The Missouri State Museum is the steward of over 400 flags documenting Missouri’s military and political history from 1837 through Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Roughly 135 flags in the collection are from the Civil War. Staff at the museum do their best to help preserve and conserve these 150-year-old flags, which are slowly deteriorating.
Katherine Keil, curator of exhibits, explains the importance of preserving these flags.
“Well, these flags are 150 years old, so they are disintegrating because of age, but to preserve them means that we are saving a tangible link to that event,” said Keil. “People can come see them for themselves, hear the stories of the people who carried them, and it makes it real to them, more so than reading it in a book.”
The process of restoring these flags is not an easy one—and can cost thousands of dollars. The process begins with storage. The flags are either laid flat in the drawers, rolled or remain furled on their original pole, wrapped in muslin. Museum staff assess each flag and sends it off to a conservator for treatment.
In the 1930s, women from the Works Progress Administration sewed netting with linen backing on to many of the flags. Netting was thought to be the state of the art preservation technique during this time, but the stitching interacted with the silk of the flags and they began to shred. Other flags that were not netted began to shred, as well, because of age. The good news about netting is that though it harmed the flags, the nets held the flag pieces together. Those flags that hadn’t been netted shredded and lost pieces.
Today, flag conservators remove the 1930s stitching by hand, snipping each individual stitch. Then they vacuum the flag and put any pieces that were detached back into their original places. The flag is layered between a material called “Stabiltex,” which is inert and won’t react with the flag’s fabric.
“This is good because if in 20 years, if there’s a better conservation technique, this is 100% reversible, and we can go back and do that new technique,” Keil explained.
The final step is to frame the flags, which allows better storage, easier handing and exhibition.
“It’s very important to know they do not recreate any of the missing pieces. We are not trying to recreate history,” Keil said. “The flags and the condition that they are in are part of the history itself.”
Visitors can see some of the flags on display at the Missouri State Museum in Jefferson City. A portion of the museum’s collection of Civil War flags is also available for viewing online on the Missouri Digital Heritage website: https://www.sos.mo.gov/archives/mdh_splash/default.asp?coll=cwflag.
The museum’s collection of WWI era Service Banners and military flags are available for viewing on the Missouri Over There website via the following links: