The conservation administration is responsible for coordinating exhibit and collection preservation. The manager of this department assigns resources and staff to projects.
See some of our past grant and award-funded conservation projects below.
Funding for this project was provided by a 2006 Conservation Survey Grant from the Getty Foundation. Scientific analysis was funded by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) as part of a GCI project for the conservation of photographs.
This project involved a two-month conservation survey and scientific analysis of 62 Hillotypes produced by Levi L. Hill. The Hillotype process is an extremely rare, pre-1860, photographic color process that produced a color image based on the color sensitivity of certain metal salts. These Hillotypes in the Photographic History Collection of the National Museum of American History are the only known surviving examples of Hill’s experiments and early achievements in color photography. The goal of the survey was to photo-document and assess the condition of the collection and to provide guidance on the best preservation housing and environmental monitoring/conditions. This project was initiated by Michelle Anne Delaney, former Associate Curator in the Photographic History Collection, and was the first organized documentation of this collection since it was collected by the Smithsonian in 1930. Between 1964 and 1972, the Hillotypes were moved to the National Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History, where they currently reside.
Relative Humidity & Temperature Sensors
Smithsonian Institution Collections Care and Preservation Fund (2020)
Determining and maintaining the proper environment for an artifact is the foundation of collections preservation. Stable and appropriate environmental conditions extend the life of collection objects, making them available to future generations. But temperature and relative humidity are environmental factors that can change. Controlling these factors is important for creating a preservation environment. With funding from the Smithsonian Institution Collections Care and Preservation Fund, the NMAH purchased and installed 59 new relative humidity and temperature sensors with related software and programing that allows the sensors to work with the museum's environmental control system.
NMAH-MCI Conservation Survey of the Eadweard Muybridge Glass Plate Positives and Zoopraxiscopes Collection
Smithsonian Institution Collections Care and Preservation Fund (2019)
The Muybridge Glass Plate project funded two contract photograph conservators, Barbara Lemmen and Zachary Long, from the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA). Over the course of three weeks, conservators inspected the 616 glass plate composites and zoopraxiscope negatives that make up the Muybridge glass collection. The conservators provided follow up reports on the condition of the collection and recommendations for treatment. The grant also provided funds for a closer inspection of the parts that make up the glass plates—the support glass, image glass, and gelatin. This research was completed by part-time, post-doctoral fellow Miriam Hiebert over a 12-month period.
Benjamin Franklin's Three-Piece Silk Suit
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) requested a loan of Benjamin Franklin's three-piece silk suit to include in their 2018 exhibition Visitors to Versailles (1682-1789). This meant the suit needed to be analyzed to ensure it was stable enough for display. In studying the suit, Sunae Park Evans, the senior textile conservator at the NMAH, noted that it had been painted. This was likely done to compensate for fading. Scientists in the Department of Scientific Research at the MMA studied the suit and determined that the dye used to produce it's original plum color was a mixture of natural dyes. The added colorant that Evans noted was identified as C.I. Acid Red 88 (Fast Red AV), a synthetic, or man-made, dye first created in 1877. The presence of this synthetic dye meant the suit was previously restored, before it arrived at the Smithsonian.
Conservators also used a test called a Newport Oriel Fading Test System to measure the photosensitivity, or light sensitivity, of the suit and determine the safest light levels for display. Based on the results of this test, conservators recommended light levels at or below 5 foot-candles (the unit used to measure light intensity). Additionally, they recommended limited display time to prevent a build up of light exposure, which would damage the artifact.
Great Historical Clock of America
Smithsonian Institution Collections Care and Preservation Fund (2015)
When assembled, the Great Historical Clock of America stands 13 feet high and eight feet wide. It was completed in 1893 and was built to document and celebrate American history. The clock was displayed for four months, from November 1980 to February 1981, and then disassembled. The pieces were randomly grouped within six crates and stored off-site. When conservators inspected the clock in 2014, they found it separated into 33 sections and hundreds of pieces. It was not working and in poor condition, covered with dirt and dust. Many of the decorative elements showed damage. This project was developed to assemble and stabilize the clock so it could be preserved and displayed in a future exhibition. The clock was restored to working order for limited demonstrations, for research purposes, and to re-establish the overall integrity of the original work. Watch the clock in action!
Funded by the Smithsonian Institution (2013)
The Gwenfritz is a forty-foot-tall, painted steel sculpture designed by Alexander Calder. It was made and first assembled at the Etablissements Biémont foundry in Tours, France. In April 1968, the sculpture arrived in Baltimore packed in six crates. It was taken to Silver Hill, Maryland, where it was temporarily placed in storage. The Gwenfritz is made of 71 separate pieces held together with 1,270 nuts and bolts. Conservators surveyed the sculpture in 2013 and found it to be in poor condition. The treatment proposal recommended taking apart the sculpture, removing the flaking paint and corrosion, applying a new paint that meets today’s standards for industrial coatings, and re-assembling the sculpture with replacement nuts and bolts.
1833 Manifest from the Schooner LaFayette
Funded by the Smithsonian Institution’s Women’s Committee (2011)
This project involved the conservation and rehousing of a rare 1833 manifest from the schooner LaFayette. The ship transported enslaved men, women, and children from Alexandria, Virginia, to Natchez, Mississippi, via New Orleans. Eighty-three individuals are listed on the manifest—along with their age, height, complexion, and location of purchase. The manifest is handwritten in black iron gall ink and is made of four pieces of handmade paper assembled to form one sheet. The document was in poor condition and vulnerable to further damage. Conservators treated the manifest so it could be displayed in the exhibition American Stories.
This project was funded by the Smithsonian Institution Collections Care and Preservation Fund (2010) and supported by generous donors.
The Jefferson Bible, created by Thomas Jefferson around 1819, is an 81-page collection of passages from the first four books of the New Testament. It is considered a national treasure and represents the work of Jefferson’s own hands. He arranged the passages, cut from two source books, to create an edited, chronological account of Jesus's life and parables and other beliefs common in his own time. Jefferson's source books, which are also in the NMAH collection, and the Jefferson Bible were thoroughly documented and treated over the course of this 18-month-long project. The treatment goal was to chemically and physically stabilize the books to ensure their continued use in exhibition, research, and public outreach. Click here to explore the Jefferson Bible!
Agriculture and Natural Resources Collection, Phase I
Smithsonian Institution Collections Care and Preservation Fund (2009)
Conservators undertook this three-phase project with the goal of relieving overcrowding in the stored collection and increasing the available storage space. Phase one involved developing a preservation plan and completing an inventory of the Agriculture and Natural Resources collection, a total of 27,188 objects. Conservators checked object names, compared collection numbers to museum records, took or confirmed measurements of items, wrote descriptions, updated item locations, and created 47,186 digital images to document the collection. All this work was done to prepare for phases two and three of the project.
Agriculture and Natural Resources Collection, Phase II
Smithsonian Institution Collections Care and Preservation Fund (2010)
During phase two of this project, a work plan was developed to clean and rehouse objects from the Agriculture and Natural Resources collection. Students from the collections care program in the museum studies department at George Washington University were invited to help with the project. They gained practical experience in object handling and collections maintenance under the guidance of NMAH conservation staff. Participants cleaned and rehoused a total of 1,142 objects!
Agriculture and Natural Resources Collection, Phase III
Smithsonian Institution Collections Care and Preservation Fund (2011)
Creating more space for each object in phase two meant that the collection took up more space in phase three—a total of 25 percent more space. To solve this new problem, the museum obtained high-density, mobile storage systems with industry-standard storage units for holding collection items. These units increased the total storage capacity from a jam-packed 3,398 cubic feet to 5,000 cubic feet—a 33 percent increase!
Uniform Rehousing Project
The Armed Forces History Uniform Collection at the NMAH is one of the world's premier military uniform collections. With an estimated 9,000 uniforms, the collection includes items worn by the average soldier and those worn by the greatest military figures in American history, dating from the French and Indian War to current uniforms worn today. In 2005 the NMAH received $53,700 to perform a uniform inventory and rehousing project. Conservators began by setting up a workspace, choosing appropriate housing materials, and developing an efficient workflow. Each uniform was moved from storage to the textile conservation lab to be surveyed, vacuumed, photographed, numbered, and rehoused. In the first year, conservators completed work on 350 uniforms. The NMAH received funding in 2006 and 2007 from the Collections Care and Preservation Fund and hired five contract conservators to continue work on the collection. During the second year of the project, 2,760 uniforms were treated and rehoused. By the fourth year, work had been completed on 6,370 uniforms. More than 11,500 meters (7 miles) of muslin fabric, 540 yards (5.4 football fields) of polyester batting, and 87,000 yards (49 miles) of thread were used in the rehousing of this prized collection.
1934 Trav-L-Coach house trailer
Funded by the Smithsonian Institution (2003)
The Trav-L-Coach, pictured here in the exhibition America On The Move, was severely deteriorated and unstable when it came in for conservation. Originally, the rails and cross-members had been "toenailed" together, with nails driven in at an angle. Although this method of joining materials is inherently weak, in this case the joints had failed due to wood decay and corrosion of the iron nails. There was also evidence that the coach had been cosmetically restored in the past, including the exterior being recovered with a material called Bolta-Vinyl. Because of its poor condition, the Trav-L-Coach required invasive restoration in addition to conservation in order to make it structurally sound for display.