Federal Faces: Bob Sonderman

Bob Sonderman

Acting regional curator/director, Museum Resource Center, ­National Park Service

Best known for: Sonderman is the steward of treasures from Civil War battlefields, historic homes and other sites administered by the National Park Service in the Washington area. At the Museum Resource Center in Landover, Sonderman catalogues and protects about 2.5 million artifacts not on public display because a particular site may have rotated its exhibits, has more objects than it can put on view, has no place to store them properly or is under renovation.

Items in storage include a mock-up of the National Mall’s Korean War Memorial, historic furnishings from Arlington House at the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery and objects from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and Ford’s Theatre. The resource center is holding for safekeeping nearly 1 million textiles, trunks, musical instruments and other objects removed from Ellis Island in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Sonderman said his passion is the long-term care and preservation of archaeological items and tangible evidence that charts “our existence on the planet.” The facility also houses labs, a vault for cold storage, and research spaces for people to examine the stored materials by appointment.

Bob Sonderman of the National Park Service is caretaker of 2.5 million treasures from national historic sites. (Ellen Perlman/Partnership for Public Service)

Sonderman also conducts “traveling road shows,” visiting schools with some items from the resource center to share this rich history with the public. “What’s the point of having it if we’re not using it for the benefit of the public?” he said.

Government service: Sonderman has worked for the National Park Service for almost 29 years as a staff archaeologist, an archaeological collections manager, a senior staff archaeologist and as director at the Museum Resource Center.

Motivation for service: When Sonderman was in college, a professor instilled the passion that led to his early career in archaeology and to government service, where his job involves preserving the tangible remains of the country’s past, what he calls the nation’s cultural patrimony.

Biggest challenge: It can be daunting to be responsible for the care and preservation of millions of museum objects. The storage facility requires environmental controls, pest management and security, and the collection is dynamic because the building’s contents come and go, depending on the needs of the parks.

Quote: “I am fortunate to work in an agency with a strong preservation ethic and managers that support that ethic, and a fabulous, though small, staff of museum professionals.”

— From the Partnership for Public Service

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