Volume 7, Number 4, 1998

Star-Spangled project

Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, AS '82M, works behind-the-scenes in Washington, D.C., to leave her mark on the nation's history.

As the senior textile conservator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, Thomassen-Krauss is coordinating efforts to restore the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words for what would become the National Anthem.

Restoration of the flag is the largest single textile conservation project ever undertaken by a museum.

The Star Spangled Banner is nearly three stories high, measures 30 feet by 34 feet and, with its heavy linen backing, weighs about 150 pounds. Modern technologies, not even dreamed of when the flag flew, will be used to diagnose and treat its fragile, disintegrating condition--the result of years of exposure to light, pollution and temperature fluctuations.

"Our goal is to stabilize the flag, not to make it look like new," Thomassen-Krauss explains.

A graduate of the UD-Winterthur Program in Art Conservation, Thomassen-Krauss is an expert in textile conservation. But, this massive flag project has included work she never imagined. For example, she's had to find out just how large a crane could be brought into the museum to take the flag down from its location as the centerpiece of Flag Hall.

She's negotiated endless contracts for the building of a special textile conservation lab on the same floor.

She's helped devise educational programs and materials to go along with the restoration. And, she's also worked with reporters and photographers eager to tell the public about the project and with the History Channel, which made a one-hour documentary about the preservation project to be broadcast this fall.

Through it all, Thomassen-Krauss' first goal has been to protect the flag from the glare of television lights and photographer's flashes-even when President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hilary Clinton and designer Ralph Lauren, who pledged $13 million to the project, were seated in front of it.

"Even one photographer's flash carries enormous energy that could further harm the flag," she explains.

"The flag's fibers have become brittle with age. Exposure to oxygen in the presence of light has changed the chemical nature of the fibers. Light, especially ultraviolet light, is a threat to any textile, which is why we have dimmed the lights in Flag Hall and darkened the museum's nearby entrance doors," she explains.

Exposure to these potentially damaging elements will be virtually eliminated when the restoration is finished, and the flag is housed in a new environmentally controlled display case.

As Thomassen-Krauss explains, the first stage of the preservation project will be to lower the flag from the wall and place it on a specially built frame, which will be moved to the circular open area of Flag Hall. There, the flag will lie flat for about three months while conservators examine it.

Next, it will be rolled onto a two-foot-wide tube and will be transported a few feet to a specially designed textile conservation lab, where the actual restoration work will take place. The work is estimated to take about three years.

"The public will be able to watch the conservation staff at work through special viewing windows," Thomassen-Krauss explains. "Along with making the work public, we are preparing education kits for classroom use."

Planning the restoration began in the fall of 1996 when more than 50 conservators, historian and museum experts, including UD's Joyce Hill Stoner, professor of art conservation, met to discuss ideas.

"We began the planning with two goals in mind-to preserve the flag by preventing further deterioration and to keep it on view for the public. By building a protected conservation laboratory for the treatment with viewing windows, the museum will accomplish these goals," Spencer Crew, director of the Museum of American History, says.

When the Star-Spangled Banner returns to Flag Hall in 2002, it will take center stage in a completely renovated and brighter exhibition area that will allow the public to see the flag from two floors.

Thomassen-Krauss, who has worked at the museum since the mid-1980s, is a walking fact book when it comes to the flag. Its tattered bottom, for instance, wasn't caused by the ravages of war. Instead, the jagged edges are the result of a custom (since outlawed by the passage of the federal flag act) whereby soldiers fighting in battle would cut pieces of their battle flag to take home for souvenirs.

A white patch at the bottom of the flag's field of stars, is really a hole cut in the flag, silhouetted by the linen backing. "Cutting a piece of the flag with a part of each stripe and a star made the souvenir particularly valuable," Thomassen-Krauss explains.

She also notes that much of the damage to the stars on the flag was caused by iron corrosion. Research has shown that the Armistead family, who originally owned the flag, stored it in an iron container. New technologies to examine the iron particles will unlock further clues.

Additionally, documented family letters, written by Armistead's granddaughter, Georgiana, discuss 11 areas of battle damage on the flag-which probably match 11 areas on the flag that have been patched. Infrared microscopes will be able to determine if the 11 patches are about the same age.

A spectral analysis of the colors also will be done, Thomassen-Krauss explains, noting that the left side of the flag, folded back when the banner was in a smaller display area, is somewhat brighter than the rest of it.

Prior to joining the Smithsonian, Thomassen-Krauss worked as a private conservator in Wilmington, Del., and at the University Museum in Philadelphia.

In her spare time, she enjoys all forms of fabric arts and crafts-needlework, weaving, fabric painting, knitting, crocheting and, most recently, creating elaborate flower arrangements for her sister's wedding.

Thomassen-Krauss shares her Vienna, Va., home with her husband, Howard T. (Rusty) Krauss, a financial adviser for the firm of Janney Montgomery Scott, who also attended UD.

"No matter what else happens in the future, this will always be a highlight of my career," Thomassen-Krauss says. "It combines so many of my interests-the education programming, the design of the new exhibit and the conservation.

"Conservation is usually not the over-riding factor in museum exhibits, so this is a wonderful opportunity. So many people have been supportive. It's hard to say no to this flag."

-Beth Thomas