Flag conservation

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

How to store your flag, Part 1

by Gwen Spicer

We have recently had many calls about how to store and care for flags.

Proper storage is a critical part of all collections housed in institutions, as well as those in private collections. Proper storage is really the best means for long-term preservation. The goals of storage are to provide proper support and environment. Flags and other types of artifacts deteriorate from poor handling and lack of archival materials, high light levels, mold, pests, temperature and relative humidity, and inherent vice. It is the role of proper storage to lower the effects of these modes of deterioration.

A useful way to approach any storage, whether archives, libraries, or museums, is to think of it as a “a box within a box with in a box” The first level of "box" is the building itself, then the room, then the storage furniture, and last is the possible boxes that contain each item. Each layer of protection enhances the environment of your collection. Large fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity are diminished with slower transitions; and pests are further prevented from getting to the flag. This is especially important for organic materials like silk, wool and/or cotton.

Museum storage, archival supplies, art conservator, artifact, collection care
Chrome-plated wire shelving from Metro-International used to store a
collection of banners from the Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, NY.
Care is needed when selecting materials used for storage. (See last weeks post, "What is acid-free?") As stated earlier, they can either assist in the preservation or deter. Poor quality materials can cause acidity, off-gas, and discoloring, among other effects, that deteriorate collections. To prevent these types of damage, good quality and acid-free material should be used.

The ideal method is to keep your flags as flat and fully extended as possible. Flags and textiles that need to be flat have several options that include: sink-mats, boxes, or shelves. In many circumstances, placing the flag on a full support is recommended. This is especially necessary with flags made of silk. Silk, as it ages, becomes less flexible and prone to splits and fractures. A contributing factor to the deterioration of silk is its past history, like its exposure to sunlight.

storage of textiles and artifacts, archival materials, museum storage collection care
Oversize shelving by Crystallization.

The supporting material can be muslin, or Tyvek (see earlier post "What is acid-free?"). For fragmented flags, placing a layer on top is also recommended. The support allows the flag to be moved and handled without damage. The material used for the support is determined by the conditions. The poorer the condition, the sturdier the material should be. The support should be continuous over the entirety of the flag.

Museums often have available space for large storage units. Also, many museums have the storage facilities to accommodate large units outfitted with full sized pullout drawers or shelves. The designs of these units vary in detail and perhaps construction materials. However, they all allow a flag to be fully extended and visible to the researcher. Since flags often come in standard sizes, standard sized storage units can be used.  However, when a collection consists of a variety of flag sizes, having a range of sizes of units utilizes the space efficiently. This can best be achieved with full knowledge of your collection and the dimensions of each flag in it. Units are designed both for the flags to rest in a pre-conserved state, or on their display mount after conservation. The later allows for easy rotation of the collection. Below, as well as the two photos above, are a sampling of flag and banner storage in museums.

reduction of handling of artifacts, art conservator, conservation of flags and historic textiles.
Mounted flags at the Maine State Museum, Augusta, Maine. Each flag was
secured to a prepared panel (aluminum honeycomb) and had a place within a
the rack. The panels and rack were made by SmallCorp, Inc., Greenfield, MA.

Determining appropriate storage for a flag can be done by answering questions about the object itself.  The following questions and their corresponding answers are meant as a guide. It is understood that specific situations exist that may not easily fit into these guidelines. These first 10 questions are about the flag and therefore suggest what kinds of storage to consider for an individual flag.

Q: What is the age of your flag?
A:  The age of the materials that compose a flag greatly affect the method of storage to select. Older flags need more protection and support. Therefore it is important to realize that the better the storage early on, the better the preservation in the long-term. Early flags that have been kept off display remain in far better condition than those that have been exposed to poor environments.

Q:  Is your flag made of silk?
A:  Silk becomes quite brittle with age, loosing its flexibility. Of the natural fibers, silk is the most dependent on its environment.  Flat storage is preferable for silk flags.

Q:  Is your flag made of cotton?
A:  Cotton is susceptible to moisture and mold growth.  Cotton flags benefit from being stored in a box or rolled.

Q:  Is your flag made of wool?
A:  Wool is most susceptible to insects, like webbing cloths moths and carpet beetles. Protection from these insects is critical. Boxing or rolling these flags is suggested.

Q:  Is your flag made of Nylon or other synthetic material?
A:  Many synthetic materials are easily degraded in sunlight, whose affect is not fully realized for several decades later. Caring for these flags now will only lengthen their preservations. Flags from WWII and the Korean War are deteriorating and are becoming weakened.  This type of flag benefits from rolling or boxed storage.

Q:  What is the condition of the flag?
A:  Being able to evaluate the condition assists the determination of the flag’s storage needs. The condition of the various materials that the flag is composed of is critical.

Q:  Has your flag been treated previously?
A:  Treated flags often have additional supporting layers that prevent the flag from being rolled. In additional, early treatments can contain materials where their aging properties were not well understood and are possibly brittle presently. Learn the date and materials used in the treatment. It is best to follow the instructions of the treatment.  These flags should be stored flat.

Q:  Are painted surfaces present?
A:  Paint layers, as they age and become dry are no longer flexible. When flexed they crack and are vulnerable to flaking.  These types of flags must be stored flat.

Next week look for the continuation of our discussion about flags and storage.  Rolled storage is an art all its own, we will take a look at it, and answer a few more questions and answers to determine when rolling is wise and when it should be avoided.
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.


  1. Good Morning,

    My dad found my grandfather's wool WWII American Flag that came from the destroyer that he was on. Wanted to know the best way to store/display it. It is quite large, at least 6 ft long, so I think it is too big to frame. It has a very small hole in it, which my dad says came from the ship and not from insects. I thought about one of the triangular case, but I don't know if it would fit. Any thoughts?


  2. Hello JKL2008. I suggest you read the other posts about "how to store your flag". The most important thing for you to do is to make sure you are using archival materials. A triangular case is small, meaning you will have to fold the flag a lot to make it fit inside, this will create creases and therefore areas that are prone to stress. You should also be sure that the glass will protect the flag from light damage (which is PERMANENT). A large flag like yours is difficult to put in a large frame, it becomes very cumbersome and requires a huge amount of wall space. We wrote another blog called "too big no space" about displaying a large textile. Just as you considered placing it in the small triangle box, you could place it into a smaller mount while providing the flag with the best support and still display it in a beautiful way. Good luck and contact us at Spicer Art Conservation - www.spicerart.com if you have other questions or if we can help you with the mounting of this flag.

  3. Thank you for this very interesting and helpful blog. About 15 years ago, I became the 4th generation caretaker of our family's Civil War flag from a small cavalry unit in Wisconsin. It is 75" by 53" and was handmade of heavy-cotton with painted stars in the blue field. When I received it, the flag was folded and sealed in old plastic. I took it to Chicago for conservation. Knowing that it was too large and vulnerable for framing and displaying, I decided to do a 1/4-sized oil painting of it. That oil painting is hanging in my living room; the flag is in a box under my bed. I have been looking online for an archival box that is at least 28" by 25" (the size of the field with painted stars). I would welcome suggestions for a proper storage box for this family treasure!