The Officially Unofficial Kind of Illegal 47-Star Flag Comes in for Repairs

On April 4, 1818, Congress enacted the Flag Act of 1818, setting forth a rule that no new stars could be added to the flag until the Fourth of July immediately following a state’s admission to the Union. Thanks to that once-a-year-and-only-once-a-year mandate, New Mexicans hoping to share their pride at becoming the 47th state were essentially forced into committing their first illegal acts as U.S. citizens.

And flag manufacturers, only too happy to supply the demand, made their day by stitching together 47-star flags in willful disobeyance of that 1818 law.

In celebration of New Mexico’s centennial, the History Museum will commemorate that dip into the dark side with 47 Stars, an exhibit of the officially unofficial 47-star flag. (Actually three of them, shown in rotation to reduce the strains of being on display.) From January 6 through November 25, 2012, the flags will join a collection of long-term exhibits about statehood and a tongue-in-cheek front-window installation marking our entrance into the Union.

Here’s the news nugget: This week, Rebecca Tinkham Hewett, part of the crackerjack conservation team for the Museums of New Mexico, began prepping the smallest of the three flags for display.

She started by pinning it to an acid-free board covered with fabric and will next stitch it to the fabric around the flag’s edge and in a network pattern within it to ensure it doesn’t sag when the board is hoisted to a wall in the museum’s Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now exhibition. The statehood section within that exhibit already includes:

·        Audio re-enactments of arguments for and against New Mexico’s entry into the Union, produced by aural historian Jack Loeffler.

·        A photo of the 1910 Constitutional Convention.

·        President Taft’s proclamation of statehood and the pen he used to sign it.

·        The top hat worn by William McDonald to his inauguration as New Mexico’s first governor.

What makes the flags officially unofficial? Just 39 days after New Mexico became a state on January 6, 1912, Arizona stepped up to the statehood plate on February 14, 1912. By virtue of coming in second, Arizona would receive its just due on July 4, when the official flag of the United States was to switch from 46 to 48 stars. In the meantime, patriotic New Mexicans wanted a flag of their own , and eager U.S. flag manufacturers came up with the unofficial 47-star flag.

How the three flags ended up in the museum’s hands involves a whole lot of out-of-state miles. The 34½-by-72¼” flag Tinkham Hewett is working on was delivered to the museum in 2001 by a Mrs. James Hetzler, office manager of a church in St. Louis. While cleaning out a closet, she found the flag and figured it was left by a since-disbanded Boy Scout troop. The medium-sized, 43½-by-93½” flag was donated by a Fredrich Liberet in 1988, who said it had been passed down by his great-great-grandfather. And the largest, 65-by-115¾” flag arrived in 2000 from a woman who said it had belonged to her father in Drexel City, Penn.

Made of a plain-weave wool, the small flag is missing a few stars on the side visitors won’t see. On the side they will, a few of the stars show slight stains. Tinkham Hewett isn’t certain what made the stains, but said she won’t take pains to remove them.

“It’s earned these stains,” she said. “It’s part of the evidence to a life an object has had. To remove them takes away that evidence, part of its history.”

Come Jan. 6, Tinkham Hewett’s careful work will come to fruition, helping the museum bring the centennial to life.

“Conservation concerns have kept us from bringing our 47-star flags out of collections for public view,” said Dr. Frances Levine, director of the History Museum. “But the Centennial was too good of an opportunity to pass up. By letting visitors see these artifacts in specially designed display cases, we hope they’ll become engaged in the amazing story of New Mexico’s struggle for statehood.”

Is this a museum … or a cave?

Judging by the comment cards that visitors leave at the front desk, the main drawbacks of the History Museum are that it’s too cold and too dark.

If you’ve shivered or squinted, you know what they mean. What’s up?

We talked with Associate Conservator Mina Thompson and Building Manager Emanuel Arnold to get the lowdown on our cave-like conditions.

Start with this: The temperature inside the museum is kept at a constant 72 degrees in the summer, 68 degrees in the winter— give or take a degree.

“Temperatures that are too hot will accelerate the degradation of organic material — plant fibers, like baskets, paper, wood, fabrics,” Thompson said. “Cooler is always better.”

Ideally, she said, artifacts like those in the current Home Lands: How Women Made the West exhibit (at left) would prefer 55 degrees, “but we have to keep a certain level of personal comfort.”

Kicking the temperature up even a notch can reduce the 35- to 40-percent humidity levels also needed to preserve the artifacts. “That’s much drier than other museums,” Thompson said. “Usually, they have 50-percent humidity. But that’s too hard on our mechanical system. And much of our material comes from New Mexico, so it’s not unusual for them to be in a drier climate.”

The wear and tear on the mechanical system was most apparent this summer when wildfire smoke kept Arnold busy.

“I monitored wind directions every day to make sure it didn’t get into the system,” he said. “All the units have smoke detectors and they can shut the whole building down. I had to change the filters several times when ash residue built up.”

Then came the monsoons, which, Arnold said, “kept us nice and juicy.” That’s not necessarily a good thing: Humidity can cause mold and mildew that also damages artifacts. Because of that, the system needed to take the humidity out of the museum, and the process ended up dropping the temperature a little more.

Even without fire and rain, the system works hard to maintain 3½ levels and 96,000 square feet. As it does so, it chews through dollars to pay for natural gas, electricity and water— another reason why Arnold must constantly monitor it for potential cost savings.

None of this applies to the Palace of the Governors, where historic preservation standards and exorbitant costs forbid installing a similar system. The temperature there, Arnold said, can range from 60 degrees in the morning to 90 degrees in the afternoon.

“But most of the stuff in the Palace is acclimated to the Southwest climate,” he said. “The artifacts in the newer building couldn’t handle that kind of temperature swing.”

As for lights, Thompson said, they pose a serious threat to the long-term health of color-sensitive artifacts – a significant concern when the museum hosted the precious documents featured in The Threads of Memory: Spain and the United States (at left). Most light doesn’t just illuminate an object, it also emits heat and ultraviolet rays that can make colors fade faster as well as change the molecular structure of things as precious as a signature on a historic document. “Once that happens,” she said, “you can’t get it back.”

Thompson and museum Director Frances Levine agree that it really isn’t quite as dark as visitors assume. It just seems so because the rest of the museum is so bright.

“Usually, an exhibit that needs to be quite dark will have a couple of transition areas before you get into it so your eyes can adjust,” Thompson said. “It’s very bright here in the lobbies, so it’s hard to get a good transition.”

The best answer to that is patience. Your eyes will eventually adjust to the dimmer light. Your internal temperature control, however, may never adjust to the cool air.

Bring a sweater and keep reminding yourself: It’s for the artifacts’ sake.