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Institute Creates, Preserves U.S. Military Heraldry

By Meghan Vittrup
American Forces Press Service

FORT BELVOIR, Va., July 24, 2007 – Many years ago, when 2nd Lt. Charles Mugno would put on his uniform every day, he was not fully aware of the true meaning behind the insignia that he wore. Now, as director of the Institute of Heraldry, Mugno is one of the world’s foremost experts on such insignia.

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Charles Mugno, director of the Institute of Heraldry, holds up a presidential seal that was designed at the institution. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Molly A. Burgess, USN

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Housed here in an old drab building is one of the nation’s most creative and colorful divisions. The Institute of Heraldry is responsible for maintaining the nation’s insignia and heritage by creating official seals for government offices and designing military insignia, including coats of arms, flags, patches, badges and medals. The institute also creates and archives military heraldry and insignia.

“We are our nation’s premier team of heraldic experts, the guardians of our national symbolic heritage,” Mugno said. “We view it as our responsibility to be the guardians of national emblems, kind of like the keepers of emblems and insignia of the United States.”

Established in 1919 under the Office of the Secretary of the Army, the institute’s mission is to provide the highest quality products to the executive branch, military, and other federal government organizations through the incorporation of historical archiving, creative design and quality control.

Heraldry is defined as the use of symbols, colors and metals, such as gold and silver, to identify a specific individual, unit or organization.

The U.S. military is one of institute’s largest customers. The institute is responsible for creating, designing and maintaining the quality of insignia that graces servicemembers’ uniforms.

“It is important that insignia meet quality standards that protect the honor, integrity and service of the individual,” Mugno said. “It is an important part of the individual in identifying their source of pride, because these patches and badges are earned. The quality of the insignia should reflect the high standards of the units and the historical pride of the units.”

Every color, symbol and shape in any given product designed by the Institute of Heraldry has a meaning. The elements used to design heraldry symbolize a unit’s or organization’s history, mission or location.

The Institute of Heraldry also is responsible for creating the blue, oval-shaped logos displayed behind the lecterns in the White House and Pentagon briefing rooms.

Don Dorja, previous master sculptor for the Institute of Heraldry, and his team were responsible for the creating the blue ovals. Each oval was hand-crafted at the institute. Epoxy resin was used to create the White House and Pentagon castings, while the blue background was formed using foam-core board. The oval frames were constructed of wood. Then the ovals were hand painted.

Besides the blue ovals, the only other products made at the institute are the official seals of the president and vice president and of other government agencies. “The presidential and vice presidential seals can be different in size,” said Rhonda Reiner, a seal model maker and illustrator. “We had one as big as 25 inches.”

The seals are individual works of art; each is created and hand-painted at the institute and requires time and patience to complete.

Once each epoxy resin cast is created, it takes hours to paint. Painting takes place one color at a time, and after each individual color is applied, the illustrator has to set the seal aside to allow the paint to dry before applying another color.

“I enjoy my job; we actually make something and we get to see the end product,” Reiner said. “Each seal is special, so you do your best with them.”

Seals are not the only products that require artistic minds.

After ideas and basic knowledge of a unit or organization have been discussed, the illustration and design phase begins.

Again, this is left to the artists’ hands. Before computers, the artists would draw sketches of patch, badge and medal designs and hand-paint them. Artists now create designs and patterns using graphics and colors provided through computer software.

Once the design phase is complete, the institute sends the manufacturer a drawing specifying dimensions, colors and stitches. The manufacturer then creates a prototype for the institute’s approval.

When designing and creating medals, the institute often takes its design process a step further and has the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts review the medals and give feedback. The Commission of Fine Arts is a distinguished panel of various artists in charge of reviewing designs and aesthetics as they apply to upholding the integrity of the federal government. The commission most recently reviewed designs for the U.S. Air Force Distinguished Public Service Medal; they said they appreciated its simplistic but strong design.

The Institute of Heraldry most recently created two prototypes of the U.S. Africa Command seal. The prototypes are under wraps but have been sent to officials working to stand up the command for approval.

A delegation from the Afghan National Army recently visited and toured the Institute of Heraldry. Officials at the institute are helping Afghanistan develop heraldry for medals, badges and flag streamers. The Afghan delegation is looking to set similar standards to create and preserve their own heraldic heritage.

“Working at the institute is very challenging and exciting,” Mugno said. “It is satisfying to know that we are at the forefront of organizations’ heritage by helping design insignia they will use, wear and identify themselves with.”

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Institute of Heraldry

Click photo for screen-resolution imageCharles Mugno, director of the Institute of Heraldry, talks about the process of the development of metal insignia. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Molly A. Burgess, USN  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageRank insignia that were designed by the Institute of Heraldry is displayed on the wall. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Molly A. Burgess, USN  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMike Craghead, Institute of Heraldry seal illustrator, talks about the precision necessary when painting each seal. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Molly A. Burgess, USN  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageRhonda Reiner, Institute of Heraldry seal illustrator, holds up a seal while explaining development procedures. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Molly A. Burgess, USN  
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