Not many people can say they are guardians of history. Yet one of the select few is Ben Zaricor, whose collection of American and foreign flags is the largest in the world. With the Zaricor Flag Collection — which includes more than 3,000 artifacts —on display at the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Va., through Friday, the dedicated collector spoke to The Hill about how future generations will judge this age of American history, what the U.S. and Afghan flags have in common and picking favorites among all of his “children.”
Which flag in your collection do you think would be the most meaningful to America?
Which flag in your collection is most interesting to you?
I have that question all the time and one of my answers is that it’s like asking which of your children is your best child. So it’s really a hard question to answer.
Do you have any flags from the Capitol in your collection?
We have the last 48-star flag to fly over the U.S. Capitol [a gift from the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House and Museum], and the first 49-star flag to fly in America. [Editor’s note: Zaricor purchased the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House’s collection.]
What can a flag collection teach us about our government?
It teaches more about people than the government, because the flag is really the flag of the people. We do not have, unlike many other countries, a keeper of the flag. We have very few laws enacted [regarding flags], and they’re not specific … literally anyone can do whatever they want [with the design of the American flag]. The flag has more changes to it than any other nation-state in the world, and the second country with the most changes is Afghanistan.
Why might members of Congress be interested in historical American flags? What can they learn from such artifacts?
The government can learn that that this flag is the flag of the people; it evolved from the people … A lot of interest groups tend to want to claim it as their flag and interpret what is the correct way to treat the flag. The lesson I’ve learned … is that this flag belongs to us all. It represents everyone.
Why is a hobby like flag collecting important today?
There’s a notion in our country that flags should be burned [or] retired, out of respect, [once they are damaged] … As collectors, we don’t share that idea … the flag is a chance to tell a story about our country … [It’s] part of our culture and it’s a thread that weaves its way through our everyday lives.
How did you become interested in flag collecting?
In college, when I was having dinner one night, [I] saw a young man picked up and taken out of the restaurant because he had a vest on with stars and stripes. One of the waitresses had called her boyfriend, who was an undercover police agent, and said that he was desecrating the flag … I got to thinking about that incident, and it occurred to me the power of symbols. A flag is something that people will die for; it’s also something people will kill for.
You’ve said flags can capture moments in history. When citizens look back on today’s American flag, what will they remember about this moment in American government?
It’s what we accomplish or do not accomplish that determines what the meaning [of the flag] will be in the future. If we don’t do the right things for our people … that will be related to how people look at the flag and our government … I don’t believe there will be particular negativity against the flag — any more than there has been.
What is Flag Day [June 14] like for you?
I like to fly some of the old flags. When you fly a 19th-century flag … it’s quite a different experience than when you see a flag flying today. It’s silent because of the material it’s made out of, [and] you can see through [it] … not to fly these is to miss quite an experience.