Jason Clayworth, The Des Moines Register
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa has destroyed eight flags in its museum collection from a Civil War organization after they were damaged by excessive amounts of mold and sewage.
"It's unbelievable," said Pat Palmersheim, a Vietnam veteran and former director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs. "I can't believe someone would let that happen."
The flags apparently were from the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of veterans who served in the Civil War.
The flags were roughly 12 inches in length and width and believed to be from the early 1900s, possibly used as graveside memorials.
The mold and sewer damage to the flags occurred more than 25 years ago before the state moved its historical museum collections from the basement of the Ola Babcock Miller Building into its current location in Des Moines, officials said.
Museum flags today generally have their own separate cabinets that control temperature and protect against damaging light. But storage spaces before the museum's move were far inferior, said museum curator Jerome Thompson.
"Having been there for almost 30 years and having moved items out of that building, I can't answer why things were stored the way they were at the old building but there were some really egregious conditions of storage there," Thompson said.
State officials held onto the flags until recently when museum officials determined they were too badly damaged and had no value.
Museum officials agreed to dispose of the flags after engaging in a nearly yearlong "deaccession" process that ultimately ended when the state's historical society board gave permission for the 49th Iowa Infantry — a Civil War uniformed honor guard regiment — to dispose of the flags in a burning ceremony.
The flags were never part of the state's battle flag collection, which contains more than 300 flags that lawmakers have allocated $1.9 million since 2000 to conserve, according to a report made public this week by the Iowa Legislative Services Agency.
Flag conservator David Lamb agreed with the decision to dispose of the flags. The museum retains four other Grand Army of the Republic flags in its collection.
"They were very badly degraded," said Lamb, who is the commander of the Iowa 49th. "They should have been disposed of half a century ago."
Lamb, who reviewed the flags as part of his job as a conservator, said it is believed they were donated to the state by an American Legion post in southern Iowa in the 1930s or 1940s. Documentation about their histories is poor, he said.
"In my opinion it was speculative that they actually belong to the Grand Army of the Republic," Lamb said. "They probably dated in the 1910s or 1920s and if ever used by GAR, they were probably placed on veteran graves."
Flags — as is often the case with antiques — lose their value if they are restored. For that reason, weaving new material into them or attempting to refurbish them wasn't an option, Lamb said.
Flags flown in battle are generally considered to be more valuable than those used for memorial purposes, but the flags still would have had historical value, Thompson said.
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