Spangled banners

Long May She Wave

There’s not enough wind in the NMA  feature gallery for those flags to   actually wave.

There’s not enough wind in the NMA feature gallery for those flags to actually wave.

Photo By Lauren Randolph

The mission is simple: Kit Hinrichs wants to tell the story of America. In Long May She Wave: A Graphic History of the American Flag now featured at the Nevada Museum of Art, Hinrichs’ unprecedented personal collection of American flags weaves and waves in and out of American history.

As Hinrich, an internationally acclaimed graphic designer and collector of folk art, walks through the exhibition, he explains the minutia of each flag: the number of points on the stars, the arrangements of the stars, and the proportion of the stripes to the stars. Each makes a difference for Hinrichs, and the stories behind the differences inspire him to continue building his 40-year-old collection.

As a leading graphic designer for the design studio Pentagram, Hinrichs knows more than enough about graphic art. Pentagram has produced exhibits for London crafts fairs, has redesigned magazines such as The Atlantic and Time and has created products such as the business class seat for United Airlines.

Hinrich began building his collection as a kindergartner when he was given a flag sewn by his great-great-great aunt Ida Peppercorn in 1865. It served him well in show-and-tell and eventually acted as the cornerstone to his collection and the catalyst for his obsession.

The exhibit concentrates on flags from the 1950s and earlier, but many of the flags illustrate a time when the flag was, in a sense, deregulated.

“I think what made collecting the flag so interesting for me was that not only was the flag ubiquitous, but also the flag was something that was made by the people of this country for the last 230 years,” says Hinrichs. “But for first 150 years, there were no guidelines—just red and white stripes, a blue union and white stars in a constellation.”

He has collected nearly 5,000 pieces, the largest known collection of American flags in the world. Yet this exhibition, the largest display of his collection, only displays about half of what he owns. All aspects of the flag are represented—from photography and toy soldiers to hand-beaded gloves from the Lakota tribe and political paraphernalia.

The story of America’s growth is apparent in the exhibition, and so is the story of America’s penchant for branding anything with the flag—postcards, brochettes, lingerie bags, matchbooks, poker chips and even the human body.

By the end of a tour of the gallery, one feels partly subdued by Americana and partly trapped in patriotic and nationalistic reverie.

“Every time a change happened, it happened within the flag,” says Hinrichs. “So I think you get a little bit of a sense of a country that was continually changing, always evolving and continues to evolve.”