The role of conservation in the move of collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Leslie Williamson and Emily Kaplan


The collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) comprises approximately 800,000 archaeological and ethnographic, historic, and contemporary objects from Native cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere. We are in the process of transporting the collection from the museum’s Research Branch (RB) in the Bronx, NY, to the new Cultural Resources Center (CRC) facility in Suitland, MD. It is anticipated that the move, which began in June 1999, will take five years.

The structure of the collections move parallels that of the museum. The move “departments” – Conservation, Registration, Collections Management, and Photography – work in close technical consultation with the corresponding museum departments but are dedicated to the move project, with separate management and budgets. Within this structure, conservation responsibilities tend to be the most varied and subjective. Often, conservators are problem solvers for anything that falls outside of the normal routine. Because we work at both ends of the move, and as equal members of the move team rather than as consultants from the larger museum, we are able to have daily on-site influence on move activities, and to institute standards for the care of the collection during and after the move. Daily conservation involvement in the move simplifies the implementation of procedures for preservation.

The Research Branch is a deteriorating building in which the collection has been stored, in severely overcrowded conditions, for the last 75 years. The day-to-day tasks on the move line require fast decision-making so that the flow is kept constant. These tasks include determining the stability of the artifacts, performing stabilization treatments; surface cleaning, deciding on pest management procedures, and constructing specialized packing mounts as necessary. Ongoing broader responsibilities include conducting more involved treatments necessary for safe transport, developing safe handling systems, developing packing procedures for specific artifact types and/ or especially fragile materials, providing advice on use of materials and packing systems, and monitoring and coordinating testing of environmental hazards within the collection spaces.

The Cultural Resources Center opened in 1999. The building was designed not only to house the collection, but also to serve as a center for research, for community services and outreach and to support the NMAI public facilities on the National Mall and in New York City. Move-related conservation tasks include oversight of rehousing/storage mounts, oversight of materials and supplies, oversight of artifact care and handling, pest management, assessing and documenting condition and damage and performing minor treatments.

The Research Branch and the Cultural Resources Center are physically very different and face different problems but the move staff at both ends must function smoothly together. Both ends work with the same restraints of time, space, scheduling, and resources in different configurations. Communication is essential. Move-related conservation work – whether it is stabilization treatments before packing or storage systems on the receiving end – must integrate the immediate with the long-term needs of the collection.

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