Interior Department faulted for preservation lapses

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 23 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — Inspectors say it is just one too-typical example of how Interior Department agencies care for — or don't — the artifacts in their museums and research.

At the Boston National Historic Park, "antique furniture, carts and bicycles were stacked on top of each other or were leaning against each other without protection" in a storage area, a new inspector general report says.

At California's Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, pests threatened displays of historic furniture. But "pest management controls were removed from the site due to the large volume of pests being trapped and they were unable to keep up with removing the pests being caught," the report says.

"Countless artwork, artifacts and other museum objects are in jeopardy" because proper preservation and protection has been neglected at sites nationwide, according to reports on five separate Interior agencies released by the department's inspector general last week.

None of the sites visited for the reports were in Utah. However, Utah was where a large federal raid occurred last year on private sellers of Indian artifacts found on public land. Officials then said such people were robbing the nation of its heritage. The new reports say poor preservation at federal museums may be doing the same.

The new reports follow up a report issued in December that said the department largely doesn't know what is in its collections, often doesn't know if items were obtained legally and didn't appear to care for many items properly.

To determine better what deficiencies in preservation may exist, the inspector general developed a 44-item checklist of the most key preservation steps required by department rules, and then sent inspectors to look at 39 museums or holding sites nationwide to evaluate performance.

Reports said 38 of the 39 museums visited had at least one deficiency, and "even one deficiency could jeopardize museum objects and result in irreparable harm, irreversible damage, or loss." The Golden Gate National Recreational Area in California was found deficient in 80 percent of checklist items.

Inspectors reported what they termed "widespread issues" and problems at facilities operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Fish and Wildlife Service. For example, they said no BIA sites "monitored temperature and or humidity to determine its impact on the condition of artwork and/or artifacts."

Inspectors found fewer overall problems — although some sites had significant deficiencies — at museums operated by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.

Inspectors gave a mostly clean bill of health to the Bureau of Land Management, saying "preservation practices were generally adequate at BLM sites included in this review." The reports offered numerous examples of problems nationwide, including:

The Kenai National Refuge in Alaska stored artifacts such as a rifle barrel, razor leather, pocket watches and brass rifle cases in an outdoor storage shed with no environmental controls. Worse, "gas cans, lawn mowers and other maintenance equipment were stored in the same shed."

At an undisclosed Fish and Wildlife Service site, some historic farm machinery was stored in a barn "with broken and missing windows. As a result, owls had unrestricted access to the barn and droppings covered the artifact and floor."

At the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site in North Dakota, water pipes run "directly over the museum property storage cabinets that were not waterproof," creating high risk for water damage to artifacts.

At the Arlington House — Robert E. Lee's mansion at Arlington National Cemetery — inspectors said it lacked required fire detection or suppression systems to protect historic paintings, furniture, books and textiles. "Fire suppression had been slated to be installed in the museum building in fiscal year 2006; however, this did not occur."

While the Bureau of Reclamation's New Melones Artifact Storage Facility has an alarm system, the staff never armed it. Why? Staff members said "there was no one for the alarm company to notify if the alarm was triggered. As a result, artifacts at this location were placed at increased risk of being stolen or tampered with."

The reports were sent to the heads of the various Interior Department agencies, with recommendations that deficiencies identified be fixed or mitigated. Inspectors also urged the agencies to themselves inspect for problems and fix them at the many other museums that were not visited by the inspector general. The reports noted that Interior agencies manage museum collections with an estimated 146 million pieces of artwork, artifacts and other objects. Interior's museum collections are second in size only to the Smithsonian Institution

This story was reported from Salt Lake City.

e-mail: lee@desnews.com

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