“It Feels Like We’re Putting Them to Rest”: The final day of cleaning and ordering the flags from the In America: Remember installation

The 20,000 flags enter a new stage as a physical-digital archive of COVID loss and remembrance.

Over the past several months, a core group of volunteers have been gathering at Suzanne Firstenberg’s studio in Bethesda, Maryland to clean, sort, and store over 20,000 flags from the In America: Remember art installation. When the installation (at its height over 700,000 flags) was removed from the National Mall, each flag bearing a dedication, some inscription of remembrance, was set apart and the collection taken back to Suzanne’s studio.

That’s when the painstaking process of cleaning the flags began—removing rust and soil from the metal stems, cleaning the flags’ surface, waxing the stems, then ordering and storing them.

The final day of cleaning took place on December 3, 2022. The next stage of work will focus on transcribing inscriptions and creating an open-access database.

Below are reflections from some of the volunteers present that day.

Caption: The volunteers (with artist Suzanne Firstenberg, center) who gathered at the studio for the final day of cleaning.
Credit: Elise Shieh

“For the last nine months, each one of these 22,000+ flags have been carefully cleaned and preserved for archival storage and ongoing anthropological research. This meticulous process, diligently led by Alicia Murphy, came to a quiet but momentous end as the very last group of flags were carefully placed in acid-free storage today.

It has been incredibly healing to witness the extreme care and thoughtfulness given to each and every flag throughout this project, something that was not always afforded to our loved ones during the height of the pandemic.”

Elise Shieh

Left: Elise and Suzanne view the flag Elise dedicated to her mother at the first installation at RFK stadium. Credit: Sarag Wagner. Right: At the helm of the entire cleaning, sorting, and storing process was volunteer coordinator Alicia Murphy. Credit: Elise Shieh.

“Completing our role in this project provided a final rewarding moment in the gratifying process of helping to preserve IN AMERICA.  Suzanne’s kindnesses matched her passion in conceiving and sustaining the meaning of this project. It was especially moving to have one final contact with the messages on the flags and the value of the entire project. (And especially to join with others in this “completion.”) 

It’s something none of us should ever forget – and thanks to the preservation, we cannot.”

Gary Arlen

Scenes from final sorting. Credit: Elise Shieh

“Reminded me of a busy beehive where each of us buzzed in and out with unique energy and a shared goal. We were excited to wrap “Flag Olympics Phase One” with bittersweet feelings. Sort of like approaching the last day of something you don’t want to end…we know we will miss being together (mission aside) in Suzanne’s comfortable setting. The emotional gravity of the COVID Mass Murder/Casualty weighs heavily on each.” – Valerie Mathews

The processed finished, all 20,000 flags are now stored in boxes according to their original section location on the National Mall.
Credit: Elise Shieh

“Although we have closed a chapter in the life of the Flags, the impact of the project runs deep within us all, I am sure.”

Alicia Murphy