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This report continues our series of collection stewardship audits at the Smithsonian, and is the second of two reports on the collections at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). Our overall audit objectives were to determine whether (1) physical security is adequate to safeguard the collections, (2) inventory controls are in place and working adequately to ensure that the collections are properly accounted for, and (3) collections are properly preserved at NMAH. This report covers the first and third objectives. A previous report covered the second objective (A-10-03-1).
NMAH dedicates its collections and scholarship to inspiring a broader understanding of our nation and its many peoples. The museum holds in trust approximately 3.2 million objects that encompass all aspects of the history of the United States.
Many of NMAH’s collections were stored in substandard conditions. The majority of storage areas we tested were not conducive to the longterm preservation of the collections. NMAH storage equipment as well as object housing and housing practices need improvement. For example, nearly all storage rooms at the museum had exposed pipes and conduits, resulting in frequent leaks that threaten collection items. Some storage buildings are contaminated with asbestos or lead-containing dust. Overcrowding in storage rooms and cabinets has damaged objects.
Although NMAH has successfully used internal Smithsonian funding to improve conditions for certain discrete collections, it does not have a comprehensive preservation program to mitigate the deterioration of objects so that they are available for exhibitions, education, and research purposes.
NMAH’s physical security is generally adequate to safeguard the collections. However, collections storage areas do not yet comply with the Office of Protection Services’ (OPS) security standards. OPS had not installed required security devices in all of these areas. Furthermore, both OPS and NMAH need to improve controls over access to collections storage areas. For example, OPS security officers issued keys to staff and volunteers who lacked proper authorization to access certain collections storage areas. NMAH staff routinely stored keys in unsecured boxes or drawers and did not maintain permanent sign-out logs. These conditions increase the risk of theft and diminish control over collections.
In 2010 the Institution created a pan-Institutional Collections Space Steering Committee (CSSC) focused on ensuring that collections are preserved and remain accessible for current and future generations. We continue to hope that the Institution’s Strategic Plan objective to strengthen collections stewardship results in increased attention to and support for collections management.
We recommended that the Smithsonian develop a prioritized plan for addressing collections storage needs; establish and implement a Preservation Program; explore opportunities to maximize storage space, replace substandard storage equipment and acquire appropriate housing materials for the collections; and develop and implement a plan to remove and decontaminate objects from storage facilities containing hazardous materials. We also recommended that the Smithsonian implement security policies and procedures to improve security controls, and develop and implement a prioritized plan to bring NMAH collections storage areas into compliance with OPS’ Security Design Criteria.
Management generally concurred with our findings and recommendations and has planned corrective actions that resolve all of our recommendations.