June 18, 2018
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Treasured fabric of a nation restored by Bangor native

Contributed | BDN
Contributed | BDN
By Maite Jullian Boston University Washington News Service, Special to the BDN

WASHINGTON – When the light of dawn broke on Sept. 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key was able to see the American flag flying over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. He then knew that the British bombardment of the fort had failed.

The poem he wrote to celebrate America’s triumph in that battle became the lyrics of the national anthem and made the Star-Spangled Banner an icon in American history.

Almost 200 years later, the early light of dawn has been replaced by soft blue lights: The 30-foot by 34-foot Star-Spangled Banner lies behind glass doors at a 10-degree angle in a brand new and dramatic display at the National Museum of American History, which reopened Nov. 21 after going through a two-year renovation.

It took seven years to restore the most famous flag in American history and ensure its survival. And at the center of the project was Bangor native Marilyn Zoidis.

As senior curator of the project, Zoidis realized from the beginning what a huge challenge they faced.

“The first time I actually got to examine the flag, my stomach fell to my feet,” she said. “I thought ‘what have I got myself into?’ I turned to the chief conservator and asked her if the flag could be saved. She said she thought we could do it, that it was the plan. Over the next seven years, we implemented that plan.”

The extent of the work needed on the flag, which was originally 30 feet by 42 feet and was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1907, became evident only after it was taken down from the main hall of the museum in 1998. The original plan was to remove the linen backing and put it back on display.

“Much of the flag had been lost over time because of the light, use and being on display,” Zoidis said.

Zoidis was hired from a pool of national applicants in 1999 to lead the restoration. She worked on the project until 2006, when it was completed, sharing with the Smithsonian her expertise in telling stories through artifacts.

“She has a special gift in using an exhibition to tell compelling history,” said Kent Whitworth, executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society, where Zoidis now works. “I never met anybody better at that. She brings intellect and energy, tenacity to these projects. It was a great day when she arrived here.”

For the flag’s restoration, a new lab with a glass wall so visitors could see the work progressing was built within the American history museum, one of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums which is located on the national mall here.

The $18 million project that started in 1999 went through four stages: removal of the linen support, detailed examination of condition and construction of the flag, cleaning treatment and a long-term preservation plan.

When Zoidis, 59, talks about the Star-Spangled Banner, her excitement over its historical significance is evident.

“I always felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to get it right, to ensure the long-term safety of the flag and that stories told about it tell a complex history of America,” she said. “It is a very complicated symbol which reflects a complex history of American society.

“The flag is a metaphor for the nation in many ways,” Zoidis said. “We can go through wars, an economic downturn, riots or strikes, but we can emerge as a nation with resilience and hope. The flag represents that.”

In recognition of her accomplishment, the Washington D.C.-based Maine State Society is presenting her with its annual Big “M” Award on Dec. 13, which rewards Mainers for their professional achievements or contributions to their state.

“This is very, very nice,” she said. “I am deeply touched that they would think of me, that they would give it to me. It is from my home state that I love so dearly.”

Zoidis is now the assistant director of the Kentucky Historical Society. She could have stayed at the Smithsonian and written a book, but the museum was closing for renovation and she was looking for her next challenge, driven by a will to move forward and experiment, qualities reflected in her professional choices.

Zoidis was born in Bangor. Her grandfather moved there from Albania in 1904. Her father and his two brothers opened the restaurant Pilots Grill in 1940, a “community institution of sorts,” she said, but which closed in 2002.

She graduated from Bangor High School in 1967 and got her undergraduate degree from the University of Maine in 1971. After teaching at James F. Doughty School, named Fifth Street Junior High at that time, and then at Bangor High School, she got a master’s degree in education in 1978.

“Then a job opened up at the Bangor Historical Society,” she said. “I was able to concentrate on the stuff I love: the artifacts and documents.”

She was the executive director of the Bangor Historical Society from 1983 to 1987 and then went to Freeport, where she held the same position at that city’s historical society for two years.

Abigail Ewing, the former curator at Bangor Historical Society who worked with Zoidis for a year, was not surprised when she learned Zoidis had landed a job at the Smithsonian.

“She left here [Bangor], went to Freeport and went to graduate work. She was getting into more challenging positions and bigger projects,” she said.

Presenting and sharing history with the public through exhibitions has always been her first passion.

“It’s an important obligation to preserve the history of a community and to share it. It is a way to reach people who don’t think they are going to like history,” she said. “The idea of finding something that people will like to see in a hundred years, conserve it and capture its meaning is something incredibly exciting for me.”

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