The Ohio Battleflag Collection includes 554 flags dating from the Mexican War to World War II. The majority of the collection is from the Civil War. Prior to 1965, this collection was on display at the Ohio Statehouse. The flags were showing obvious signs of deterioration and were removed from display.
To prevent the flags from fragmenting further, a commission authorized by the State Adjutant General, in consultation with the National Park Service, began the process of gluing the flags to nylon with polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), a water-soluble glue. The flags that were the most complete were stored flat. The remainder were refurled on their flag poles.
The flag project was completed about the same time as the new home of the Ohio History Connection was finished. The flags were displayed at the Ohio Historical Center’s Plaza level from the time the building opened in the early 1970s to the late 1980s. After being on display for over 15 years, the flags were removed from display once again because of conservation concerns. Long exposure to light can cause damage to items made of any type of fabric. In addition, the glue used to adhere the flags to the supporting nylon, PVA, becomes less water-soluble the longer it is exposed to light. The less water-soluble the PVA becomes, the less likely that the process can be reversed. With the help of conservators from Textile Preservation Associates, the Ohio History Connection has begun a flag conservation project that will prevent the flags from deteriorating further and allow them to be displayed and examined by researchers.
Before the flags leave the Ohio History Connection, collections staff delicately dusts the flags and mounts them onto unbleached muslin-covered, cushioned pallets. Staff cover the pallets with glassine and transports them to the conservation lab.
At the conservation lab, conservators place the flags flat in a large deionized water bath. They remove the nylon and the PVA. They must be careful not to leave the flags in the water too long or they could lose some of the painted images that are on many of the flags.
The flags are removed from the water with a very fine mesh. They are allowed to dry naturally atop a large rack to allow the air to reach both the top and the bottom. This allows the drying process to be more uniform and therefore less stressful to the flag..
Conservators then encapsulate the flag within two layers of stabiltex. All the sewing must be done by hand. They sew carefully around every edge. In this way the flag has more support but they avoid having to sew through the flag itself. The stabiltex is a sheer fabric. It almost disappears, allowing an unimpeded view of both sides of the flag.
For display purposes, conservators mount and frame the encapsulated flags. When in storage, the encapsulated flags can be removed from the frames and stored flat. Curators and researchers will be able to examine both sides of the flags without fear of causing the flags further damage.
Individuals or groups can contribute to the flag conservation fund in two ways. They may donate any amount to go to the general flag conservation fund or they may adopt a specific flag. A minimum donation of $1,000 is required to adopt a flag. This does not cover the full amount to conserve a flag. Depending on the size and condition of the flag, the full conservation costs can run from $6,000 to $30,000. Adopted flags are placed in the front of the queue to be scheduled for conservation. Adopters are encouraged to raise additional funds for their flag while money from the general flag fund can be used to make up the difference as money becomes available.
To adopt a flag or make a donation to the general preservation fund, call 614/297-2320. Speakers are also available to talk to groups about the Ohio Battle Flag Collection and the Save the Flags campaign.
By Cliff Eckle, History Curator
For more information about the Save the Flags Campaign, contact Cliff Eckle, Curator of History at 614-298-2053 or [email protected]. For information about making a donation to the flag conservation project, contact Paulene Wilson at 614-297-2322 or [email protected].