The storage conditions at the 44-year-old National Museum of American History (NMAH) and its offsite facilities are outdated, crowded and generally substandard, leaving some collections in jeopardy, according to a new report by the Smithsonian Inspector General.
“NMAH storage equipment as well as object housing and housing practices need improvement,” concluded an audit by A. Sprightley Ryan, the museum’s Inspector General. “For example, nearly all storage rooms at the museum had exposed pipes and conduits, resulting in frequent leaks that threaten collection items.”
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.
These problems of inadequate storage and leaks dripping into rubber buckets and general poor conditions have been uncovered in the past by the Inspector General and others. The Smithsonian has admitted replacing and repairing the storage is a major concern. Since 2006 a care and preservation fund has dedicated more than $10 million of federal funds for these projects.
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.”
The report listed a number of conditions that it said put collections at risk. It cited the deterioration of a delicate silk World War I flag and damage to fur coats and other clothing items in the Cold Storage Room.The report cited poor housing of whaling harpoons in one area, stating the risk to staff as well as the object if they were bumped into and fell. It described lead dust in one basement storage room at the museum and the museum itself removed asbestos during the museum’s renovation.
The report contained some eye-opening graphics, depicting mercury leaking from a barometer into a beaker, enclosed by the staff in a plastic bag. Buckets catching water were photographed, as well as plastic protecting cabinets from leaks from the heathing and air conditioning systems.
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.