A Star-Spangled Future​​​

On display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, the Star-Spangled Banner is illuminated as if “by dawn’s early light”

RL Magazine celebrates the Star-Spangled Banner’s 200th anniversary with a look back at Ralph Lauren Corporation’s
role in its conservation

ew objects truly embody the spirit of America. The country, as all who have sung Katharine Lee Bates and Samuel A. Ward’s “America the Beautiful” know, comprises beautiful swaths of amber grains, fruited plains and majestic mountains. Each of the 50 states has its own distinctive character, but every so often, something marvelous speaks to our collective history—Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, the Alamo in San Antonio, Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Still, only one object, the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that was hoisted above Baltimore’s Fort McHenry to signal a crucial American victory over the British during a battle in the War of 1812, serves to singularly celebrate the broad context of our nation.

A View of the Bombardment of Fort McHenry… by John Bower, created in 1817, depicts the Battle of Baltimore, a pivotal American victory during the War of 1812

 

For more than a century, the Smithsonian has cared for the Star-Spangled Banner. And for the past 50 years, the flag has drawn visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which opened in 1964 as the Museum of History and Technology. In a written statement from 2008, Brent D. Glass, the director of the National Museum of American History from 2002 through 2011, said that he believed the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit held the power to “help future generations experience what it means to be an American.”

In 2012, John Gray was named the Elizabeth MacMillan director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

 

A pioneering public historian, Glass was instrumental in spearheading an unprecedented conservation and reinstallation of this national treasure, made possible in part by major support from Ralph Lauren Corporation. In 2008, the final Star-Spangled Banner exhibit was revealed after an $85 million renovation of the museum’s center wing, where the flag is housed.

The magnificent flag’s “broad stripes and bright stars” serve as a poignant reminder of the resolve that galvanized lawyer Francis Scott Key’s tribute, now our national anthem. As the museum readies for its second major renovation in a decade, this time of the museum’s west wing, the flag continues to function as its pulse.

“The flag is our mission,” says John Gray, director of the museum. “It brings people around the nation together. It is a symbol of the past but also a symbol of the future. It is arguably one of the most, if not the most, treasured objects that we have.”

And the National Museum of American History has a lot of objects. They range from Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz to Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves to Abraham Lincoln’s top hat to Julia Child’s kitchen. A vital American symbol, the Star-Spangled Banner was a natural addition to the museum’s collection. On display, it grants context to the myriad rich stories represented throughout the museum.

“The exhibition is set up to entice you into the story of the flag,” explains Gray, “to slow you down, to let your eyes become acclimated to the lower light levels, and then to go around the corner and see the flag. It is luminous, and it is really magical.”

“My favorite memory has to be standing between President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the National Museum of American History when they announced our commitment to preserve the flag. I’ll always remember how incredibly honored I felt when I was asked to help on the project.”
—Ralph Lauren

he flag reveals a tale of American industry—Mary Pickersgill, a professional flag maker from Baltimore, was paid $405.90 in the summer of 1813 to produce a 30-by-42-foot flag—and it illuminates the strength of camaraderie in the fight for a common goal. “It is particularly important as you contextualize it in the history of the nation,” Gray says. “We came together during the War of 1812 as a nation to defeat the British.”

A professional flag maker from Baltimore, Mary Pickersgill was hired to craft the Star-Spangled Banner in the summer of 1813

 

The flag also has an interesting provenance. Lt. Col. George Armistead, who was the commander at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, gained ownership of the flag, and it remained in his family’s possession for nearly a century—passing first to his widow, Louisa, then to his daughter Georgiana Armistead Appleton and finally to his grandson Eben Appleton. Cognizant of the national treasure’s significance, Eben Appleton contacted the Smithsonian. The flag first traveled to Washington, DC, as a loan in 1907, then officially joined the museum’s collection as a gift in 1912.

Of course, the Star-Spangled Banner highlights the importance of conservation, too. When it joined the collection, the flag was 30 feet by 34 feet and in need of repair. In 1914, after eight weeks and approximately 1.7 million stitches, Amelia Fowler and a team of needlewomen secured the flag to a linen backing and prepared it for its first significant stretch of public exhibition.

Years of dirt, dust and material strain have placed the Star-Spangled Banner in a precarious position. “In 1998, when we were evaluating what needed to be done, we found that one of the major impacts was light damage,” says Suzanne R. Thomassen-Krauss, who was chief conservator of the Star-Spangled Banner preservation project and is now senior textile conservator for the Smithsonian. “[Because] much of the funding for the project came in early, we could do really intense research.”

In 1999, conservators started clipping a web of interlocking stitches to remove the linen backing attached to the flag in 1914. The backing had weakened over time.

 

Mr. Lauren also remembers those early days. “In 1998,” he tells RL Magazine, “when the Clintons were in the White House, they made a commitment to our nation to a millennium project: Save America’s Treasures. Together, they sought to preserve historic sites and objects that might be lost to future generations. When Hillary Rodham Clinton personally asked me to play a role in preserving our nation’s icon, the flag that had inspired me throughout my life, I was immediately touched. What an honor!”

For years, conservators worked on the flag in full view of museum visitors, an account of which can be found here. “It is groundbreaking in the technical aspects [of the conservation] of a textile, a flag, of its magnitude,” Gray says of the process. “The mere fact that we were able to keep it for future generations is enormous.”

When the project finished in 2008, the Star-Spangled Banner was encased in a specially constructed, climate-controlled chamber at a constant temperature and humidity level. Smaller and more fragile than it was at Fort McHenry, the flag lives in an atmosphere evocative of the same rising sun that caught Key’s eye. Its majesty is unavoidable.

Five million visitors walk past the Star-Spangled Banner yearly. As the National Museum of American History celebrates its 50th year, the importance of the flag remains central to the discussion of the American spirit.

The conservation lab’s floor-to-ceiling glass wall made it possible for several million visitors to view the museum’s most recent effort to preserve the flag

 

“I probably go into that area two or three times per week,” Gray says. “Once, I was sitting on the bench—you are allowed to sit—and a guy came over and said, ‘What are you looking at?’ I said, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ He said, ‘Why?’ He was probably in high school. We sat down and talked about what he thought of being an American, what he felt when he saw the flag and did it mean anything to him. What the flag provides is an enormous educational moment to crystalize thinking and propel thinking in a much larger environment. For me, it is not [about] the static nature of a historic object and reverence for the past; it is [about] educating the present because if there were ever a time to come together as a nation, it is now.”

 

Nick Schonberger is a graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware and coauthor of Homeward Bound: The Life and Times of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry.

  • All images courtesy of the National Museum of American History