WASHINGTON – The soul of America weighs 50 pounds, is 30 by 34 feet and lies on a table behind a monstrous glass wall at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
Visitors who peer through the glass can spy on the intensive restoration of the Star-Spangled Banner, the original, which flew over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired the national anthem.
“The flag represents our history, our culture, our diversity and our unity,” said Maryland National Guard Col. Howard Freedlander, a member of the Flag Day Foundation board. “This project is very important to the soul of America.”
Freedlander and a number of other Baltimore-based historical and patriotic groups joined Rep. Benjamin Cardin, D-Baltimore, for a private showing of the flag Thursday at the Smithsonian and an update on the 3.5-year restoration.
The extensive preservation endeavor has just finished removing 100 pounds of linen backing and other fabrics that had been added to the flag over its lifetime. The next step is cleaning the fabric, with the entire restoration projected to be finished near the end of 2002.
The Smithsonian Institution has been caretaker of the flag for 89 years. When the renovation project is completed, the remaining original pieces of the flag could last another 500 to 1,000 years, officials say.
Forget Betsy Ross and everything you ever learned about her flag-making skills. The 188-year-old flag was first pieced together in Mary Pickersgill’s Baltimore tiny row house. Construction of the enormous flag, which was built on a scale typical of other flags of the time, had to be moved to a much larger malt house nearby, now home to the Baltimore Brewing Co.
Pickersgill’s creation of 15 stars and 15 stripes withstood the assault on Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812, becoming Francis Scott Key’s subject of his “Star Spangled Banner” poem.
Even old, tattered and faded, museum curators and the Baltimore groups that toured the conservation lab Thursday said the flag is enjoying renewed popularity in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on America.
People are flocking to the flag exhibit in any way possible, said Marilyn Zoidis, curator of the Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project. While tourism is down in Washington in general, museum-goers have taken advantage of the project’s web page instead, getting their dose of Americana electronically.
Before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the web site averaged about 90 visits per day from web surfers. Since the attacks, that number has surged to about 900 per day, peaking at about 1,700.
“The flag has survived as our country has survived,” Zoidis said.
None of the group Thursday said they wanted to see the flag restored to brand-spanking new condition. The flag’s battle scars are part of its history and its message, they said.
Mary Pickersgill’s Baltimore row house is now a museum dedicated to her work and her flag. Sally Johnston, executive director of this Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, said that the public’s sudden interest in the flag is a “knee-jerk” reaction to the attacks.
Museum officials and history-lovers say they are just happy Pickersgill sewed a flag strong enough to help satisfy that need.
“If she hadn’t made such a good flag, it wouldn’t have lasted through the bombardments and 200 years,” Johnston said.