Flag conservation

Flag conservation
Textile conservator, Gwen Spicer of Spicer Art Conservation at work

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11th and a flag that survived.

Image from The NY Times
by Barbara Owens, SAC Staff

What you may not know is that the New York State Museum in Albany is the largest repository of artifacts from the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. If you do know about it, and you've had a chance to visit, you have seen a poignant exhibit that covers the event, the response, and the recovery in a way which comprehensively tells the story of not just a single date, but the time that followed when artifacts were uncovered from a massive debris field. The exhibit tells the story of an event that none of us will ever forget.

Trade Center towers.  Image from Google images.

One object found in the debris was a United States flag.  While not the only flag found, this flag was one which flew from a world trade center tower, although which tower is unknown.

Finding a flag in the debris is truly amazing. Picture an unending amount of twisted metal, dust, dirt, and unknowable objects. Now imagine coming across a flag like this (see image below), virtually intact and minimally soiled.  It must have been an incredible find for recovery workers.

display of september 11th flag at NYS museum, art conservation of flag, historic flag
An overall view of the flag after it arrived at SAC.

The flag measured 7' 6" high and 11'6" in length. It had many scattered tears, the largest was 16"x5" located at the top white stripe. It had 40 mid-sized tears, and approximately 30 small tears. See the images below.

tear in flag from the world trade center, art conservator, museum display, September 11
The largest of the tears

holes in canton, historic flag, art conservator, stabilization of september 11th flag for display at NYS Museum
Holes in the canton

smaller tears

Unlike many flags that come through our doors, keeping the damage to this flag prominent and unaltered was the priority, yet equally important was making the intactness of the flag evident. How could a flag endure an explosion and a building falling on top of it? Imagine a thin nylon flag buried under tons of rubble, coming out of the dirt and debris with bright colors of red, white and blue, the flag damaged, but intact. The symbolism was not lost on rescue workers, and the effect was not to be lost on exhibit goers. Head Conservator, Gwen Spicer, knew this was an important juxtaposition. Her task was to conserve the flag, yet allow it to show all of its tattering along with its majestic color. The flag would be hung prominently at the center of NYS Museum's exhibit, so it would require a hanging system to allow it to flow freely, yet not create stress on the holes and tears it suffered that fateful day.
flag conservator, textile conservation, september 11th flag display.

The flag as it is seen in the exhibit at the NYS Museum.  Image from the Museum's web site.
You can see this image in a panoramic display of the permanent 9/11 exhibit here:

Twelve years has passed since that day in September, yet the objects and the memories of that day live on at the NYS Museum in their permanent collection and ongoing exhibit, visit it if you can.
If you are unable to visit this exhibit, the museum has made much of this information available on its website: http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/wtc/. Included are panoramic views of the exhibit space.

Gwen Spicer is a textile conservator in private practice.  Spicer Art Conservation specializes in textile conservation, object conservation, and the conservation of works on paper.  Gwen's innovative treatment and mounting of flags and textiles is unrivaled.   To contact her, please visit her website.

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