Iowa battle flag preservation being slowed by shortage of time, funds

Most flags in state's collection are from Civil War area

James Q. Lynch
Published: January 22 2014 | 12:48 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:30 am in

Iowans carried them into war, but the biggest foes more than 300 battle flags in the State Historical Society’s collection face are time and money.

The Historical Society, a part of the Department of Cultural Affairs, estimates it costs $35,000 and two years to conserve each flag, some dating to pre-Civil War times.

The bulk of the flags – 197 – are from the Civil War era. There also are flags are from the Spanish-American War, Mexican war and World War I. Other flags mark the service of the Red Cross and African American service members.

Fewer than half of the flags have been conserved, DCA Director Mary Cownie told the House-Senate Economic Development Joint Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday. With current funding and staff, the department can conserve about eight flags a year, she said.

Since 2002, the DCA has spent an average of $139,000 on the battle flags, including staff costs, lab equipment, supplies and framing. Gov. Terry Branstad has recommended an appropriation of $94,000 – the average spent over the past three years.

Flags first must be stabilized to maintain them in their present condition – to prevent further deterioration, Cownie said. Stabilization does not address damage already incurred.

Conservation involves actions to prepare a flag for exhibition and addresses the aesthetic and historic significance, as well as its physical integrity.

The DCA is evaluating how it prioritizes flag stabilization and conservation with respect to their physical condition and to make them available for display at the State Historical Museum or to loan to other museums, Cownie said.

She’s also looking at how other states are funding similar efforts. In some cases, funding comes from the state. In other cases, preservation is accomplished through public-private partnerships, federal dollars and grants.

“We need to engage partners with expertise … and look for best practices,” Cownie told lawmakers.

The flags are “valuable historical artifacts,” said Rep. Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada, House co-chairman of the subcommittee. “We want to preserve them, to at least stop the deterioration.”

For more on the battle flag preservation efforts, visit

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