A Banner Project
Last spring, the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, in Lexington, MA, received an American Heritage Preservation grant of almost $3,000 from the Federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to support conservation treatment and archival storage housing for three fraternal banners in the collection. The museum was one of only four institutions in the state to receive an award.
American Heritage Preservation Program grants are used by museums, libraries and archives to help preserve specific items, including works of art, artifacts and historical documents that are in need of conservation. Applicants build on completed conservation assessments of their collections to ensure that the grants are used in accordance with the best practices in the field and underscore the importance of assessment planning. The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The institute works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to sustain heritage, culture and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation, and support professional development. To learn more about the institute, visit imls.gov.
The IMLS grant is particularly important to our museum and library because of the nature of its Masonic and fraternal collections. Many of the objects in the museum’s collection are not widely collected by other history museums, and the staff often has to devise creative solutions to store the objects and to protect them through conservation. For example, the museum uses large, rectangular acid-free boxes (which resemble pizza delivery boxes) to store the apron collection so that these fragile garments are housed flat, with only two or three items to a box. Museum staff also developed a way to mount the badge, pin and ribbon collection on acid-free mat board cards. These items are attached to the cards using twill tape and then the cards are inserted into mylar sleeves. We write the catalog number for each object on the card and store them in specially constructed trays. When seeking a particular pin or badge from among the thousands in our collection, staff members can easily pull out the card and return it when finished.
The conservation and preservation of the banner collection is a high priority. An initial staff survey identified the banners to be treated as part of the grant as the ones most in need. Pursuing “best practices” for our collections and working to conserve and preserve delicate materials are highly prioritized stated goals in our collections plan and in our strategic plan. Current collections care focuses on the goals set out in our collections plan: active collaboration with Masonic and fraternal organizations to add to the museum’s collection and to assist these organizations with preserving their own collections; developing virtual uses of the collection through our website, blog and other resources to make our collection more accessible; pursuing the best practices in the field for collections management, preservation and storage, and increasing intellectual control of and access to the collection.
By 1900, over 250 fraternal groups existed in the United States, numbering six million members. Despite their widespread popularity in the late 1800s and early 1900s, few museums show exhibitions about these groups, and limited historical research has been done on them. The Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, with its collection of more than 17,000 objects, focuses on the history of fraternalism and Freemasonry in America, collecting the props, regalia, accessories, and published materials produced for and by these groups. Banners were an important component of American fraternal activities. These colorful textiles were used inside lodges, in public parades and at cornerstone layings and other ceremonies.
Photographs and prints from the museum’s collection show us just how widespread the use of these banners was. An image clipped from a newspaper or magazine around 1868, shows a group of Odd Fellows taking part in a public parade. Their banner is clearly shown in the picture near the center of the group. A number of fraternal groups made sure to include their banner when they took formal portraits. For example, a Modern Woodmen of America axe drill team from Kentucky prominently showed off its banner in an early 1900s photograph. At a 1930 cornerstone laying ceremony for a New York Prince Hall Masonic Temple, a banner holds a place of honor just off the stage.
The banners to be treated are all double-sided, allowing their respective groups to advertise themselves to audiences in front of and behind them during parades and processions. They generally include the name of the fraternity, the name of the local lodge or group, and well-known symbols of identification. Two of the banners covered by the grant are from the Scottish Rite, Northern Masonic Jurisdiction. One of these banners received conservation treatment, while the other sports a new supportive housing.
The third banner, which also received archival housing, was originally used by the fraternal group known as the Journeymen Stonecutters Association. The oldest active union in the United States, the group formally organized in 1853. Members were (and are) working stone cutters and carvers. This particular banner was used by the branch in Wilkes-Barre, PA. It was locally made by the William H. Horstmann Company in Philadelphia, a company that made regalia and props for many American fraternal groups in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Originally the property of a member of the group, it was passed down to his daughter who gave it to a friend who donated it to the museum in 1998.
Given their large size and use indoors and out, these objects have often sustained significant damage, requiring appropriate conservation treatment and care before they can be used in an exhibition, or even for research. By completing this project, the museum will be able to share them with a much wider audience – through our website and blog and, possibly, through future onsite exhibition.
As explained above, one of the Scottish Rite banners received much-needed conservation treatment. It showed signs of age, as well as damage from long-term exposure to the environment and stress from gravity. The surface was rippled throughout, and the painted sections were worn with some loss.
The banner demonstrated structural damage and staining. The treatment provided conservation cleaning and stabilization of the most critical structural damage. The banner has been surface cleaned, with special attention paid to mitigating the stained areas. Creases and tears were treated as much as possible. Detached fringe trimming on edges, and the detached valance at top have been re-attached. The banner’s decorative tassels were also repaired and stabilized.
A sketch of the stage set-up for the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction’s annual meeting in New York city in 1923 (now in the collection of the Van Gorden-Williams Library & Archives) notes the placement of many important people and elements – including a banner at the edge of the stage. While we do not know if the recently-conserved banner was the one used in 1923, it is possible.
The second Scottish Rite banner and the Journeymen Stonecutters banner – both of which show significant areas of split silk (which could only be treated at great cost) – have been rehoused in specially-fabricated archival boxes. This archival storage treatment provides a preventive measure for the banners, which were previously stored uncovered on large, heavy pieces of plastic. The banners are now tacked to a padded fabric-covered board that can be used safely for occasional display and for handling. The new storage boxes protect the banners from light damage, and the added resting boards prevent the need to move the banners from one flat surface to another, cutting down on the risk of further damage.
This project allowed the museum to partially fund one of its conservation priorities – the banner collection. Now, these items are available for use in short-term exhibitions, for research and for publication – both internal and external. In addition to this article, we will be publishing a blog post about the project and have circulated a press release on the project.
We are proud to serve as a model for many Masonic museums and libraries in this country and abroad. This project offers an example of how to preserve fraternal history that is currently in danger of disappearing.
The project provides inspiration, as well as guidance, about the steps to take to preserve these objects which are often misunderstood and undervalued.
Now that this conservation is completed, we are pleased to share these objects with our Masonic audience – and with our on-site and online visitors – in order to introduce them to the history of Freemasonry and fraternal organizations to encourage them to learn from that story.
To ask questions about the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library collection, or to discuss the donation of objects to the collection, please contact Aimee E. Newell, Ph.D., director of collections, email@example.com, 781-457-4144.