Behind the Scenes Flags Mission in Action

Mission in Action | Flag Conservation Program

By Cathy Wright, Curator

On a recent June morning, ACWM Collections department staff traveled to a textile conservator’s studio to pick up and drop off some of the Museum’s flags. Collections staff have been making this journey about once a year for the past 25 years, ever since the Flag Conservation Program was established in 1993. In that time, 65 of the Museum’s flags have been conserved. This year, one flag was delivered for conservation treatment and one recently conserved flag was being returned to the Museum.

Over the years, the financial contributions of 45 individuals, organizations, foundations, museums and historical organizations sponsored the conservation of specific flags of interest to them. The reasons they chose to sponsor a given flag vary. Descendants of soldiers who served in a regiment wished to honor their ancestor’s military service. Historical reenactors of particular units have conserved the original battle flags of the unit they portray. Organizations and foundations recognized the historical importance of specific flags and wanted to ensure their longevity. Museums wished to borrow a flag for a forthcoming exhibition.

Donations to the Museum’s general Flag Conservation Fund allow Collections staff to prioritize flags for conservation. This can be based upon forthcoming exhibitions; for example, the silk United States National flag that was carried by the 1st Maryland Infantry (U.S.) was recently conserved and will be displayed in the Museum’s forthcoming permanent exhibition, “A People’s Contest: Struggles for Nation and Freedom in Civil War America.” Other times, Collections staff select a flag for conservation based upon its historical importance or urgent need for treatment to prevent further deterioration.

The conservation process really begins when a flag is initially delivered to the conservator’s studio and evaluated. A treatment proposal and cost estimate are provided by the conservator, which allows the Museum to know the financial goal toward which it or the potential sponsor should work. When the full amount of estimated funds are raised, Museum staff contact the conservator to make arrangements to deliver the flag for treatment.

Once the flag is at the conservator’s studio, every detail of its physical condition and construction are noted and documented. Then the conservator proceeds with cleaning and conservation treatment. The level of treatment a flag receives depends upon its condition and materials. Very fragile silk flags that are falling to pieces require many hours of work to reassemble their fragments. Flags that were treated with outmoded conservation stitching in the 1930s and 1940s may require dozens of hours to remove that stitching before modern treatment can begin. Fragile and missing areas may be stabilized by underlaying them with conservation fabrics. Knotted fringe or fabric ties are carefully untangled and straightened out. Painted portions of flags may require the additional expertise of a painting conservator to ensure that they are properly treated and stabilized. The entire process is carefully documented with written descriptions, drawings and photography.

Once conservation work is complete, the conservator usually frames the flag in a custom-designed frame. The flag is mounted on a fabric-covered padded backing, which allows the thicker portions of the flag to sink into the padding while providing support to every square inch of the flag. The Plexiglas cover is coated with a UV filter, to minimize light damage to the fabric. An aluminum surrounding frame holds these layers together, and provides a rigid support for storage or display.

The return of a conserved flag to the Museum is an exciting and rewarding occasion for staff and sponsors. The culmination of many years of planning and hard work permits the flag to be exhibited publicly for the first time in decades and allows it to share its unique story with museum visitors for many years to come.