- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

Our flag is still here.

That is the message visitors get at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, where the flag that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner" is getting a long-needed conservation treatment.

For 34 years, the flag, which measures 30 feet by 34 feet, dominated the Mall entrance of the museum, offering a larger-than-life glimpse of the spirit of America to anyone entering the lobby. In 1998, the then-185-year-old flag was taken down to be treated and stabilized so future generations would be able to see it.

The Smithsonian has built an exhibit relating to the flag's history on the third floor of the museum's West Wing. Visitors can watch through a large glass window as conservators work in the light-controlled and climate-controlled environment.

The work of the conservators has taken on special meaning since the events of Sept. 11, says Marilyn Zoidis, curator of the Star-Spangled Banner Project.

"There are other times in our history, such as World War II and the Civil War, that the flag has been an important symbol," she says. "Part of the expression of what the flag means is what it means to be an American. It is a national treasure, and it is here for people to see."

The flag known as the Star-Spangled Banner was made by a professional flag maker in Baltimore in 1813. The wool bunting flag was commissioned by Lt. Col. George Armistead to fly over Fort McHenry. It was flying during the British bombardment of the fort on Sept. 13 and 14, 1814. It was still flying when British ships withdrew from Baltimore Harbor on Sept. 14. Washington lawyer Francis Scott Key, who had gone to the British fleet to obtain the release of a civilian prisoner, had been detained on one of those ships.

At about 7 a.m. "dawn's early light" on Sept. 14, Key saw the flag flying over the fort and was inspired to write the patriotic words of a poem that became a rallying cry for Americans fighting their first war as a united nation. Key set the poem to a then-popular song, "The Anacreonic Song." Later, of course, it was adopted as our national anthem.

The Armistead family held on to the flag until 1907, when it was lent, and later donated outright, to the Smithsonian. The flag has been on display continuously since 1914, save for during World War II, when it was among the artifacts removed from the District in case of enemy bombing.

The flag has undergone two major conservation treatments. In 1914, seamstresses hand-sewed a linen backing that featured 1.7 million stitches. In 1982, the flag underwent a surface cleaning.

Neither restoration compares to the current project, in which it took six weeks just to roll the flag and prepare it for its move to the conservation lab. Since then, the flag has been photographed, vacuumed and the 1.7 million stitches have been removed. The flag is no longer strong enough to hang. It now lies flat on a giant table in the $1.2 million lab.

Conservators, who must lie flat on a platform over the flag to examine it, are now testing the flag's colorfastness. They will then clean the flag and attach a permanent support layer to each side. The project will be completed by the end of 2002, Ms. Zoidis says.

"We have done a significant amount of work to reverse the 1914 treatment," she says. Part of the reason the project is so large is that each decision must be scrutinized, she says.

"Ideas such as if we clean it and how we prepare the flag are monumental decisions," Ms. Zoidis says.

While museum attendance was thin the first three weeks following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, visitors who did stop by the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit viewed the flag with appreciation.

"This is why we put our hand over our heart," says Ed Carter, an Army veteran of Desert Storm who was visiting from Sierra Vista, Ariz. "It is a symbol of America. I have always liked to look at this exhibit, but it means even more now. One of the good things to come out of this is the renewal of patriotism."

Children visiting the National Museum of American History can try a bit of the conservators' work themselves.

In the hands-on science center, they can try science experiments that deal with textile conservation. In the hands-on history room, there is a project that deals with the Battle of Baltimore and how the Star-Spangled Banner came to be. There are also children's flag activities on the Smithsonian's Web site. (Go to www.americanhistory.si.edu and click on "flag.")

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