Follow That Banner

In the very top of the dome of the Rotunda, right over the cases holding the Constitution, there is a large opening called an oculus. In March, facilities staff lowered a cable through the oculus to hoist up a 225-foot-long banner that starts over the Bill of Rights, swings up into the middle of the dome, and then meanders out the door, along the hallway, and ends at “Amending America,” a new temporary exhibit.

Visitors stand in front of the Bill of Rights

“The challenge was how to connect the Bill of Rights in the Rotunda with the exhibit in the Lawrence O’Brien Gallery,” said Ray Ruskin, senior exhibit designer. He came up with the idea for the banner after remembering a picture he had seen once of flags hanging from the center of the Rotunda.

Rotunda-flags (1)
This undated photo shows flags suspended from the ceiling of the Rotunda.

One of the main messages of the exhibit is that it is very hard to change the Constitution, and Ray wanted to make the message into a striking visual. “The Constitution is a living document, and the Rotunda is not a tomb,” he said. “The banner literally shows the magnitude of our efforts to make a more perfect union.”

Ray calculated that if you typed one line for every one of the 11,000 proposed amendments, using a 12-point font, that the banner would be 225 feet long, exactly the length needed to make the dramatic swoop from the case to the gallery. But when he laid it out on a 33-inch-wide banner, the left-justified text looked odd.

Amanda Perez, senior exhibit graphic designer, tackled the challenge. She noted that there were “surges” in some decades—like the 1860s and 1960s—when more amendments were proposed. She used subtle font size changes, along with spacing and bullets, to make these parts of the banner longer, so that visitors would immediately see that some periods of history were more prone to amendment attempts than others.

Amending America Banner Install
Amanda Perez snaps a picture of the banner she designed.

Once the graphic elements of the banner were in place, it was time to plan for the installation. The fabrication team created a paper mock-up to verify that mounts on either end would work, and to help them see where the banner would “flip” over as it turned through the hall. The paper banner turned out to weigh more than the final fabric banner, which would be only about 40 pounds. The banner had to be fixed to the Rotunda without damaging the wall. “The attachment points were very challenging,” Ray commented.

Amending America Banner Install
Ray Ruskin, far right, helps install the “Amending America” banner.

On the night of the installation, the team met at 6:30 p.m. in the Rotunda—and stayed there until 4:30 a.m. Although each element of the installation had been meticulously planned out, there were challenges and on-the-spot troubleshooting. “It’s fabric, it’s hanging from the ceiling, and this building is full of surprises,” said Amanda.

They started at the gallery entrance and connected the other end to the Rotunda. The last—and most striking—element was the middle. While the two ends were fixed, the banner’s middle was winched up to soar towards the Rotunda’s ceiling.

“Amending America” will open to the public on March 11.

Amending America Banner
Come visit!

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