When I first received the notification from the Smithsonian to be the Project Director for the production of the original Star Spangled Banner permanent exhibit — the most treasured national icon at the National Museum of American History in 2007, I felt deeply humbled. A year later, President George W. Bush and the First Lady Laura Bush re-dedicated the exhibit to the nation. Ironically, his childhood home is yards away from my office at the Ellen Noël Art Museum.
As many of you are aware, the lyrics for the national anthem come from an 1814 poem titled “Defence of Fort McHenry” written by the 35-year-old lawyer Francis Scott Key, after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British Royal Navy in the Chesapeake Bay during the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812.
The Star-Spangled Banner was officially recognized by the United States Navy in 1889, and by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution on March 3, 1931, (46 Stat. 1508, codified at 36 U.S.C. § 301), which was signed by President Herbert Hoover.
While working on the permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian, I came in direct contact with artifacts from American history and powerful interpretive narratives that continue to inspire generations. A two-story display chamber protects the flag while providing a dramatic view of its “broad stripes and bright stars.”
Encased in waterproof membranes, the massive chamber or crypt holding the 30 foot by 42 foot flag has a dedicated heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system that provides filtered air and controlled humidity and temperature. It is perhaps the single largest museum case in the United States. A custom-designed fire-prevention system impedes combustion by reducing the concentration of oxygen in the display chamber. Extremely low light lumen levels inside the chamber and the surrounding gallery minimizes the potenial of light damage.
The exhibition girding the flag vividly describes the dramatic story of the creation of the flag by Mary Pickersgill, her daughter, two nieces and an African-American indentured servant. The exhibition engages lighting, ambient sound, video, and an interactive multi-media virtual table to augment the visitor experience.
On 4th of July 1776, the Congress appointed a committee that adopted the unofficial national motto — e pluribus unum — out of Many ONE — which is on the Great Seal of the nation. The spirit of bravery, combined with resilience and inventive convictions have culminated in an idea and the manifestation of the greatest nation on earth.
Perhaps what is more powerful in its ethos is its generosity and inclusivity that I experienced at a personal level — when I was honored to be part of this nation’s history.