Museum Support Center protects Army history

By Matt Bookwalter, Belvoir EagleApril 23, 2012

Old Glory
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Hermetically sealed
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White glove treatment
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Photo Storage
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Warehouse view
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Not for tanning
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FORT BELVOIR, Va. (April 20, 2012) -- From the outside, the building looks like any other new military building. A little bit of modern design flair, but overall, nothing special.

The sign, "Museum Support Center," has the same cut and look as any other sign on Fort Belvoir. Walking in the front door to the lobby, the first person visitors meet is Sgt. Sean Meneely. Nothing but smiles, and an eagerness to explain his job, Meneely escorts visitors through the facility, introducing them to everyone.

"The people here are great," he explained. "They can tell you about the history behind every artifact stored here."

He is quick to explain the role of the center, it's not a museum that gives tours or has exhibits. It's a support facility that restores and houses hundreds of years of Army history -- everything from musician uniforms from the 1820's to bottled water handed out in Iraq.

"It's hard to give an exact number of artifacts housed here," said Miguel Valdez, the center's registrar. "I can give you a number today, but tomorrow it will have changed, because we are always growing and adding to our collection."

As the registrar, Valdez is responsible for tracking all the material that arrives and is processed through the center.

The process starts when Valdez hears about a collection. Curators will do research on the material and the whole thing is brought up to a collection committee. The committee will approve or disapprove, but the final decision is up to the director of Army Museums.

"Once the material is approved I assign a registration number, and the curators will catalog the items using our database system," said Valdez. "After it's in the system, it gets photographed by our photographer and placed in the storage area."

Because of the nature of the pieces, even the photographer has to take precautions while shooting.

"I have to use cool lights," said Pablo Jimenez, the center's photographer. "Normal strobes will burn the artifacts, so I have constant light I use when documenting."

When even flash photography can damage some of the artifacts, the storage space itself is kept in a very strict atmosphere.

"We keep the building at 68 degrees with 50 percent relative humidity year round," said Joseph Caprara, facility manager. "We also keep the air quality similar to a hospital."

The air in the building is run through five stages of filtration, at the end of which, particulates are 1/45th the size of a human hair. Before being blown through the building the air passes through an ultra violet filter, that kills any microbiologic contaminants.

Safeguards are built in so the artifacts will be kept safe in case of an emergency.

"Everything is set up with redundancies," said Caprara. "That way the facility can operate in case there is an outage."

With the amount of power used to run the facility and keep perfect conditions for the artifacts, the support center is still an environmentally friendly building.

We have a Silver Certificate from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, Caprara said.

Even though the storage conditions are ideal, precautions must still be made while handling the artifacts. Gloves are worn to keep oils from coming in contact with the materials; however, some items are just too old and must be restored.

Enter the conservators.

"Conservators are responsible for the chemical and physical stabilization of Army art and artifacts," said Jane Smithstewart, conservator.

Even at the molecular level the conservators are fixing parchments or chemically cleaning paintings to keep them from further decomposition.

"We're not bringing the pieces back to their original state," said Jeff Kimball, conservator. "We just want to keep them where they're at."

The conservators also set up the housing mounts for the artifacts, so they have perfect weight displacement and don't crush themselves over time.

"We might spend an hour on one mount," Kimball said. "But you'll never have to do it again, it's like an investment."

"It's risk management," Smithstewart added. "It limits handling while moving the objects."

Once the artifacts are cataloged, photographed, preserved and mounted, they make their way to the storage space. The space itself is impressive, rows upon rows of cabinets filled with history.

"We were built with 50 years of growth planned for," said Sarah Forgey, the center's art curator. "Our art collection is just under 16,000 pieces, and still growing."

The Army's art program started in World War I with eight artists who were charged with documenting the war through art. They were given the instructions to observe, participate and create art based on their experience. The program is still alive today.

Master Sgt. Martin Cervantez is the only artist currently in the program. His studio, housed in the Museum Support Center, is a mixed bag of artistic mess and military bearing.

"I tell the stories, but I get a little creative freedom," Cervantez said. "I'll deploy and shoot photos, but not like a photojournalist. They get multiple images to tell a story. I only get one."

Cervantez documents battle scenes and the total Soldier life while deployed. Armed with his field sketchpad and a camera he gathers his material for a painting and then recreates the feel of the image through his brush. His work is then added to the storage space once it is finished.

Through the different departments of the center, there is a very strong common thread; the passion for history and preservation. The Museum Support Center, while not a museum, confidently houses the Army story, with passion.

Related Links:

Art of the American Soldier: Art documents history, reveals emotion

Face of Defense: Army artist captures life on canvas Human Interest News

Fort Belvoir, Va.

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