Tag Archives: Star-Spangled Banner

Battle of the Smithsonian superstars

What’s the most iconic item in the whole Smithsonian Institution?  Here’s your chance to help decide:

This is it: the ultimate competition. We’re looking for the one item that says “SMITHSONIAN” like nothing else — and you get to decide the winner.

Our museums, research centers, and zoo have picked one iconic item each as its champion in the Smithsonian Summer Showdown. These titans of the Smithsonian will battle head-to-head through three rounds until there is ONE winner! Voting for Round One ends August 4. Vote now!

My first round picks are the T. rex in the science category (natch), the issue of Wonder Woman #1 in culture, the Star-Spangled Banner in history, and the Landsdowne portrait of Washington in art.  I’ll be very surprised if the flag doesn’t emerge as the last artifact standing when the final round of voting closes.

You know, I think it’s the iconic “superstar” objects that really make the Smithsonian what it is as far as most people are concerned, especially when it comes to the National Museum of American History.  Despite the comprehensiveness of the collections, and despite all the work that goes into researching, writing, and installing exhibitions on particular aspects of the American experience, what most people really want to see at the Smithsonian are these one-of-a-kind treasures, the kinds of things you can see at the NMAH and nowhere else: the Star-Spangled Banner, Washington’s uniform, the ruby slippers, and so on.

Museums have changed a lot in the past few decades, but I think what still draws in most visitors is the opportunity to stand in the presence of extraordinary objects.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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The ramparts we watched

It’s the bicentennial year of the Battle of Fort McHenry, and a few days ago I managed to do something the British couldn’t: take the fort by water.  I was in Baltimore for a few days, so I hopped on a Water Taxi to visit the birthplace of the national anthem.

I was very impressed by the exhibit in the visitor center. The NPS always does a fantastic job at interpretation, but the set-up at Ft. McHenry is especially good, a model of clarity and conciseness that covers the background to the War of 1812, the British attack on Baltimore, Francis Scott Key’s song, and the process by which his words became part of the American canon.  All that in a pretty small gallery space.

There’s also an immersive film presentation that tells the story of the battle, with a simple but nifty trick at the end that takes you out of the virtual environment of the theater to put the spotlight back on the historic ground and why it matters.  It’s very moving and pretty darned cool.

I’m assuming we all know the basic story here, so we’ll skip the exposition and get right to the pictures.  Here are the fort walls, with the flag flying overhead.  (Well, not the flag, but a flag.)

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A reconstructed battery.

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Inside the walls, some of the buildings have been furnished as they would have been in the nineteenth century, while others serve as galleries for additional exhibits.

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One of those bombs bursting in air we keep hearing so much about.

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Powder magazine.  Not the best place for a smoke break.

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Sleeping quarters.

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During an archaeological dig in the 1950s, workers uncovered the actual cross brace which anchored the flagpole for the original Star-Spangled Banner.  It’s on display in one of the buildings.

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Looking out toward the area from which the British attacked.

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Ft. McHenry was in use for a long time after the War of 1812 ended, so some of the features you see date from well after the famous defense against the British, like this massive piece of artillery.

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There were quite a few school groups there during my visit.  Here’s an interpreter leading some kids through a hands-on activity on the parade ground.

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Funny story:  One of the rooms inside the fort has a short movie with a map presentation of the campaign.  Right after I sat down to watch it, a couple of kids came in.  When the film ended with the British in retreat and the Americans still in possession of the city, one patriotic little guy behind me jumped up and exclaimed, “YESSSS!”  Good to know the place and the story are still capable of instilling some good old-fashioned American pride.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites