Like World War I and the Korean War, the War of 1812 is sometimes termed a ‘forgotten war.’ At the Price of Freedom exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum of American History it is grouped alongside the Mexican War, Spanish-American War, and a century of conflicts against Native-Americans as a war of “Expansion,” although the presence of the original (and meticulously preserved) Star-Spangled Banner only one floor below surely helps to highlight the War of 1812. At Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, a site that might be considered the unofficial national museum of the War of 1812, there is even a panel posing the question of whether the conflict has been forgotten over two centuries. With the bicentennial birthday of Francis Scott Key’s song fast approaching (and since I’d never been), I decided to visit the only ‘Historic Shrine‘ run by the NPS to find out what it is exactly they are enshrining. Based on my recent visit various answers to that question might include Francis Scott Key, his song, and the American flag as well as militarism, abstracted patriotism, and the rise of maritime heritage tourism.
The visitor center at Fort McHenry is just three years old and reflects some important trends in contemporary museums, such as the increasing role of interactive exhibits and commiserate decline in object based displays (the original manuscript of Key’s song, complete with his revisions, had even been removed temporarily when I was there, leaving only a handwritten note). According to the Baltimore Sun the demolition of the old building and opening of the new visitor center brought about significant interpretive as well as big structural changes to the site. The current exhibits are centered, in multiple ways, around an introductory film playing every half hour. I was very strongly encouraged by park staff to start with the movie, while the numerous text panels and video screens are all set up in nooks that open out onto the theater (which includes a life-sized statue of Key). Moreover, the interactive video displays even shut down temporarily until “the feature film ends.” The reasoning for this set-up became clear at the conclusion of the movie, as the screen rose to reveal a vista of Fort McHenry which visitors view while standing next to Key, as if wholly sharing his experience (complete with a flag that flies 24/7 thanks to a 1947 proclamation by Harry Truman, as I learned from one panel). Additional panels laid out along the pathway from the visitor center to the historic Star Fort structure itself provide visitors with info on buildings, such as a tavern, that would have been found at the site throughout the 19th century.
Alongside veneration of song and flag, one of the major interpretive emphases overall was the reminder that Fort McHenry had a long history before and especially after the War of 1812. Both the visitor center and exhibits within the fort focused on the role of the site as a POW camp during the Civil War and an army hospital during WWI. The Star Fort (an enormous structure containing walkways along high walls, displaying dozens of real and replica cannon, and encompassing several buildings) included exhibits that seemed to literally span generations based on both style and substance. A display on the Civil War guardhouse looked to be forty-years old while one about reconstructive surgery during WWI seemed to have been just recently put up (indeed when I was there I saw workers still finishing a new installation). Also new are an exhibit on archeology at the site and one emphasizing “The Battle Key Did Not See,” which took place at North Point (and played an even bigger role than the defense of the fort in saving Baltimore from being burned by the British as the White House in Washington had already been). Indeed, another goal of the site seems to be placing the fort within a broader history of the War of 1812.
This broader narrative also has commercial benefits as it allows for the cross-promotion of the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail, a route with stops accessible both by car and boat, perhaps designed to take advantage of more wealthy retirees sailing down the Intracoastal Waterway. The site advertises a ‘Fort McHenry Boat Tour’ offered by ‘The Friends of Fort McHenry,’ which the ad promises will be “A Star*Spangled Experience,” while one can also visit the fort via a water taxi from Baltimore’s nearby Inner Harbor. This maritime emphasis is also reflected in some of the events planned as part of the upcoming “Star-Spangled Spectacular” which begins September 9 with a “Living Flag” made of 7000 students (designed to replicate an event that took place during the centennial celebration in 1914) and includes visits by naval vessels and historic Tall Ships’ from around the globe that will be open for public tours. This week of events also includes a “9/11 Commemoration”, an air show/firework display, and a “Dawns Early Light Ceremony” before culminating with a “Parade of Ships” held on September 16 that is meant (much as is one of the interactive exhibits in the visitor center) to highlight how the song “went viral in the age of the handbill.” This tagline provides perhaps the clearest example of how the rangers at Fort McHenry attempt to blend a cutting-edge 19th century history with 21st century popular culture.