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Conservation Procedure

Conservation Procedure for the State Capitol Civil and Spanish American War Flags.

Exhibition History

Furled on poles, a large collection of 58 silk Civil and Spanish American war battle flags were displayed from 1905-1964 in the Minnesota State Capitol Rotunda. Many of the flags were in shreds due to their use in the field and the effects of long-term exhibition. With funding from the State Legislature in 1964 Thom Welter, a self-taught restorer, began to treat the damaged flags. Once treated, Jack Johnson, Director of the Minnesota Military Museum, returned 21 of the flags unfurled for public viewing. Remaining flags not on exhibit were placed in storage at the capitol. In 2003 a survey of the flags was performed, and a new treatment plan developed. The flags were found to be fragile, afflicted with a layer of surface dust and dirt, and most importantly in need of overall support. With funding from the Minnesota State Legislature and a Save America’s Treasures grant awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services in partnership with the National Park Service, Department of the Interior the conservation treatment described below began in 2009.

Goal of Treatment: To preserve, support, and make accessible the Minnesota Civil and Spanish American War battle flags.

Transportation: Each flag was carefully removed from an exhibition case and laid flat on a clean surface. Dismounted from the pole and interleaved between two large pieces of unbuffered acid free tissue, each flag was rolled on to a temporary tube and placed in specially fabricated support trays. Then trays were carried down the stairs and secured in a van for transportation from the State Capitol to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Storage: Two large cabinets were fabricated of inert materials to store the flags. Measuring 90" square, each cabinet is 86" tall when mounted on wheels. Oversized storage this large requires support trays fabricated with aluminum honeycomb sheeting, to span the distance of 90" without bowing or flexing in the middle. Each flag was unrolled and placed flat on a tray for storage.

Documentation: Once the flags were transported to the Minnesota Historical Society, their condition was reviewed. Any defects or weaknesses were noted, such as; discoloration due to dirt, staining, or dye fading; weakness or areas of loss in the silk fabrics; fractures within painted areas; etc.

Next, notes documenting the construction of the flags were recorded. Information includes the following:

      • Fiber of textiles used.
      • Machine or hand stitching.
      • Repairs and their locations.
      • Location of selvages (tightly woven fabric edges that prevent fraying) if any.
      • Single- or double-layered construction.
      • Painted or embroidered stars and designations.
      • Type of fringe used, such as plied silk (two or more single yarns twisted together), plied silk around a cotton core, or plied and knotted.

Finally, surviving handwritten notes by Thom Welter documenting his restoration treatments were transcribed and linked to the appropriate flag in the conservation file.

Digital images: Before treatment, images of each flag, pole, and cords were taken for documentation and publication.

Surface cleaning: Surface particulate dust and dirt can be especially abrasive causing damage to weak and fragile textiles. A special vacuum cleaner set on low and fitted with a soft brush head was used to clear the surface of particulate buildup. The head of the low suction vacuum was moved in a step by step, row by row manner so as not to damage the fragile silk fabric.

Fringe removal: During Thom Welter's treatment in the 1960s, each flag had its trim removed for wet cleaning. Because the fringe had already been disassembled it was again removed to facilitate the flattening of the flag for mounting. Often when fringe is sewn to the perimeter it constricts, resulting in a cockling of the flag's surface and making it impossible to flatten it with humidity.

Gore-Tex humidification: Each flag was distorted due to years of hanging on the poles. Definite undulations had become permanent preventing the flag from lying flat on a table. First, the flag was encapsulated between a layer of acid free paper blotter on the bottom, and Gore-Tex fabric on top. Next, a dampened layer of blotter was positioned on the gore-Tex followed by plastic sheeting. Weights were then positioned around the perimeter of the sheeting creating a humid micro environment. The humidity allowed the flag's fibers to swell and relax without getting wet. Once the flag was humidified it was repositioned, weighted and allowed to dry overnight. This gentle method of flattening restores a flat and aligned surface to the flag.

Mount preparation: Fabricated of aluminum honeycomb sheeting and sealed bass wood, these large mounts are light and will not flex or bend. Next, a layer of polyester felt was secured on top of the mount. Finally, washed cotton fabric free of starch or surface treatments was stretched over the top and sides and secured to the back with stainless steel staples.

Positioning and securing to mount: The flattened flag was then positioned on the prepared mount and secured with rows of herringbone stitching. The stitching is done by hand with curved beading needles. Executed with a polyester thread the width of human hair, each stitch goes through an existing hole up and over another supportive stitch created by the Welter restoration treatment. Next, the fringe is repositioned and secured with rows of laid and couched stitching executed with the same polyester thread. [Note: "laid and couched stitching" is a process whereby thread is laid across the surface of the fabric and tacked in place using small "couch" stitches.]

Digital image: After treatment images of each flag, pole, and cords were taken for documentation and publication.