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Finding Proper Museum And Curatorial Facilities In the National Park System is No Easy Task


Among the more than 116 million items in the National Park Service's museum collections are some unusual items, such as an elaborate parade saddle blanket Albert Johnson used on special occasions at his Death Valley ranch and a wood-covered portable desk bought by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the late 1850s, to a home plate made out of wood by the Japanese-Americans interned at Manzanar during World War II. NPS images.

Thomas Moran's sketch book. A rich collection of Plains Indian footwear and clothing. A resplendent parade saddle blanket from Death Valley. Paintings from the Hudson River School of artists. Prehistoric artifacts.

These are among the more than 116 million of artifacts and archives that are held by the National Park Service. They tell rich stories, add to our knowledge about the past, and are invaluable. And, as evidenced by the recent story about those items at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, not all are being properly stored and more than a few are in need of curatorial attention.

“We have several facilities that are not in the best condition. We have 323 parks with museum facilities. And of those, 217 are in good condition, meaning they meeet at least 70 percent of applicable standards; 78 are in fair condition, meaning they meet between 50 and 70 percent of applicable standards; and 28 are in poor condition, meaning they meet less than half of the applicable standards," says Ronald Wilson, the Park Service's chief curator.

“The bulk of our collections are in good facilities, but we still have a ways to go to get all of them," he said. "So it’s a matter of balancing the competing needs of access and preservation.”

And in these days of fiscal distress, the balancing act becomes ever more precarious.

At Little Bighorn, officials have known for at least a quarter-century that they needed to better care for such items as buckskins belonging to Gen. George Armstrong Custer, intricate bead work made by Indians, artworks, and cavalry flags. But they lacked both the money and the space to build a proper facility.

Finally, the dire conditions under which roughly 150,000 archives and artifacts were stored in the basement of the monument's visitor center led to a recent decision to move them to the Park Service's Western Archaeological and Conservation Center, a 50,000-square-foot facility in Tucson, Arizona, with conservators who can catalog, preserve, and store the collection until an adequate facility is built at Little Bighorn.

But issues tied to finding additional land for that facility to be built on, as well as how the Park Service will manage to pay for the land and the building, remain unresolved at this point. Little Bighorn, as Mr. Wilson noted, is not alone in the National Park System with such a dilemma.

A Plan To Address Curatorial Needs

In response to a congressional request that the Park Service develop a plan for addressing its curatorial and museum needs, the agency four years ago prepared Park Museum Collection Storage Plan, a 102-page report that laid down a "comprehensive, cost-effective, and long-term solution to the current and future challenges of NPS museum management."

That plan called for reliance on a regional network of facilities that would reduce the agency's number of museum storage facilities from 691 to just 254. At the same time, however, the plan envisioned increasing the number of Park Service museum facilities that meet the agency's preservation and protection standards, which address such issues as humidity and temperatures, fire protection, Ultra violet radition exposure, security, even pests.

"The challenge is we don’t have the money to implement the plan, so we are implementing it as funds become avaiable, but we’ve got a long ways to go," said Mr. Wilson. "I think that when it was originially issued, the thought was that it would take close to a couple hundred million dollars to build all of the facilities that we’d ideally have.”

To move in that direction, the Park Service has established five regional centers. In addition to the one in Tucson, there are regional centers in Maryland for the agency's National Capital Region; in Boston for the Northeast Region; in Lincoln, Nebraska, for the Midwest Region; and in Tallahassee, Florida, for the Southeast Region.

“They are just for managing the collections on a regional basis. They’re mainly there for cataloging, processing the collections, maintaining them in a secure environment, that sort of thing," said Mr. Wilson. "Most of our exhibit places for the public are in the visitor centers in the parks, and then we also have several dozen online virtual exhibits on our website.”

While the Park Service never expects to have all of its collections on display at one time -- "The idea of having everything on exhibit permanaently is a very, very old idea that the museum profession abandoned probably back in the 1930s or '40s when they started to see that things that were on exhibit permanently were very prone to fading and other environmental damage," said the curator. -- it does endeavor to preserve all of its collections and have them available for researchers.

While this plan slowly is implemented, facilities such as the Western Archaeological and Conservation Center, which is a central repository for the Park Service's Intermountain Region, try to pick up the slack.

“We have collections from 71 different parks," says Tef Rodeffer, the facility's curator. "They range from 10 or fewer items for the park, because we are the regional nitrate negative storage facility, so we might just have the park’s nitrate negatives. Or we might have 95 percent of the park’s collections.”

Beyond the five regional centers, the Park Service does try to further consolidate collections within its regions with strategically located park facilities that can serve more than one unit of the system.

"About 2001 the (Intermountain) region started a curatorial facility strategy," said Ms. Rodeffer. "And the document was finally signed and released in 2005 to try to understand the problems with building a facility for every park.  There are two things that are really important, and one is that the facility meets the standards, and the second is that it’s staffed by a professional curator.

“So as a result of the study, the region identified 21 facilities throughout the region that it was important to invest resources in to try to bring those up to standard and make sure those had a professional curator so that the majority of resources would be protected," she said. "Parks were targeted to store collections at these facilities, which are distributed throughout the region."

One of those identified facilities is the Little Bighorn Battlefield. But, as recent events illustrate, identifying a need and meeting it are two different challenges. At the battlefield, part of the problem is a lack of land to locate such a facility on. Superintendent Kate Hammond hopes to find a way to obtain additional land for the monument through talks with the Crow Tribe as well as the Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee.

As for the funding to build the facility, the superintendent believes sources will materialize once the land is acquired.

“If we had the land we certainly would be in the position to go acquire money. And I think there would be possible sources of funds within the Park Service," said Superintendent Hammond. "There would be possible sources of funds from philanthropy, but we have never been in the position to cross that bridge.”

“We need to be in a place where we can start looking for that money, and that money can come from within the Park Service or it could come from working with the community, with interested stakeholder groups, with private donors, so there would be a number of options that we could pursue once we had somewhere to put it."

A Regional Flagship For Artifact Storage, Conservation, and Research

Yellowstone has a magnificent, 32,000-square-foot facility just outside the park's North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana, one that arose in 2004 and saved the park's collections from storage conditions very similar to those experienced at Little Bighorn -- basement facilities in the Horace Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth Hot Springs with exposed water pipes, no humidty controls, inadequate curation.

The $6.4 million facility, which also received nearly $200,000 combined from the Yellowstone Association and the Yellowstone Park Foundation for furnishings, holds the second-largest museum collection in the Park System. Its 5.3 million items are second only to the more than 6 million items held by the Edison National Historic Site in New Jersey.

It now houses almost 3,000 linear feet of historic records, 90,000 photographic prints and negatives, 20,000 books and manuscripts, 300,000 cultural and natural science specimens, over 35,000 archeological artifacts and approximately 10,000 plant specimens. The HRC provides a 500% increase (from 1,642 to 8,017 square feet) in library and archives space including storage, processing areas, reading rooms, and offices; and a 700% increase (from 1,206 to 8,906 square feet) in museum spaces including storage, processing areas, and offices. It was not only designed to improve space for the collections, including room for 25 years of growth, but also to improve access and ease working conditions for employees, visitors, and researchers; increase security; better accommodate tours; and showcase rotating exhibits.

      Inside the facility resides an incredible collection of Yellowstone memorabilia, from a first edition, autographed copy of John Muir's Our National Parks and 500 images by noted Western photographer William Henry Jackson to old wooden trail markers and both U.S. Army and National Park Service saddles.

These regional centers not only provide better storage and curation of park memorabilia, but they also let park museum staff focus on their exhibits.

“Since a number of parks have been moving their collections here, the staff in the parks have actually been spending more time doing things like figuring out ways to exhibit the collections or use the collections instead of doing things like going around and doing pest management on the collections," said Ms. Rodeffer. "So I think the public is actually getting more benefit for collections being in centralized storage, at least from what we’ve observed in the last five years than if they were at the park.”

But without better federal funding, achieving the desired goals as stated in the 2007 plan could be a long time coming.

“It is a challenge, especially in these tight budget times," acknowledged Mr. Wilson. "We’re doing the best we can with the available resources.”

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Thanks for this kind of articles. I do enjoy some of the controversial topics that bring out lots of comments, but ultimately for me the traveler is about seeing new angles in looking at the amazing variety of NPS sites.

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