WASHINGTON – More than 9 million people have stood before it,peering through glass windows to see one of the most fragile national symbols.
As the final restoration phase of the Star-Spangled Banner is set to begin next week,historian Marilyn Zoidis remembered the powerful encounters she's had during her work with the 191-year-old flag. She is a historian for the Star-Spangled Banner project at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
“One day I saw a woman staring intently,” Zoidis said Wednesday.
“The woman said,‘I had five brothers who went to the second World War. I had three brothers who came back. Two went to the Korean War; one came back. The flag means a lot to my family,'” Zoidis said. The historian explained that she was at a loss for words,unsure how to respond to the elderly woman's emotion and intensity.
Zoidis,standing before the 50-foot long floor-to-ceiling glass wall that separates visitors from the flag,said that the woman's story signifies the importance of the flag. She said the flag “stands for the ideals of our nation.”
Next week,conservators will begin stitching the flag to a special mesh backing as lightweight as nylon stockings. The backing will be made of Stabiltex,a fabric made of multi-filament polyester.
The flag,which originally measured 30 by 42 feet,now measures 30 by 34 feet. Some of it was lost to wear and tear,and pieces were given to veterans and others as souvenirs before the flag was donated to the Smithsonian.
This fourth and final phase will be completed in late April 2004. Suzanne Thomassen,chief curator for the $18 million project,said,“It's gratifying to see the project come to a successful conclusion.”
Thomassen pointed out that the banner is not solely a U.S. attraction. She said that a group visiting from the Canadian Embassy was intrigued by the flag's powerful symbolism. Canada's flag,created in 1967,is 150 years younger than the U.S. flag.
In 1998,conservators removed the banner from Flag Hall,where it had been hanging for 34 years,since the museum opened.
They began the delicate work of cleaning and preserving the flag that inspired the Francis Scott Key poem,which became the national anthem. The first phase consisted of clipping the approximately 1.7 million stitches that attached the flag to a soiled and worn linen backing dating from 1914.
In July 2000,conservators separated the linen from the flag over several months. They then began using non-abrasive cosmetic sponges to lift harmful materials off the surface of the flag,a process they finished two weeks ago.
As a part of the museum's $300 million renovation plan,it is constructing a climate-controlled display room at the heart of Behring Center. The room will protect the banner from pollution,light,humidity and temperature,Zoidis said.
“We have a lot of people who actually thank us,” Thomassen said. “That's not something you normally encounter.”
The current banner's display area will serve as a prototype for the new design,but the presentation will be different. The display will shift from scientific to formality and elegance,Zoidis said.
Light levels will be dim to evoke an atmosphere of the “Dawn's Early Light,” similar to the morning of Sept.14,1814,at Fort McHenry in Baltimore when Key saw that the flag had survived an overnight bombardment from the British.
The flag will be displayed nearly horizontally,at a 10 degree angle. The new Star-Spangled gallery is scheduled to open to the public on Flag Day,June 14,2006.