By Jasper Collier
On August 8th, as part of a National Trust for Historic Preservation employee event, several President Lincoln’s Cottage staff members joined in on a hard-hat tour of the renovations in progress at the Smithsonian National American History Museum. Perhaps because the tour I was on was led by Jim Gardner, the project manager for the new Star Spangled Banner display, the discussion focused heavily on that particular restoration project and the advanced new chamber that will house and display the revered flag.
The entrance to the Star Spangled Banner chamber will be one of the first things that visitors see as they enter the second floor of the museum through the mall entrance off Madison Drive. The newly constructed lobby space is no longer a single enclosed room; visitors will be able to see clear to the roof and into the exhibit rich hallways on any of the above floors. Skylights will pour natural light into the room illuminating the aluminum abstract Star Spangled Banner sculpture that dominates the space and marks the location of the actual relic.
Gardner indicated that the new renovations began with the flag chamber, and that much of the surrounding work was done to accommodate and compliment the flag. But the flag chamber itself was designed with three important issues in mind. First, there will be absolutely no way to remove the flag once the chamber is sealed without either breaking the wall or damaging the artifact. Only conservators will have access to the flag after this step has been completed. This has been done to minimize contact with the flag and thereby prolong its life. Second, because there will be only a tiny amount of light (1 footcandle) the hallways leading visitors to and from the viewing windows will gradually dim on the way in, and gradually illuminate on the way out. The technique will make the flag appear to be glowing and floating in its chamber. Finally, the entrance and exit hallways will feature information to help put the flag in context. Displays will cover the history of the Star Spangled Banner itself (including its physical reality as a large textile) as well as the general usage of flags as symbols in the military, celebrations, and protests.
Most of the popular subjects of American history have a host of myths surrounding them, and the Star Spangled Banner is no exception. One myth (of special relevance to this particular website) relates to none other than Abraham Lincoln. As part of the new display, the flag’s hoist, which has usually not been exhibited with the piece, has been reattached. Its removal was likely the result of souvenir hunters’ merciless destruction of the flag after its historic flight over Fort McHenry. The most prominent souvenir related imperfection is a missing star. Many have theorized that the star rests in Abraham Lincoln’s grave in Springfield, Illinois. This, according to our guide Jim Gardner, is impossible. Presumably the star was still attached to the flag before his death, and as staunch supporters of the Confederacy, the previous owners of the flag would never have permitted Lincoln to touch the heirloom, let alone be buried with a part of it.