The director of the Montana Museum of Arts and Culture has made a name for himself in the study of flags — and thinks Montana’s is due for an upgrade.
“We have one of the worst state flags in the nation, and I'd like to see it changed,” said H. Rafael Chacón on Thursday. Last month, his research received a top award from the International Congress of Vexillology, a worldwide association of flag researchers. Now, he thinks it's time to replace Montana's colors with something new.
“I think it's a great opportunity for us to redesign our identity,” he said.
Flags, and their role in a place’s identity, have enthralled Chacón since his childhood days of stamp collecting. But his scholarly research focused elsewhere until about five or six years ago, when he turned his attention to the crests and heraldry along Europe’s pilgrimage routes.
Since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have made their way across Europe to Spain, where the Christian apostle St. James is believed to be buried. “I’ve done that pilgrimage twice now,” Chacón said, “and both times I was kind of struck by the richness of the iconography along the path, to city coats of arms and shields and even flags.”
Chacon analyzed the use of St. James in these images, and throughout Spain’s former empire, and presented his findings to the International Congress of Vexillology’s conference in San Antonio last month. It received that organization’s Whitney Smith Award for outstanding scholarship.
One of his key findings was that, as this medieval pilgrimage route regained its popularity in recent decades, "we can see any number of new municipalities (along the route) that are designing new flags … and recalling some of the ancient medieval iconography,” he said.
Chacón sees these new flags as part of a larger trend. “Flags are gaining more currency. … Visual information is explosive, and it moves very, very quickly, and it's shared quite easily through the internet, so that's what we're witnessing. We're witnessing kind of a paradigmatic shift in the use of imagery.”
And Montana, he thinks, could seize the moment by designing a new state flag.
“Montana is a very recognizable state,” he said. “We should have a flag that's recognizable.” The state seal and word “MONTANA” on the current colors fall short, he ventured.
“Many of the state flags share the same formula,” he said, “It is just simply a field with the state seal on it.” This design originated with Montana troops who needed a banner to carry in the Spanish-American War. Vexillologists call this layout an SOB, or “seal on a bedsheet,” and have long thought the Treasure State could do better.
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“A state flag should be quick and easy for a schoolchild to draw,” said retired teacher and author Edward Mooney. As an undergraduate at Montana State University four decades ago, he and his friends designed an alternative state flag: The bottom third was green, the top two-thirds were blue, and they were separated by a white line that formed an “M” on the left side. They placed a five-pointed star directly above the M.
The group presented its proposal to then-governor Tom Judge and the state legislature, which balked at the change. The 1981 legislature did, however, agree to add the word “MONTANA.”
“We were kind of in shock that our design wasn’t even addressed,” said Mooney, who now lives in Colorado. “The biggest thing” working against them, he suspects, was the notion that "It’s our flag and we don’t want to change it."
That sentiment hasn’t deterred Chacón from considering — but not yet pursuing — a redesign of the state flag. His criteria are close to Mooney’s.
“I think that we have an opportunity to create a flag that is distinctively our own, that really reflects our history without a lot of clutter (so) that any child can identify it and draw it.”
To give Montanans a stake in the process, he thinks some kind public competition would be the best way to select a new design. Mooney agrees, noting that New Zealanders voted on several potential flag designs in 2016, but decided to stick with their current one.
Speaking with the Missoulian on Thursday, Chacón emphasized that he hadn’t taken any actions on this idea. But if he does, would Montanans ever part with their seal-on-a-bedsheet?
“It’s possible,” Mooney said. “I think you need to do a lot of education first.” He thinks that task is easier in the Internet age than it was in the 1980s, when he tried to change the state flag with mailings and phone calls. “I think there is a better chance" today, he said, but “I still believe the No. 1 problem will be, ‘That’s our flag, and we don’t see a need to change it.'”
Chacon acknowledged that for some, changing a flag is “heresy, because it’s a sacrosanct object.” But as an art historian, he’s inclined to take the long view.
“Flags are constantly being changed,” he pointed out. “Just think about the U.S. flag.”