WASHINGTON -- They are part-detective, part-researcher, technology-savvy defenders with a smidgeon of enforcer. They are the curators of the Collections Management Division at the Naval History and Heritage Command.
The Navy is big on tradition, and with that tradition comes a collection of items that range from a $4.4 million dollar sterling silver trophy to a simple Thanksgiving menu from a destroyer during World War II.
Some are hand-chosen from decommissioned ships by the curators themselves, others are donated by those who served the Navy, plucked from a moment in time to inspire people decades later. And some are just items found while cleaning out the attic.
The curators of that collection often joke the last time they've been caught up with their extensive inventory was after the first item was donated to the Navy, head curator Karen France said.
But concern about the loss of precious items in that collection while in storage has created an urgency that has been directed by Capt. Henry Hendrix, Ph.D., commander of the Naval History and Heritage Command, which is the keeper of 10,864 reels of microfilm and 5.67 terabytes of electronic data, along with 200 million pages documenting history.
While the Naval History and Heritage Command has undergone a number of name changes over the years, its mission has not: acquisition, custody, distribution and exhibit of items of historical or patriotic value to the Navy; provide guidance on the preservation and storage of historical material; make those items available to the public and provide maintenance when necessary.
The entire Collections division is undergoing an artifact baseline reset, which means the staff is going through the collection, item-by-item, to make sure it is correctly cataloged, photographed, inventoried and if necessary, rehoused under the proper conditions, which includes a constant temperature and humidity. It also allows the division to evaluate the collection to determine the condition of the items and whether they should be retained or donated to another organization. With almost no staff for many years, it was all the collections division could do to keep up with items on loan to a variety of museums and organizations in every state of the union while at the same time storing and cataloging boxes and boxes of items donated from families of former Sailors.
It's up to a relatively small staff to keep track of the 595,000 artifacts, of which more than 30,000 are on loan throughout the world. The Underwater Archeology Department catalogs more than 17,000 sunken military ships and aircraft around the world.
From 2003-2009, Frank Thompson, Collection Management Division deputy director, and France were the only two collection managers, responsible for a collection of more than 150,000 items.
Progress has been made in updating the inventory. Now that they have staff, they have been able to go through more boxes to see what treasures might be mixed in with the plaques and other private donations.
"People would call us about things in their attic and if we wanted only one item, we would end up taking it all," France laughed.
While that certainly contributed to the backlog of items to be cataloged, part of the job is also culling out what doesn't belong, items in poor condition and redundant to the collection.
An inspector general report in 2011 determined some artifacts were at risk, items sensitive to temperature and humidity, such as textiles and art, microfilm and photographs. The report also suggested the department consolidate where they could, cull the collection and inventory it to get it to the right size, France said.
As they catalogue the items, many are photographed and displayed on NHHC's Flickr site, since most of the artifacts are not stored at the Washington Navy Yard. Case in point: The sterling silver Spokane Naval Trophy given each year to the Pacific-based ship with the best record in battle efficiency. It's currently on display in San Diego. When the trophy was crafted in 1908, it was valued at $10,000. When appraised 100 years later, that value had skyrocketed to $4.4 million.
Some of the artifacts come from companies not typically associated with the Navy. One of the items taken off a decommissioned submarine was a 1960 Steinway upright piano. Steinway & Sons contacted the command and offered to restore it if they could display it for a while. The restored piano is now in the submarine mess deck display at the Cold War Museum at the Washington Navy Yard.
Other businesses with items in the Navy collection that might surprise a few, France said, include the jewelry companies of Tiffany and Bailey, Banks & Biddle.
The Chelsea Clock Company of Massachusetts has had a long history with the Navy, having supplied thousands of clocks for Navy ships over the years, Thompson said.
When a donated Chelsea clock turned out to be one of the rarer ones due to a low production rate, the company asked if they could restore the clock and then display it to show the company's long and storied history with the Navy.
France and Thompson both pointed out in all of the cases the companies contacted them offering to restore the pieces made by their companies.
It's the "loaning" and "borrowing" aspect of the job that can often be the most challenging.
"We have more than 15,000 objects in the loan program, and there's something in every state," Thompson said.
Complicating that task is the fact that in the past, loans were sometimes not as controlled as they are today. Additionally agreements sometimes included language that unintentionally complicates matters, mistakenly using the word gift instead of loan, for example. Then, when the agreement is revisited years later it's difficult to determine ownership of the artifact. That's when curators turn into sleuths.
They don't always win their battles. Most of the time, just a bit of bluffing will work. But with no real enforcement, the staff can only ask for people to do the right thing and return the artifacts.
"We are upgrading those records to properly reflect a gift from a loan so people who work here after us don't have to deal with this," Thompson said. "We've also tightened up the policies so there are no more open-ended loans. If the custodians show they have been good stewards of the artifact, they can continue to hold on to it."
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Naval History and Heritage Command