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The Meaning Behind Folding an American Flag

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The American flag is one of the most important symbols of the United States.  For many, it symbolizes respect, honor, and freedom.  For others, the flag represents reflection, courage and sorrow.  The National Air and Space Museum cares for a number of American flags in the Smithsonian Institution’s national collection, many of which represent significant events in the history of space exploration or aeronautics. One belonged to Amelia Earhart.  One was flown aboard Gemini 4 by NASA astronauts James McDivitt and Edward H. White in 1965.  And the Museum has several replicas of the flag that was left on the Moon during the Apollo 11 lunar landing in 1969.  Although each flag has a story that is worth telling, the care and preservation of these unique objects is also noteworthy.

Even though Museum staff are trained to handle cultural objects, sometimes an object requires special attention. With the upcoming installation of new displays in the Moving Beyond Earth gallery highlighting the history of the space shuttle program, a very special flag was chosen for display.  This particular flag was flown over the U.S. Capitol on February 1, 2003 as a tribute to the crew of STS-107, who died when the space shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry at the end of its mission.  It was donated to the Museum by Dennis Hastert, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, to honor the astronauts.



This flag was presented to the National Air and Space Museum by Dennis Hastert, then Speaker of the House of Representatives (Photograph by Gregory K.H. Bryant)


Flag prior to folding on table in conservation laboratory (Photograph by Marcy Borger)

When it was decided to display the flag in the new gallery, the conservation staff unfolded the flag from its original box so that it could be examined, photographed, and cleaned. The curatorial team agreed that the flag should be folded in the traditional, triangular pattern before putting it on display. Because the flag represents an American tragedy of significant proportion and out of respect for the proper treatment of the artifact, the Museum invited a member of the military to assist with folding the flag.  Army Major Warren R. Stump, who recently returned from Afghanistan, assisted the conservation staff.



Flag being folded by Major Warren R. Stump. Moving Beyond Earth contractor Stephanie Spence is assisting (Photograph by Marcy Borger)

Major Stump, with assistance from Stephanie Spence and Dawn Planas (conservation contractors for the Moving Beyond Earth gallery) folded the flag, while I (Lisa Young) read an explanation of the meaning behind each of the thirteen folds in a properly-folded American flag.  The flag is folded to represent the original thirteen colonies of the United States.  Each fold also carries its own meaning.  According to the description, some folds symbolize freedom, life, or pay tribute to mothers, fathers, and those who serve in the Armed Forces.  When the flag is completely folded and tucked in, it takes on the appearance of a cocked hat, representing the soldiers who served under George Washington, the sailors and marines who served under John Paul Jones, and the many who have followed in their footsteps.



Major Stump folding the flag (Photograph by Marcy Borger)

Now folded into the traditional triangle shape, the STS-107 Capitol-flown flag will be displayed in the Moving Beyond Earth gallery. The flag will serve as a reminder of the heroes who flew aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, and who paved the way for further space exploration.  It will also serve as a reminder to Museum staff about how special objects take on new meaning as they are interpreted for public display.  We are grateful to Major Stump for helping the Museum to pay full respect to this significant artifact.



Presenting the flag to the Moving Beyond Earth Curator, Margaret Weitekamp and conservation team members John Holman, Lisa Young, Dawn Planas and Stephanie Spence. (Photograph by Marcy Borger)

Lisa A. Young is a conservator in the Collections Division and Margaret Weitekamp is a curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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4 thoughts on “The Meaning Behind Folding an American Flag

  1. Though I’m moved by the respect you show for this very special flag, I disagree with the refolding.
    The flag, as shown in the presentation box, is reminiscent of the flag of Texas – the state over which Columbia had its fateful disintegration. For the Texans viewing the reentry that morning, life will never be the same.
    The non-regulation folding of that particular flag is as much a testament to those who have been touched by the disaster as it is a memento for the crew.

  2. What an insightful comment. Thank you. The initial decision to refold the flag came because the presentation box would not fare well on display. Although the box is just as important as the flag, we have to consider which materials will fare better on display, as both the box and flag are vulnerable to light damage at different rates. If they are displayed together the paper box and textile flag may adversely affect the preservation of one another over time. The Museum’s conservators are challenged with difficult decisions when they have to balance the long-term preservation of an object and choosing what to display. Without the box, the flag needed to be folded in a way that it would not be harmed on exhibit for years to come. The formal triangular fold seemed to be the best choice.
    -Margaret Weitekamp and Lisa Young

  3. Thanks for this insightful story. This flag will be a meaningful sight for so many people who remember that day.

  4. Visiters to the blog may be interested in knowing that the oldest American flag in the NASM collection is a thirteen star, thirteen stripe version sewn by Sarah Stock Wise for her husband John Wise, the famed 19th century balloonist. While the flag is only finished on one side, it is said to have been carried on balloon flights. While the flag is not dated, it must have been created before 1879, when Wise disappeared during a balloon flight across the Great Lakes.

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