CHARLESTON, S.C. — Dozens of flags, many never displayed in modern times, go on exhibit Monday at America's earliest museum.
The collection of the Charleston Museum includes flags from the Civil War which opened with the bombardment of nearby Fort Sumter. The collection spanning two centuries also features the banners of unreconstructed white Southerners who formed rifle clubs after the war as well as an unusual 42-star United States flag.
Also on display are the varied designs of Southern militia flags and a rare seven-star Stars and Bars, the first Confederate national flag which was used for only a few months in 1861 at the time the South seceded from the Union.
"Unfurled: Flags from the Collections of the Charleston Museum" will be on display in the museum in the city's historic district through Jan. 4 of next year.
"Most of them are in pretty fragile condition because of the nature of the flag and they have been flown outside or in battle," said Jan Hiester, the curator of textiles at the museum.
The museum was established in 1773, three years before the Declaration of Independence, and was the first founded in the nation, said Dewey Blanton, a spokesman for the American Alliance of Museums based in Washington, D.C.
The collection's Civil War flags have been displayed numerous times. "Some of the others we have never had an occasion to display and some are in such fragile condition we have never had the opportunity," she said.
Now, a recently renovated textile gallery makes the display of those flags possible. Light can fade textiles over time and damage fibers. The new ventilated display cases are illuminated with LED lights that produce less heat and less ultraviolet radiation.
"When we set out to construct this gallery we consulted with a textile conservator on everything from ventilation to light," said Grahame Long, the museum's chief curator. "But we still don't want to have textiles out too long. It's not like an iron cannon ball."
He said having the flags on display for eight months "is stretching it. You don't want to go much farther than that."
Some of the flags are so fragile they are displayed on mats because they can't hang free. In storage the flags are stored rolled or in drawers away from the light.
The seven-star Stars and Bars flag is large and would have flown over a fort, not carried into battle by an infantryman. The flag was only used for a short time as the seven stars were quickly replaced with additional stars when more Southern states seceded.
The militia flags show a variety of insignia that local units used when the Civil War broke out.
"Before the war these militia units have pretty complete autonomy from the governor. They make their own flags and uniforms and they can make pretty much anything they want," Long said.
The flag of the Carolina Rifle Club, dating to 1869, has the image of the South Carolina state symbol, the palmetto tree, and a motto in Latin proclaiming, "faithful to my unhappy country."
The rifle clubs "were social clubs and probably hung their banners wherever they were meeting. But the underlying message was they were an armed group of whites," Hiester said.
At the time certain rifle and saber clubs in the South were thinly disguised social clubs of whites who often would use terror tactics similar to those once used by the Ku Klux Klan against blacks.
The 42-star American flag on display was never officially adopted by the government. That's because before it could be, Idaho joined the Union in 1890 giving the nation 43 states and the flag 43 stars.
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