Fragile Symbol of America


The 188-year-old flag that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner" is so fragile, conservators at the Smithsonian Institution have discovered, that the irreplaceable artifact can never be hung again.

"To balance the safety of this American artifact with the people's desire to view the flag, we are looking at displaying it at no more than a 30-degree angle," said Spencer Crew, director of the National Museum of American History.

The deterioration of the huge flag, which was hoisted at Fort McHenry on Sept. 14, 1814, and saved by the commanding officer, was scrutinized during a 21/2-year study. "The State of the Flag," an interim report on the findings of the textile experts, historians, engineers and scientists who scrutinized the flag, was presented earlier this month at the Smithsonian. They found that the flag was probably damaged by the elements and residue from the battle beginning the morning it inspired Francis Scott Key to write his famous poem. It continued to suffer from moving and handling until it was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1907 by the family of the fort's commander, Lt. Col. George Armistead. It has been on almost continuous display since 1914.

When the National Museum of American History opened in 1964, the flag was given a central space, hanging vertically on a frame that matched the original dimensions, 30 by 42 feet. Such display is the "single most stressful exhibition method" for all textiles, the scientists say. Most of the time, the flag was uncovered and subject to whatever heat, cold, dust, pollution and moisture came through the door. The report found that "80% of its wool's physical strength had been lost." Some holes have opened in the fabric, and the movement of the flag against the backing caused abrasion and breakage.

"It had been patched, it had been darned, and it had been mended," said Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, chief conservator of the project. "It is our job now to make sure that it does not deteriorate any further."

Yet, until the flag was taken down for the first time in almost 35 years in December 1998 and examined closely, no one knew how frail it was. Conservators were able to remove the linen backing and see a side that hadn't been on public display since 1873; its colors were brighter than the side on display. The flag has been patched in 27 places and has an extremely weak section in the middle.

The examination was conducted in full public view, in a lab with a huge window. The lab and a flag exhibit have attracted nearly 5 million people in two years.

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