Smithsonian Inspector General finds substandard storage conditions at American History museum

The storage conditions at the 44-year-old National Museum of American History (NMAH) and its offsite facilities are outdated, crowded and generally substandard, leaving some collections in jeopardy, according to a new report by the Smithsonian Inspector General.


Plastic Sheeting covers storage equipment and collection objects at American History museum (Smithsonian Institution Inspector General)

The report, released this week, looked at the physical aspects of preservation and collections care primarily at the museum where there are 70 permanent and temporary locations for storage. The auditors found that some collections were at risk and suggested urgent improvements and a priority plan.


American History museum shows recent storage improvements (American History Museum)

In 2010 the Smithsonian established an institution wide advisory committee on collections. “We do have substandard conditions,” said David Allison, associate director for curatorial affairs at American History and a member of the committee. “We are making some progress. Certainly there’s more to do.”


Plastic Sheeting over storage equipment and buckets at an American History storage room (Smithsonian Inspector General)

Artifacts of American History museum stored outside at the Garber Facility (Smithsonian Inspector General)

The report also examined the poor conditions of outside storage at the Garber Facility, where large items from military history, transportation and agriculture are stored. Some of the 7 buildings NMAH uses at Garber contain asbestos or lead-containing dust, a well-known fact about the 1950s-era facilities. Those buildings are slated to be torn down once the funding is secured.

The museum, one of the largest on the National Mall, has 3.2 million objects in its collections, with only about 5,000 regularly on view. One of the challenges is preserving the old artifacts and properly storing new donations that come in almost on a daily basis, David Allison said. He said the goal at the Smithsonian is to assess the long-term storage needs of all the museums. Eventually new facilities will be constructed at Garber in Maryland and The Steven Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia for these purposes.

Some funding has helped start projects, he said, including new storage cabinets, rehousing the military collections and designing a way to install electric heating and cooling systems that will replace the antiquated pipes and methods that leak. American History will be a prototype for retooling and replacing existing storage space.

This is the second Inspector General report this year to focus on conditions at American History. Examining inventory management, the February audit found lax or nonexistent inventory controls. This led, the report said, to inaccurate counts of the collections.

In the new report the office called for a “comprehensive preservation program to mitigate the deterioration of objects.”

In general, according to the report, security is adequate at the museum proper. Yet it found not all storage areas had the required security devices, a circumstance it had pointed out before. It also said security rules in the collections storage area were a problem, pointing out keys are often given to staff and volunteers who are not authorized to be in the storage areas or the keys are not securely stored. “These conditions increase the risk of theft and diminish control over collections,” said the report.

Vigorous and accelerated planning and work are needed, said the auditors. “We believe that as stewards of the nation’s most valued and treasured collections, the Smithsonian should lead the museum community in collections care,”said the report.

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