Great Challenges and Great Expectations
"Show us what is possible, but manage expectations." This sage advice from Frank Thompson, Deputy Assistant Director for Collection Management, Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), echoed in my ears as I inspected the mold-infested drywall, water-damaged ceiling tiles, and generally neglected former food prep space that I was now responsible for developing into a state-of-the-art artifact conservation laboratory. It was September 8, 2015, and my first day on the job in Richmond, VA, as the newly-hired Conservation Branch Head for NHHC.
Taking stock of the situation, I realized I had an uninhabitable building footprint, no staff, limited funding, zero mechanisms to spend those funds, was located 110 miles from the Washington Navy Yard, and suddenly I had a massive headache. On the flip-side, I had supportive leadership, the ability to hire four staff, and the desire to prove what was possible.
What is conservation and why did NHHC highly prioritize the development of in-house conservation capabilities? To quote the American Institute for Conservation, "Conservation encompasses all those actions taken toward the long-term preservation of cultural heritage. Activities include examination, documentation, treatment, and preventative care, supported by research and education." In essence, it is a multi-disciplinary profession that combines elements of chemistry, forensic science, history, studio art, and all manner of technical trades.
To be clear, NHHC has operated a successful marine archaeological conservation laboratory at the Washington Navy Yard for over two decades. But the Command lacked a general objects conservation capability to address the long-standing preservation needs of its Headquarters Artifact Collection, consisting of over 300,000 artifacts and objects requiring varying levels of intervention. The collection was centralized at NHHC's Collection Management Facility (CMF) at Defense Supply Center Richmond (DSCR) in early 2015.
As I walked through the storage areas, I was astounded by the variety and complexity of Navy artifacts and heritage that spanned multiple centuries: uniforms, flags, medals, paper documents, furniture, ship's fittings, name boards, bells, swords, torpedoes, watercraft, and even radiological materials. Sadly, I was equally astounded by the generally poor condition of many of these precious and irreplaceable artifacts. I quickly learned this resulted from sustained under-resourcing rather than lack of care by previous generations of NHHC staff. The result was a devastating effect on morale and the physical condition of the Command's storied artifacts. After a 2011 IG inspection NHHC received funds to right the ship. The end result was the consolidation of operations, restructuring, and a significant increase in resources flowing where most needed.
Essentially, the establishment of Conservation Branch (aka COBRA) and new laboratory were the direct results of this infusion of funding and personnel. My future team and I would be leading the artifact conservation effort to prove that NHHC was capable of achieving its worthy mission of preserving and presenting an accurate history of the U.S. Navy by conserving pieces of physical history that would inspire Sailors around the globe.
After orienting myself to the Command, facility, collection, and challenges at hand, it was time to get to work.
Charting a New Course
Great things cannot be accomplished without great people. My first priority was to build the equivalent of the A-Team for NHHC's Conservation Branch.
The average professional conservators are by no means average. They typically possess multiple college degrees including graduate degrees, have completed highly competitive fellowships at prestigious institutions, and have worked in laboratories and on field projects around the world. Some have specialties and focus on the conservation of specific material types like paper or metals. Others focus on broader categories of materials. NHHC collections are vast and need the perfect balance of staff capable of working on solo projects like individual artifacts yet equally capable of working as a unified team on larger artifacts.
Fortunately within a handful of months, the team began to take shape. The cast of characters included a hyper-organized Senior Conservator with a specialty in textiles conservation who thrives in chaos and has a penchant for overcoming obstacles; a Conservator who is equal parts MacGyver and Bill Nye, and who has conserved artifacts previously belonging to George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt; a Conservator newer to the profession but willing to lean into a challenge and adapt to circumstances; a creative Management Analyst who is a Navy Reservist, understands the inner-workings of the Navy, and knows a thing or two about sarcophagi; and myself as Conservation Branch Head carrying a bag full of conservation management tricks, the desire to compete, and just enough stubbornness to have a chance at accomplishing what was asked of us.
Once together and working as a unit, it was clear that COBRA was not your typical mix of Federal civilian staffing. That was by design. I believed that this was the team that would produce the success NHHC had envisioned for the benefit of the Command and Navy.
As mentioned previously, working conditions were less than ideal. The 1,900 square-feet allotted for the conservation laboratory was a former food prep space with significant structural, mechanical, and design problems. The roof leaked; condensation formed inside the ceiling on sunny, cold winter days; mold grew and persisted; the HVAC system was outdated; electrical and fire suppression systems needed updating; and we relied on dozens of support staff and contractors to assist with these issues.
At the same time, our goals were numerous. NHHC required COBRA to begin assessing artifacts at the CMF requested for eventual loan around the world; develop a flexible project evaluation process so Collection Management Division (CMD) and Navy Museum Division (NMD) staff could access conservation services; develop lab design plans and options for build-out to be reviewed by CMD leadership; begin procurement of archival materials, conservation tools, and supplies; and work closely alongside our Curator Branch (CU) peers who were directly responsible for managing the collection of historic artifacts at the CMF.
Fortunately, we received active and unwavering support from leadership back at the Washington Navy Yard. Collectively, they created an optimal management structure suitable for the establishment of a new conservation capability.
As a result, Senior Conservator Yoonjo Lee and I produced laboratory design plans that were approved by CMD for build-out. Our partners at DSCR repaired our building to assist with the transition from food prep space to conservation laboratory. Yoonjo and CO Management Analyst Abigail Preston continued procurement of critical supplies, tools, equipment, and chemicals vital to the operation of a professional laboratory. Conservator Melissa Swanson and I worked with DSCR and NHHC staff to establish safety protocols and procedures for our work. Conservator Karl Knauer and Melissa began assessing and treating fragile artifacts in an interim workspace developed by Lee, Knauer, and me. And our CU colleagues led the charge on facility management so COBRA could focus more intently on its conservation goals.
It felt like we were finally firing on all cylinders. We created a staff of individuals working together as a team. We were achieving administrative start-up goals. And we were on the cusp of kicking off the contract to fully install lab-grade cabinetry, casework, counters, and equipment we had been purchasing. That is, until contracting became, well, government contracting.
While I awaited for the contracting process to begin work on our designed lab, I struggled as a manager and supervisor to get the most out COBRA. Sure, we could perform certain assessments and very simple conservation treatments in our interim work space, but we needed a proper laboratory to harness the true expertise of the dynamic group of conservators. And we had no definitive timeline as to when lab build-out would begin or be completed. We were dead in the water.
Then, an unexpected opportunity appeared.
One morning, I received an e-mail from an NHHC museum director containing a request from a major in the Marine Corps asking if COBRA offered any type of training on identifying, documenting, and handling historic materials. Although we had never delivered this type of information to Marines, we had the ability to produce a few guidance documents to address their needs. The conservation team was interested in producing a useful product for the Marines, and after submitting our information we considered our task completed.
A week later, I received a phone call from the major asking if we could deliver the same type of training in-person to 60 Marines at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling (JBAB). After consulting with Dr. Jay Thomas, Assistant Director for Collection Management, and Frank and receiving their approval, I worked with Yoonjo, Karl, Abigail, and Melissa to develop an interactive presentation with supporting materials. We traveled to JBAB in March, 2017, instructed Civil Affairs Marines on how to identify different artifacts and material types, and we offered guidance how to rapidly survey and document heritage in a disaster environment. We left with a sense of pride and accomplishment, having delivered technical heritage preservation information to Marines, something we had not expected a month earlier.
" . . . we are fortunate to carry on the vital work of using heritage to enhance warfighting capability and preserve and present an accurate history of the U.S. Navy. "
A few days passed and my phone rang again. This time, the Marines wanted to know if we could create an immersive training environment at Fort A.P. Hill to simulate an earthquake-damaged museum as part of a larger Civil Affairs training exercise. "Absolutely, sir. We welcome this opportunity and will do it." Those words spilled from my mouth before I even had a chance to seek approval from Frank and Jay.
My decision was a gamble, but it was also a calculated maneuver. COBRA was stuck in the doldrums, waiting for a gust of wind from the contracting gods. Conservation staff energy and creativity were dwindling while we waited on others to resolving our facility issues. But I trusted Yoonjo, Karl, Abby, and Melissa explicitly. I believed in their ability to ideate, their potential to physically create props and fake artifacts for the scenario, and work under a crushing deadline. I believed that Frank and Jay would trust my decision. I also believed this was in alignment with NHHC Director Sam Cox's request for Command staff to find new and innovative ways to provide direct support to the warfighter. Yes, conserving an historic flag, uniform, or bell for loan that one day may inspire a young Sailor can be considered supporting the warfighter, but this was different. This was an opportunity to convert our heritage preservation knowledge and skills into a product requested and useable by Marines on deployment.
I gathered COBRA in the conference room, described the new request, and told them we would be creating and destroying a fake museum within one month. With no money.
Everyone froze, but nobody panicked. After the initial shock wore off, I explained my rationale and shared my belief in them. Silence turned to sporadic chatter. Chatter turned into ideas. Ideas turned into energy, and before the meeting was over we had developed a rough concept and assumed ownership of the project and undertaking.
Three weeks later, we simulated an earthquake-damaged museum as part of a 2-day training exercise, evaluated four detachments of Marines on their ability to deploy artifact assessment skills we taught them the month prior, tested their skill in moving large, fragile artifacts, and forced them into key leader engagement scenarios.
Our training program continued to grow as a result of positive word of mouth within the Marine Corps and Navy. To date, COBRA and Brian Sitko, Collections Management Division's Management Analyst, have delivered formalized Arts, Monuments, and Archives (AMA) training, akin to modern-day "Monuments Men", to 196 Marines, 26 Sailors, and 4 international military students. We have delivered training on four different military installations, created a hands-on simulated training environment at the CMF, and provided virtual training during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have a strong and resilient working relationship with the Marine Corps Civil Military Operations School at Quantico. Additionally, CO staff now represent NHHC on the Cultural Heritage Coordinating Committee (CHCC) Working Group on Preservation, Military Cultural Heritage Advisory Group (MilCHAG), and have collaborated with the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative.
During an otherwise slow and frustrating period in the development of our conservation laboratory and operations, COBRA managed to identify and exploit a unique opportunity to the fullest, resulting in recurring training for the warfighter and participation in the greater-DOD cultural heritage preservation sector.
Demonstrating Success and Value
Following a breakthrough with lab buildout contracting, COBRA regained a head of steam and began demonstrating its value to NHHC and the Navy in traditional conservation ways. Melissa planted the CO flag in New Jersey while conserving a VC-4 squadron marker. This represented CO's first mobile conservation project. This was followed shortly thereafter by CO's first intra-Division conservation project headed by Yoonjo. She led a team of three conservators at the SeaBee Museum in California to conserve a massive WWII diorama in advance of a commemorative exhibit. She completed this project on time and under budget. Yoonjo and I travelled from Richmond to the National Museum of the United States Navy to assess a painting on display that was covered in lipstick left by an amorous visitor. Fortunately, Yoonjo was able to safely remove the lipstick without damaging the underlying paint, quickly and successfully addressing a visually-problematic conservation issue.
Back in Richmond, Karl conserved a USS Nautilus mug to help commemorate an important anniversary and Yoonjo stabilized and pressure-mounted a flag from USS Taylor. The flag, which unfortunately went missing while at NHHC for 30 years, was recently rediscovered in storage. Owing to Yoonjo's textile conservation skills, the flag was once again made available to USS Taylor veterans for their annual gathering in Colorado. The Taylor flag project represented the power of Conservation Branch working with Curator Branch to reunite veterans with their Navy heritage.
Under the leadership of Karl, COBRA has assessed and/or treated over one dozen historic ship's bells, many of which are now on loan around the country. Notably, Karl and COBRA staff conserved bells from USS Utah and USS Vestal. These tangible reminders of the attack on Pearl Harbor are now in display in Salt Lake City, UT, and the Pentagon, respectively.
On May 1, 2019, Conservation Branch formally opened its new objects conservation laboratory at the CMF in Richmond. VIP guests and staff watched as NHHC Director Cox and David Gibson, Site Director, DLA Installation Management Richmond, cut the ribbon in a ceremony designed to celebrate this multi-year collaborative effort and promote NHHC's new conservation capability. Guests interacted with Conservation Branch staff, learned about the equipment, materials, and techniques used to conserve artifacts.
The first artifacts to be conserved in the new lab, designated an official Navy Laboratory by the Office of Naval Research, are now on display in "The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea: The U.S. Navy in Vietnam" exhibit at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (HRNM) in Norfolk, VA. The artifacts included 27-foot-long Vietnamese sampan, ship name boards, clothing, propaganda sign, a POW camp model, artillery shells, medals, and assorted materials. The success of this exhibit and COBRA's ability to support HRNM's conservation request demonstrated the viability and utility of the new laboratory.
Most recently, Karl treated the ship's bell from USS Craven, which is now on loan to SECNAV's Braithwaite's office at the Pentagon. SECNAV recently stated "Your identity is your history." COBRA staff are proud to directly help share the Navy's history and identity with the world through the utilization of NHHC's historic artifacts.
Looking Beyond the Horizon
In some ways, the previous five years feel like five days. In other ways, it feels like five decades. That being said, I am tremendously proud of the accomplishments of the COBRA thus far.
To date, we have assessed 318 different artifacts at the CMF and at NHHC Museums. We have conserved 69 artifacts ranging from a small commemorative medal to a large sampan. Many of those are now on loan around the country. We have trained over 200 Marines, Sailors, and four international military students. Recently, COBRA had its first peer-reviewed academic article published and is now working on a second article for publication.
Collectively, we have created a physical laboratory where technical conservation work and innovation occur on a weekly basis. We have established business rules and administrative practices for how we receive and vet conservation project requests. We have created positive working relationships with staff inside and outside NHHC, bolstered by trust, hard work, and promises upon which we have delivered. Working closely with MCCMOS and the AMA community, we have utilized conservation knowledge and skills to train warfighters how to rapidly and accurately survey cultural heritage in disaster environments. And we have worked alongside our Curator Branch colleagues to provide the level of care NHHC's heritage assets deserve. In doing so, we are fortunate to carry on the vital work of using heritage to enhance warfighting capability and preserve and present an accurate history of the U.S. Navy.
Conservation Branch will only be as successful as our next conservation projects and partnerships. Currently, we are working to address areas of need and take a more proactive stance on defining future preservation capabilities. Conservation Branch is in the process of acquiring state-of-the-art analytical equipment to improve our ability to perform accurate, technical artifact assessments and determine optimal treatment plans for long-term artifact stability. We are exploring ways to scale-up some of our treatment methods to better position COBRA and NHHC to perform conservation of larger "macro artifacts" like submarine sails, deck guns, and watercraft. In alignment with the development of the new National Museum of the United States Navy, conservation staff have identified the need for a museum conservation support program to focus efforts on this massive undertaking while continuing to support conservation needs of other NHHC museums and partners. Additionally, the Conservation Branch and Command as a whole could benefit from additional billets for a paper conservator, preventative conservator, and conservation scientist. The addition of these critical positions and previously-mentioned analytical equipment would position COBRA and NHHC at the forefront of DOD heritage asset preservation and conservation.
How many of these conservation goals realistically will we be able to achieve? Ask us again in five years.