The original, handwritten manuscript of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the flag that inspired the song’s lyrics will be displayed together at the Smithsonian in Washington, the first time the historic pieces are believed to have been shown side by side.
The manuscript is normally on display at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore and the flag has been at the Smithsonian since the early 1900s. They will be displayed together from Flag Day, June 14, through July 6. The three-week display is the start of celebrations marking 200 years since the song was written on Sept. 14, 1814.
Bonnie Lilienfeld, a Smithsonian curator who is working on the manuscript’s display in Washington, said she hopes the exhibit will help people think more about where the song’s words came from. Having the two objects together provides an “aha moment,” said Jennifer Jones, the curator who oversees the flag.
“It’s meant to be emotional. It’s meant to be reflective,” she said.
Francis Scott Key was a 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet when he wrote the song’s words during the War of 1812. Key watched as the British bombarded Baltimore’s Fort McHenry for more than 24 hours. When he saw the fort’s flag flying on the morning after the bombardment, a signal that U.S. troops had withstood the enemy, he was inspired to write a poem originally called “Defense of Fort McHenry.” The poem, set to music and later renamed, became the country’s national anthem in 1931.
Key’s original manuscript, written with quill and ink, has two surprises for viewers who know the song. First, Key’s poem is actually four stanzas, though the first stanza is the only one that’s traditionally sung. And, second, Key wrote, “Oh say can you see through the dawn’s early light,” but crossed out “through” and wrote “by.”
Americans may be more familiar with the flag, which gets millions of visitors a year at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The flag has been at Smithsonian for more than a century after being given to the institution by the family of Maj. George Armistead. Armistead was the commander of Fort McHenry and the man who commissioned the banner with 15 stripes and 15 stars, representing the number of states in the Union at the time.
Except for a period during World War II, when it was housed in Virginia for safekeeping, the flag hasn’t traveled outside of Washington since coming to the Smithsonian.
Key’s manuscript has traveled only slightly more often since being purchased for the historical society in the 1950s. In 2011 it was taken by armored vehicle, with a police escort, to the state’s capital in Annapolis and to Fort McHenry. And in 2013, the museum brought the manuscript to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Md., where Key is buried.
Burt Kummerow, the president of the Maryland Historical Society, said he hopes this summer’s exhibit will be a chance for people to study the song’s words. He compared the song to a church hymn, something that has become so familiar that what Key was trying to say can get lost. And he called putting the manuscript and flag together a “very, very special moment.”
“It isn’t going to happen again anytime soon,” he said.