The new chamber that we’re building to display the Star-Spangled Banner is intended to be a permanent home for the fragile flag. So we’ve put a huge amount of thought and work into designing every inch of the space. This will give you an impression on par with visiting one of our neighboring monuments—we want you to leave feeling like you’ve had a personal experience with a national treasure.
Early on in the exhibition planning process, we decided that we wanted the words of Francis Scott Key’s poem to be visible while you look at the flag in its soaring 45-foot chamber. We want you to connect the words that we all sometimes forget, or just don’t really consider, to what was really happening when Key wrote them. Those “bombs bursting in air?” That’s not just an abstract poetic image…those were real British cannonballs exploding on Fort McHenry. The peril was real for the citizens of our young nation—still struggling to fully realize its independence. We thought one of the best ways to make this connection between the song, the history, and the object was to have the first stanza of the song visible.
No problem, right? Just paint the stanza on the back wall. Done.
Well…it’s a little more complicated. When you come to visit the Star-Spangled Banner, one of the things you’ll notice is the vantage area called the “viewing chamber” is pretty dark. Light is one of the major causes of deterioration in textiles. Over its almost 200-year lifespan, light has caused a lot of damage to the Star-Spangled Banner, and controlling the amount of light the flag is exposed to is a huge part of our ongoing preservation effort. The light level in the flag chamber is very low—technically, one foot-candle. And the space around the flag will be even darker, so that the small amount of light illuminating the flag will make it the only thing you see.
So, if we silkscreened the stanza on the back wall the way we might do any other museum label, we’d have to light that area so you could see it. That extra light would be harmful to the flag and would also detract from the flag by drawing your eyes to the pool of light on the back wall. So how do you put something on the back wall that you can actually see?
Our first solution was to develop a wall-mounted light box with back-lit transparent letters, so that the words would glow in the space above the flag. The problem? In order to protect the flag from the risk of damage from fire, the chamber has been designed without anything that might cause a spark. No electricity, no wires, nothing. All of the lights that will illuminate the flag are located in a separate “light attic.” Installing an electrical light fixture within the chamber would be too risky. The architects then developed a way to have the “guts” of the light box live in a connecting room, so that none of the electrical equipment would actually reside inside the chamber. But this solution was expensive and would necessitate a hole in the firewall that surrounds the chamber.
In museum work, the principle of Occam’s razor holds true—sometimes the simplest solution is the best one. We finally decided that a good old projector could do the job. Though we were initially worried that we wouldn’t get the monumental feel we were looking for, it turns out that projectors really have improved since the elementary-school filmstrip days of my youth. And the best part is, if we decide we don’t like it, we can always just turn it off.
So now that’s settled, and we’ve moved on to the next round of details: to capitalize the all letters or not, what font, where …?
Megan Smith is an Education Specialist on the Star-Spangled Banner gallery team.