Museum Textile Services received a special flag recently from our friends at the St. George's School in Middletown, RI. The framed relic, which had hung on campus for decades, is a small American flag made of silk. What makes it extraordinary is that the flag traveled with the then-lieutenant Richard Evelyn Byrd Jr. and Chief Aviation Pilot Floyd Bennett on their May 9th, 1926, flight to reach the North Pole.
The 2- by 3-foot, 48-star flag is machine made of red, blue, and undyed silk. Its 93 years of life had embrittled the silk, and decades of display in a bright office with no UV filtration has severely faded the colors. Just how fragile the silk was became immediately apparent when we removed the stitching holding the flag to an acidic board and a thumb-sized chunk of silk fall away. Flat textiles in this state cannot withstand stitching, and therefore become candidates for adhesive linings.
MTS Associate Conservator Morgan Blei Carbone cast out an adhesive lining for the flag using a 75% solution of BEVA archival adhesive and water onto silk crepeline. The team helped Morgan carefully position the brittle flag, including the small fragment, on top of the silk lining before she reactivated the adhesive with a warm tacking iron. The flag is still vulnerable to abrasion on its upper surface, but it will not break easily again. The lined flag was then centered on a fabric-covered, solid-support panel and pressure mounted behind UV-filtering acrylic. A new black powder-coated aluminum frame from Small Corp, Inc. was chosen that mimics the original black wood frame. Although our procedure is normally to minimally stitch all pressure-mounted textiles, this flag would not allow even the finest of needles to pass through it without exposing un-faded fibers from the back of the silk.
Whether or not Byrd and Bennett actually reached the North pole has been the subject of controversy since the 1950s; if they did, their flight would be the first to have done so. If not, that record would belong to another flight performed only three days later. Byrd was made a commander after his success, and Bennett a machinist (a warrant officer rank), and both received a Medal of Honor from President Calvin Coolidge that December.
The flag now proudly hangs in the office of the new Head of School, Alixe Callen,
where it is now protected and stabilized for another fifty years of magisterial display.
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