Old Americana arrives at the Benton Museum in new American flag exhibit


The Benton Museum has a new exhibit on flags through the presidential campaigns. (Amar Batra/ The Daily Campus)

Presidential campaigns have come a long way since the days of George Washington and an exhibit now running at The William Benton Museum of Art that opened Friday evening displays that past and its ripples in our very own presidential campaign today.

The exhibit, titled “Presidential Campaigning over the Decades: The Mark and Rosalind Shenkman collection of early American campaign flags,” is an assemblage of flags and Americana that express an era once lived in our American history. The opening reception was a review of early American history led by a panel of professors from the University of Connecticut.

“In the space of a museum there is this effect, this aura. These flags circulating in their original 19th century context would have just then been among millions of other objects. No one would pause to take notice,” said Chris Vials, an associate English professor.

“If you take it out of everyday life and put it in a museum, behind glass – there is a way in which that object becomes one of veneration and reflection,” Vials said.

The panel brought into the discussion several talking points that spoke about how the flag is viewed, the symbolism behind it, its origins and the importance there is to identifying with it.  

Each panelist took time to deliver a speech about the flag’s meaning in their disciplines of academia and bridged those points into the knowledge in America’s presidential campaigns and the idea of democracy today.

“I was really surprised when they said that flags were made by entrepreneurs trying to make money,” Mac Korte, Willimantic resident, said.

Throughout the evening, several facts of history were presented as each panelist examined the flag.  

One such fact is that it is a federal offense to display text or imagery anywhere on the flag today, however it was not in the 19th century. As a result, the exhibit has many pieces on display to contrast the campaigns now and then, not to mention different star patterns as there was no official design of the flag until 1905. Beside these flag pieces, there were also several different types of Americana belonging to the exhibit and its themes, such as a broadside printing of “The Declaration of Independence.”

“What we’re seeing here is our constant desire to make solid something which is so fragile, which is so porous. Each time we have an election there is something quite phenomenal about the fact it always works out at the end of the day, even if our candidate doesn’t win,” Alexis Boylan, associate professor of art and art history, and women’s gender, sexuality and studies said.

“It’s important to think about how fragile these objects are and the very idea of democracy,” Boylan said.

The exhibit examines America’s history in 19th century campaigns and simultaneously makes the topic relevant to the election going on today in 2016. The exhibit will run until December 18th.

Matthew Gilbert is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.gilbert@uconn.edu. He tweets @wickedlouddude.

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