The Birdwood Flag Conservation Project
Amir Moghadam, UON
This blog, and the ones that will follow, look back over three and a half years to detail the preservation and conservation measures that returned the restored Birdwood flag to Newcastle’s Christ Church Cathedral in July 2017.
The posts will be presented as a narrative, relying on my own notes, images and memories and interspersing this narrative with comments from other members of the Birdwood Heritage Committee. The aim is to make an account that includes a variety of perspectives so that community members gain knowledge they can use in their own preservation projects.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step…”
The Birdwood Flag’s preservation story is well described by applying Lao Tzu’s quotation above. The first definite steps in restoring the flag were made in November 2013 following a number of comments on the flag in previous years. The reality we faced was thousands of fragments of mostly reddish looking textile stored in a plastic back within a large cardboard box in a damp vault of the Cathedral.
The other reality was the complete absence of any substantial funding and support that would be required for a major restoration. No group of people who might have the expertise to manage such a project could be identified and the one conservator at the University of Newcastle, myself, was so occupied with other projects, there was no time available, even for discussion or planning. Everything had to be established and negotiated from scratch. As a conservator, I knew this would involve the creation of a strategy for preservation of the flag to gauge the feasibility and practicality of the process. Only then could there be some negotiation between interested groups (including the University and the Cathedral) and then applications for resources, grants or other help through public and private benefactors.
As a principle of conservation, the level of material disintegration of an object is also considered. The Birdwood Flag’s utterly fragmented and delicate state would usually rule it out of consideration for restoration. The time for conservation would be judged as having expired so that any effort to restore it would be seen as pointless or worse still, as endangering the authenticity of the item. Indeed, such conservation would be perceived as blurring the lines between conservation and total re-construction of the item.
However a different principle of conservation argued against dismissing the idea of conservation and labelling the Birdwood Flag as a hopeless case. The significance of an item, be it art-work or monument, argues for or against the dedication of scarce resources to preserve it. Even so, the integrity of the item’s fabric is very important in deciding its significance. An item can only be considered as significant if enough of it remains to show what it is.
There was a Catch 22 involved with arguing the significance of the Birdwood Flag in its disintegrated state. To do this, some assurance was needed that it could be put together and made recognisable as a flag of a particular design, dimension and colour. A bag of confetti does not easily lend itself to such an assurance. Many people engaged in cultural heritage work experience such dilemmas. This is the moment when a project is often abandoned. However the Birdwood Flag was too important to be forgotten. It narrates the sacrifices of soldiers of a nation established only 15 years earlier during one of the most cruel and catastrophic wars in human history. Moreover the flag tells a story above and beyond a tale of WWI. Produced by a community yet official, flown on the battlefield yet returned to the community who built its own War Memorial and ‘laid up’ the flag there, this object provides important evidence for larger historical and social enquiries.
The Birdwood Flag has been restored and this blog is being published 31 July 2017; the day after the Birdwood Flag was re-hallowed in a special service to mark its return to Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle. The brochure, Two Lives, tells the story of the one hundred years between the first making of the flag and its successful restoration and return. Further blogs will show the steps during three and a half years that brought us to this day.
“Re-Hallowing of the Birdwood Flag Service” Newcastle Anglican (1 August 2017)
“WW1 Flag Returned to Newcastle After Painstaking Restoration” NBN News (20 July 2017)
“Australia’s first flag forgotten, found and restored all in 100 years” ABC News (30 June 2017)
“Precious WW1 Flag on the Mend” by Mike Scanlon. Newcastle Herald (2 June 2017)