Story by Jim Caiella, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
What career fields in the U.S. Navy require licenses and expertise to operate fork lifts, patience—and lots of it—to vacuum spots no larger than an artist’s brush head, the ability to very neatly wrap the oddest shaped objects, and reliance upon diverse, advanced degrees?
Answer: museum specialists and technicians at the U.S. Navy’s Collection Management Facility.
After standing up nearly two years ago, the Collection Management Facility (CMF) of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) has begun “racking” its collection of approximately 300,000 historical artifacts. The cavernous facility on the south side of Richmond, Virginia, was formally opened on May 20, 2015, and in the interim has installed within each of its three “larger-than-a-football-field” storage bays industrial racks each capable of supporting thousands of pounds of material.
Each rack is nine feet long and has either two or three levels, with the majority having three. There are also open cantilever racks for objects, such as torpedoes or spars, with significant length. The racks are aligned back-to-back across the width of a bay with an aisle between them wide enough to allow artifact placement and retrieval by fork-lift trucks. All told, there are some 3,000 discrete locations for racking. Each location is defined “by rack, unit, and shelf.” As an artifact is placed, its address in entered into the master data base.
Tonia “Toni” Deetz-Rock, the facility’s collection manager, noted that this is the heart of the operation, which is a “well-choreographed project.” With the methodical placement of artifacts on a shelf and recording its location along with accession information in a master data base, any individual item can be immediately located and retrieved. It is part of the command’s ongoing Artifact Baseline Reset Project. According to Deetz-Rock, before the Collection Management Facility opened, the artifacts had for years generally been stored in wooden crates in old warehouse conditions at a number of facilities across the country. At the CMF, with the collection consolidated under one roof, museum staff has the opportunity for a “new assessment” of the entire collection. This supports the CMF mission of not only preserving and maintaining the artifacts but also supporting the loan program to the Fleet, civilian and military museums, and other agencies.
The racking process is proceeding with two simultaneous phases. The first is to get the crates, each with its own identity code, off the facility’s floor and onto the racks, the majority of which are three levels high. This immediately releases more floor working space. As each crate is placed on a rack, its location is noted in the master data base for identification, location, and retrieval.
The second aspect is the meat of the CMF’s existence: the methodical storage and conservation of individual artifacts. With the racks, the crates—many of which were packaged decades ago—are all being opened one at a time. Museum specialists and technicians first match the items within to an inventory created when the artifacts were packed. A paperwork “triage,” as Deetz-Rock called it, then ensues. The items are linked with accession documents, loan paperwork, old photographs, and historical documentation. Further research may be required. Each item is then logged into the master data base as the technician inspects the artifact, assesses its condition, cleans, photographs, labels and tags, and performs actions necessary for the preservation of the artifact—to stabilize and support it while packaging it in archival storage material. The items are grouped and combined into archival storage bins, which are then placed on the racks.
As museum specialist Daniel Bera cleaned an ensign from the recently decommissioned USNS Safeguard (T-ARS-50), he described some of the process for using a vacuum cleaner. Using a soft circular brush attached to a hepa vacuum, “I place this screen over a portion of the flag and methodically using an up-down, not sweeping motion, move spot to spot on the flag. When the area of the screen (approximately 11×14 inches) is complete, I move the screen to the next area and replicate the process.” The purpose of the screen and the up-down motion are for the same reason: to protect the cloth fibers of the flag. Everything that is done is to preserve the artifact as it is. It will take Bera approximately half an hour to clean this one flag.
At another work station, Michael “Mick” Morin is working with a spyglass from USS Higbee (DD 806) and a clinometer originally from USS Anzio (CVE 57). These receive slightly different treatment, highlighting how the preservation steps are determined by the artifact. Mick inspects the spyglass, which is contained within a wooden storage box. The glass is in fine shape, clean and dusted because of its case. After identifying, marking, and cataloging, the glass is returned to its case, which is dusted, and then wrapped in an archival paper covering. Interestingly, no adhesives—tape—or mechanical means—staples—are used to secure the covering. The ends of the package are overly long. They are neatly folded back over the package and secured by flat strips of an archival material wrapped around the package and tied with a bow.
The clinometer receives a similar treatment, but in its packaging soft cushion support material protects small clips from damage. The clinometer is also interesting because it is a good example of the dynamics of the Navy’s artifact collection. The pieces don’t just sit in storage. This device had been on loan to the current USS Anzio (CG 68). When that ship entered drydock for a prolonged refit, the clinometer was transferred back to the collection for protection, where it will stored until, Anzio requests it be loaned again.
The facility’s end goal is preservation. The inventorying and cataloging make finding a given object and its story easier, but if it isn’t preserved, those efforts are in vain. Absolute climate control—temperature and humidity—is an impossibility for the cavernous bays of the CMF. The temperature, however, can be maintained within a reasonable range, and the open racking helps with air flow, which minimizes humidity issues. Some artifacts, particularly textiles and fragile paper items, cannot exist without climate control.
To meet their needs, the facility has two rooms sealed off from the bays. One has full climate control; the other, at this point, partial. The smaller “Room 1” is in full operation, while the larger Compact Storage room is in a testing phase for its controls. As one of the facility’s jacks-of-all-trades, museum specialist Many Chea counts among her many duties monitoring the temperature, humidity, and light conditions in the Compact Storage room in preparation for its activation. Sensors that record time, temperature, humidity, and light are placed on shelving around the room. They sample and record each parameter every 15 minutes. Once a month Chea or Bera download the information and feed it into a monitoring program. Once the readings are proven to be controllable the room will be activated.
Preservation concerns extend to even the fork-lift trucks and small utility vehicles, which are artifact friendly. All are electric; no gas or propane powered vehicles are allowed because the effluent of their exhaust gases adversely affects preservation. The staff also uses bicycles and tricycles to travel the more than 1,200 feet from one end of A bay to the other of C.
In assessing the work at CMF, Deetz-Rock sees it as dual-faceted. The daily work is repetitive, meticulous, precise—mundane; but then there is working with—touching—Admiral George Dewey’s frock coat, a Japanese Kaiten suicide craft, or a piece of the frigate Constellation. She believes that’s what the Collection Management Facility provides to the Navy: protecting, preserving and sharing that “Wow Factor.”
SIDEBAR: Artifact Recounts the Harrowing Journey of Five Sailors
USS Saginaw, a side-wheel steamer commissioned in 1860, was the first ship constructed at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California. Returning to port in San Francisco from a mission to Midway Island on Oct. 29, 1870, she struck a reef on Ocean Island and grounded. Before the surf destroyed the ship, her crew was able to transfer much of her gear and provisions to the island. On Nov. 18, a group of five men led by the ship’s executive officer Lt. John G. Talbot, sailed for Honolulu in one of the ship’s small boats to seek help for their stranded crewmates. Thirty-one days and 1,500 miles later as their boat approached Kauai, their boat was capsized by breakers, killing all but Coxswain William Halford, who was able to get help to rescue his shipmates. Of the ship’s crew, all but the four who drowned on Kauai survived.