Safeguarding treasures from national historic sites

April 23, 2013

Bob Sonderman is the steward of treasures from Civil War battlefields, historic homes and other sites administered by the National Park Service (NPS) in the Washington area, managing a 55,000-square-foot storage facility containing boxes, shelves and drawers filled with 2.5 million items.

The Museum Resource Center holds artifacts not currently on display at national parks and historical sites in the District of Columbia and parts of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. It may be because the site has rotated its exhibit, has more objects than it can put on view, has no place to store them properly or is under renovation.

“This is a safe and secure location for treasures to be stored while they wait to go on display at historic homes and properties we administer,” said Sonderman, a senior staff archeologist and acting regional curator and director of the resource center. “We have the responsibility for managing these things for the American public.”

Objects currently in storage at a building in Landover, Md. 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, objects from the Frederick Douglass National Historical Site, Ford’s Theatre and meaningful items left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Along with drawings, furnishings, papers and archeological finds, the building holds natural history collections that include fossils, bones and dried plants and insects.


Bob Sonderman of the National Park Service. (Ellen Perlman/The Partnership for Public Service)

“One of my passions is the long-term care and preservation of archeological items and the rest of the tangible evidence of our existence on the planet,” said Sonderman.

Although an archeologist by training, Sonderman’s job involves dealing with facility and inventory management, said Terry Childs, manager of the Department of Interior Museum Program.

“He’s got this enormous number of objects he’s got to manage appropriately according to our policies, and he does so in an exemplary manner,” said Childs.

The huge facility houses labs, a vault for cold storage, and teaching and research spaces for people to examine the stored materials, by appointment. For example, a frequent visitor researched items from Ford’s Theatre associated with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, including conspirators’ weapons. The resource center also holds historical papers and records, such as those of Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and an archival collection of park records and images including historical drawings of the Washington Monument, which were viewed to help with the repairs of the monument after the 2011 earthquake.

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

Although his main job is safeguarding the region’s collections, Sonderman also is on call as team leader of the NPS Museum Emergency Response Team. The team comprises conservators, archeologists, architects and others who do triage and damage assessments of national parks around the country when disasters strike.

“We are the National Park Service version of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Association)” Sonderman said. “We’ve all been trained in incident command procedures and respond as a unit to assist our parks.”

The team was created in 2003 when Hurricane Isabel hit Jamestown, Va., where Colonial National Historical Park is located. Most of the Jamestown collection was stored in a basement that got flooded with five feet of water.

The group jumped into action during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Gulf oil spill in 2010 and, most recently, during Hurricane Sandy last year.

The resource center now is holding for safekeeping nearly 1 million textiles, trunks, musical instruments and other objects removed from Ellis Island in the wake of Sandy. Although the four-foot storm surge that hit the island spared the main collection, water damage kept the park from being able to maintain a proper environment for its priceless collection. The response team helped move it to Landover temporarily.

“If something like that happened in my region, I would ask Bob, ‘Can you take however many cubic feet,’ ” said Mary Troy, chief of museum services for NPS’s Southeast region. “He is a go-to person who works incredibly well with people.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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