Historical flags get a meticulous makeoverby Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
People with sharp eyes and good memories will notice something missing if they visit the Minnesota State Capitol this week. The Minnesota Historical Society has removed five flags, each more than a century old, from the Capitol rotunda. The flags, some of which saw battle in the Civil War, are deteriorating and need to be preserved.
St. Paul, Minn. — The flags have been at the state Capitol since it opened in 1905. Some are your standard stars & stripes. Some are unique; red with crossed cannons, blue with a hand-painted eagle.
They belonged to Minnesota regiments in the Civil War and the Spanish American War. Regimental flags allowed generals to keep track of their troops on the battlefield. That made the men who carried the flags prime targets. Most of the color bearers in the famous first Minnesota regiment died at Gettysburg.
"The worst thing that you could have happen to your regimental colors or your national flag is to have it captured or fall in battle," said Brian Pease, who takes care of the state Capitol historic site for the Minnesota Historical Society. "So that's where you often hear stories of soldiers who are being shot down as a color bearer, and the soldier next to them will pick up that flag."
While the flags survived bullets and bloody battles, the simple forces of time and gravity have been slowly pulling them apart.
By the 1960s, the problem had become severe.
"The silk fabrics were becoming brittle. There were pieces that were falling off," Pease said.
So in 1963 conservators made efforts to preserve the flags. They sandwiched what was left of them between two layers of a kind of silk known as crepeline. It's so thin they're nearly invisible from a few feet away. Then they stitched the layers together to hold all the flag pieces in place. At the time, that was thought to be the best way to save the flags.
"And had that restoration not been done, we probably wouldn't have these flags at all today," said Sherelyn Ogden, head conservator at the Minnesota Historical Society.
But now, the flags are deteriorating again. After 45 years hanging from wooden poles in a Capitol display case, their own weight is proving too much for them.
And while the 1963 restoration saved the flags from falling apart altogether, the stitching process left them weakened from thousands of tiny needle holes. So this week, the Historical Society began carefully moving the flags from the Capitol to the Minnesota History Center's flag lab.
Laid out on the table is the 3rd Regimental infantry volunteer flag. It's huge -- six feet by six and a half feet.
Doug Bekke sits at the lower lefthand corner. On one hand he wears a white cotton glove. In the other is a brush, less than an inch in diameter. It's connected to a tube which runs down to a machine by his feet. He taps the brush lightly on the flag, then moves it half an inch, and taps again.
"I'm vacuuming," Bekke explained, "just cleaning up little particulates in the flag very, very carefully. And you just work slowly across it, barely even touching the crepeline with the bristles, in fact trying to avoid that, but still pulling the particulates up through the crepeline off the flag surface itself."
It will take Bekke many hours to do a flag this big. Once he finishes with the vacuuming, the flag needs to be flattened.
"Because it's been hanging for so long, what's happened over time is it's distorted, and so it's kind of trapezoidal in shape," textile conservator Ann Frisina said. "You can see how it's kind of wrinkled in areas."
What Frisina will do is a little like ironing, except there is no heat and it can take up to a day and a half. She carefully moistens the flag to relax the fibers. Then she lets it dry under the weight of a smooth glass pane.
"That pressure allows it to release this old memory of this very, very, very long term fossilized shape that it's taken, and go flat again," Frisina said.
When the flags are cleaned and flattened they'll be photographed and mounted. So they'll lie flat, forever. Instead of being displayed eight to a case, they'll have to take turns on display in the Capitol Rotunda. The rest of the time they'll be stored in a dark, climate-controlled environment at the History Center.
The conservators will begin with the five flags they removed this week. But Minnesota has almost 50 flags that need the treatment -- some at the Capitol, some at Camp Ripley.
The Historical Society currently has funding to preserve about half of those, with the $335,000 they have raised from federal, state and private sources.
- Morning Edition, 03/20/2009, 6:20 a.m.