who are interested in broad subject matter like the War of 1812,” Becker said.
“It is not in terrible condition. But we are in a place where it is appropriate for us to take stock of the situation for the long term,” Becker said. “We are investigating all the different approaches one might take.”
The flag was given to the Smithsonian in 1907 by the descendants of Maj. George Armistead, the commander of Fort McHenry on Baltimore Harbor. The officer had ordered the flag in 1813, a year after the war began, so he could raise a banner the British couldn’t miss during what he hoped would be their retreat.
The sight of the 34-by-30-foot flag the morning after the decisive battle of Fort McHenry in 1814 inspired Francis Scott Key to write his poem “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was immediately set to music and in 1931 was confirmed by Congress as the country’s national anthem. “This was the flag that Francis Scott Key saw,” said Becker. “Since it rained that night, the flag that was flying during the bombardment would have been wet and plastered on the pole.”
Each day, thousands of tourists walk into the museum off the National Mall and stand in awe in front of the three-story space that holds the banner. During the summer peak days, 17,000 people use that entrance to the museum.
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