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Removing Items from the Collection at the National Air and Space Museum

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Visitors to the National Air and Space Museum don’t often get to see the work that goes on behind the scenes. This is especially true in terms of the labor that goes into collecting and caring for our artifacts. Many may wonder where all the air and space stuff (we call them artifacts) comes from. The answer is from a variety of places, including the United States Air Force, NASA, and the general public. These artifacts vary; some are large (aircraft and spacecraft) but many are relatively small (aircraft equipment or military or commercial airline uniforms and insignia, for example, or items of popular culture—air and space toys and games).

SR-71

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

 

Ray Guns

Four toy ray guns from the Museum’s space popular culture collection.

Museum stewardship demands that we manage our collections carefully. Part of our responsibility is to acquire material based on well-defined criteria and, in similar fashion, we occasionally choose to remove items from the collection (we call it deaccessioning).  To help us sort out what to collect, what to keep, and what to remove, we have a collections rationale—a document that guides these decisions. It is a category-by-category justification of our collecting practices. The collections rationale takes into account such things as an object’s historical significance, rarity, and our ability to care for it. These are updated every five years or so. Periodic reviews of the collection, using the rationale as a guide, may indicate that an object or objects no longer fits the Museum’s collecting objectives and should be deaccessioned. This is a decision that goes through a careful process of review, with the aim of finding a home for the objects at another museum.

Since 2006 we have deaccessioned a number of large objects: a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress went to the Mighty 8th Museum in Savannah, Georgia; a Boeing B-17D Flying Fortress “Swoose” went to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio; a Curtiss C-46F Commando went to the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, New York; a McDonnell KDD-1 Katydid Drone went to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon; a Grumman X-29 full-scale model went to the Cradle of Aviation Museum in East Garden City, New York; two 1/3-scale models of Mercury capsules went to the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamagordo, New Mexico, and the Penn-Harris Planetarium in Mishawaka, Indiana; a Vanguard I mockup went to the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. We’ve also deaccessioned a number of smaller artifacts to museums and educational institutions.

Grumman X-29

A full-scale model of the Grumman X-29 formerly on display in the Beyond the Limits gallery at the Museum in Washington, DC, now belongs to the Cradle of Aviation Museum in East Garden City, New York.

Early in 2012, our Aeronautics Department and Space History Department completed their work on the Museum collections rationales, including a listing of candidate objects for deaccession. Among the candidates from the Aeronautics Department are aircraft, aircraft engines, items of award (plaques, certificates, etc.) and personal equipment (flight clothing, full and partial pressure suits, etc.). Those from the Space History Department include items of human spaceflight, rockets and missiles, guidance, navigation and control, the space sciences, and civilian applications satellites.

We have now made this list of candidate deaccessions available to the museum community.  Initially, this effort will focus on working with the Mutual Concerns of Air and Space Museums, an international consortia of air and space museums, then seek to broaden outreach to the Smithsonian Affiliations program, and the American Association of Museums (AAM) communities. The list of items we plan to deaccession may be viewed on our website. Here members of the museum communities mentioned above will be able to review what we have made available and contact us to acquire these artifacts.

Institutional policy in regard to deaccessioning objects from the Museum’s collection dictates that the artifacts rightfully should go to other museums and educational institutions with a similar mission and goals and not to the general public. As part of our stewardship responsibilities we must see to it that these objects end up in good hands after they leave our control.

Dominic A. Pisano is a curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.

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3 thoughts on “Removing Items from the Collection at the National Air and Space Museum

  1. After hearing about the deaccessioning of “The Swoose,” I read several articles on what transpired. I was unaware that NASM had deaccessioned a second B-17 (B-17G described above). The articles indicated that there was an agreement with the USAF Museum that NASM was to (eventually) receive “Shoo Shoo Baby.” Is this still the plan?

    If so, I am curious as to how Udvar-Hazy will make room, or if limits in space may hinder the growth of the collection. (I was hoping to someday see an A-10 Warthog or AH-1 Cobra at Udvar-Hazy.)

  2. Thanks for your question, Sharad. In recent years, the Museum has deaccessioned the B-17D “Swoose” to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, and a B-17G to the Mighty 8th Museum in Savannah, Georgia. We do expect to acquire the B-17G “Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby” in 2015.

    The Museum does have a plan for growth. Periodically we review our Collections Rationale and we make critical decisions about what to acquire and what to deaccession. The deaccession process has been recently made more formal as outlined in the blog post to which you refer. We are endeavoring to work with like-minded museums and educational institutions to find a proper home for a variety of deaccessioned artifacts. These include aircraft and missiles, the largest classes of items, aircraft equipment, and many small artifacts.

    We have plans to acquire an A-10 Warthog and we already have an AH-1F Cobra, but it is not on display.

  3. And F-15 and F-16 Mig killers? How are we doing in this regard as we are saving space in the museum? What about a SH-60F unless Army releases one of their Blackhawks (more than 10 now in Davis Monthan boneyard). Finally, why not hang a T-38 from the rafters as you already have one in storage?

    My suggestion is long term, plan for expansion of the museum by building the existing museum adding a few more steel frames in the southern part of the museum so that you can accommodate larger aircraft like the B-17 and perhaps the C-17 if one comes your way.

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