The Star Spangled Banner Exhibit is "Making the Grade" at
the American History Museum
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The patriotic significance of our nation's Star Spangled Banner can
be felt in the hearts of Americans now more so than ever before. The
flag that inspired Francis Scott Key's writing of the National Anthem
is currently being restored in a temporary laboratory located in the
Smithsonian American History Museum in Washington, D.C.
|The flag that inspired Francis Scott
Key's writing of the National Anthem.
Visitors may experience the restoration project and view
the condition of the enormous flag that once flew over Fort McHenry
during the War of 1812. The American History Museum has created
opportunities for all visitors to experience the various features
of the flag in a variety of The Star Spangled Banner Exhibit is
Making the Grade at the American History Museum mediums. According
to American History Museum Curator Lonn Taylor, "Accessibility was
generally planned for in the exhibit. Things suggest themselves
as to what features are used for the tactile displays."
The exhibit consists of the laboratory where the flag
is being restored and a wall of displays depicting more specific
information on the flag. Included in the displays are tactile and
auditory exhibits at a lowered level allowing people with sensory
impairments and people who use mobility devices to experience the
glory of one of our nation's most profound symbols. The laboratory
is behind glass partitions that offer visitors the opportunity to
observe the workers performing the tedious task of restoring the
banner. A television monitor is also provided playing a captioned
video on the restoration process.
The design of the American Flag at the time the Star Spangled Banner
was produced included 15 alternating red and white stripes and 15
white stars in a blue union located in one corner of the flag. Each
of these distinctive features has been represented in the exhibit.
Tactile exhibits include replicas of the size and shape of the stars
and stripes along with their arrangement. Although difficult to demonstrate
the 30-by- 42 foot size of the flag to a person who is blind, the
actual size of a star gives some perspective on the enormity of the
|Tactile depiction of the size and
shape of a star from the Star Spangled Banner.
Ninety years prior to being donated to the Smithsonian, the original
Star Spangled Banner was in possession of the family of the commanding
officer at Fort McHenry, Lieutenant Colonel George Armistead. Modifications
to the flag while in possession of the Armistead family include a
red chevron stitched onto the third white stripe from the bottom of
the flag. The chevron was intended to be the letter "A" and was added
by Louisa Armistead. The intention may have been to sew the entire
Armistead name, as it was the fashion at the time. Another tradition
was the clipping of small pieces of historical objects to give to
others deemed worthy of such a keepsake. By the time the Smithsonian
received the flag, eight feet and one star had been removed. These
modifications can be experienced tactily by a model where the stars
and red stripes are raised. In addition, the model is treated with
paint removed in the location of the piece missing from the flag.
This gives visitors with visual impairments more information on the
flag's missing pieces.
|Tactile model depicting a missing
star from the Star Spangled Banner.
Throughout the Star Spangled Banner's existence, various efforts have
been made to maintain it. In 1873, George Henry Preble took the first
known photograph of the flag. In order to take this photograph, a
canvas backing was added to reinforce the fragile fabric enough to
be hung. Forty-one years later, Amelia Fowler was hired by the Smithsonian
to add a new backing to the flag. Mrs. Fowler had a patented method
of flag conservation involving linen stitched on by thread dyed to
match the particular color on each section of the flag. Samples of
the backing fabric are available to view and touch in the exhibit,
along with the wool and cotton fabric used for the flag itself.
|Samples of the fabric backing used
for conservation of the Star Spangled Banner.
Additional maintenance procedures include vacuuming to
remove the dust particles. To prevent the fragile fibers of the
banner from being removed, a fiberglass screen is placed over the
flag as it is vacuumed. An example of the screen can also be found
in the exhibit for tactile and visual exploration. Lonn Taylor expresses
the difficulty in making the conservation process accessible, "One
of the conservationist came up with the idea to include a sample
of the screen used. We wanted to begin to explain what we were doing
and why it is important to conserve the Flag."
|A small speaker wand is used to relay
The audible portion of the exhibit involves a small speaker
wand that a visitor holds up to their ear. Visitors are able to
listen to information regarding the exhibit with low physical effort.
The design is easy to understand allowing simple and intuitive use,
and flexibility in that it can be operated with either hand. Low
physical effort, simple and intuitive use, and flexibility are three
of the principles of Universal Design applied in the exhibit to
assure it is usable by all people to the greatest extent possible.
Lonn Taylor explains, "Intellectual accessibility is taken into
consideration. Some people respond to audible information whereas
some respond to tactile information." The American History Museum
has taken these differences into consideration and presents information
in multiple mediums to offer equitable experience for visitors.
The original Star Spangled Banner represents the history
of a great nation built on diversity. The Smithsonian American History
Museum has presented this historical feature in an exhibit utilizing
Universal Design principles that promote equitable use. The accessibility
features in this exhibit did not significantly add to the cost of
the exhibit, and they are a great demonstration of how accessibility
can be achieved with simple concepts. All visitors are offered the
chance of experiencing the various aspects of the flag. Tactile,
auditory, and visual information is available to people who have
sensory impairments and are also installed at a height accessible
for people who view the display from a seated position.
The National Center on Accessibility extends its gratitude
to the Smithsonian American History Museum for cooperation in providing
additional information on the exhibit's design and permitting photographs
of the exhibit to be taken.
The Star-Spangled Banner:The Flag that Inspired the National
The Smithsonian American History Museum
Smithsonian Accessibility Program
Arts and Industries Building Room
1239 MRC 426
Washington, D.C. 20560