Millions of Artifacts, Historic Photos, and Important Documents Await Discovery

NPSmuseumCollections

It’s hard to wrap your head around a number as large as 123 million. Yet this represents the number of items in the museum and archival collections held in trust for us by the National Park Service. Letters and diaries kept by Civil War soldiers now held at Pea Ridge National Military Park, thousands of fossils at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, hand tools used to carve the presidential visages at Mount Rushmore National Monument—these important items represent just a small fraction of the treasures held in more than 1,800 facilities located within nearly 400 parks, curatorial centers, and partner organizations throughout the country.

Imagine being responsible for inventorying and cataloguing all these priceless artifacts and documents, safely storing or displaying them, conserving those that are damaged or fragile, using them to create interpretive programs and inform project plans and management decisions, and making them available to researchers and park visitors. It’s a monumental job, and it’s one that the Park Service has been trying its best to do with limited resources.

At best, parks are able to share only a small portion of their collections with the public due to limited exhibit space and insufficient staff and funds to prepare exhibits, while many artifacts and the information they hold are stored away from public spaces, difficult to access and use. At worst, dismal storage and display facilities force the parks to relocate their collections to distant facilities that have the capacity to conserve and protect the collections—which are then out of the reach of park rangers and managers, researchers, and the public.

Some parks have reached beyond the museum walls by taking advantage of technology to create virtual museums that expand public access to their collections; others are using images or replicas of collection items as the basis for school programs in science, history, and the arts. These parks are examples from which to learn, but ultimately, addressing poor storage facilities, lack of trained staff to manage and care for collections, and inadequate public access to collections will require innovative thinking and creative solutions on a system-wide basis.

NPCA’s Center for Park Research is launching research to find out how many collection storage and display facilities need upgrading or replacement, understand how these problems restrict public access, and investigate new technologies and new realities in visitor expectations to better care for collections and make them accessible to the public. Stay tuned for updates as this work progresses.

Read a recent National Parks magazine article on some of the National Park Service staff who care for these artifacts, and visit the National Park Service’s Museum Management Program website to tour a number of virtual museum exhibits and learn more about the kinds of objects and archival materials found at each park.

About the Author

Catherine Moore is former cultural resources program manager for NPCA’s Center for Park Research.

About the Author

Elizabeth Meyers is former information and outreach manager for NPCA’s Center for Park Research.