To prepare for reopening for service member education in July, the John B. Mahaffey Museum Complex is conducting inventory checks on tens of thousands of artifacts across its three museums: Chemical Corps, Engineer and Military Police.
The full inventory check comes as part of an accountability requirement from the U.S. Army Center of Military History that applies to all museums across the Army.
“Each one of our artifacts are tagged with a number, a control number, so we can identify it and make sure the artifact is what our records say it is,” said Scott Franklin, collection curator for the Engineer Museum. “We check the tag with the description, and the artifact and the number to make sure they all match up.”
The museums normally check five percent of their total inventory every month, museum staff said.
“That equates to, every two years, we do a 100-percent inventory,” he said.
“The full inventory is in addition to the five percent monthly inventory,” added Cynthia Riley, a museum specialist with the Chemical Corps Museum. “So, although I’ve already inventoried 35 percent of the artifacts, they must be recounted during the full inventory.”
She said the full check is to ensure museums – which have been closed to the public due to COVID-19 – have proper records of historical pieces before they reopen for service member education – one of their primary missions.
“Additionally, this particular 100-percent inventory entails the assignment of each item in the collection into a variety of new categories, as designated by the Center of Military History,” Riley said. “It requires the presence of two museum staff for verification purposes, meaning that we cannot conduct the inventory while either staff member is engaged in any other task.”
The efficiency of completing two years’ worth of work in one month is only underscored by the fact that the museums at Fort Leonard Wood play host to a small, dedicated team.
“The Engineer Museum, we have three people,” Franklin said. “The Chemical Corps Museum has two, and the MP Museum has one. So, we’re not a large staff here.”
He added that inventory checks provide an opportunity to evaluate the status of the artifacts.
“It entails checking to make sure that all the artifacts we have are accounted for, and in the places that we have listed for them,” he said. “And while we do that, we also check the condition of the artifacts to ensure that they’re in a stable environment and stored properly.”
Franklin said his museum alone accounts for about 11,000 artifacts – ranging from equipment like coats to large vehicles – some of which require special treatment and handling.
“We have our storage area – we keep it climate controlled,” he said. “So that helps stabilize the artifacts and there’s no large fluctuations in temperature, humidity that would degrade the artifacts. That’s important.”
But in addition to caring for thousands of pieces of history, museum staff educate service members from all branches of the military.
“I train Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines in the history of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps,” Riley said. “All the while I am responsible to count, conserve and construct the context in which an object was used so that the object can help to tell the story of Dragon Soldiers.”
Museum staff said their love of history has resulted in having their own personal favorite artifacts, too.
“Every staff member has a favorite artifact that they gravitate towards,” Franklin said. “Mine is a coat from a topographic engineer; it dates from around 1856. The coat is neat in itself, but the guy who it belonged to was a character, and that’s what I like about it.”
Riley said it’s hard for her to choose, as it comes down to a tie between two pieces.
“The first would be the ‘Stryker’ NBC Reconnaissance Vehicle, serial No. 1, which is located in Phoenix Park, adjacent to 3rd Chemical Brigade Headquarters on Iowa Avenue,” she said. “I like this artifact because I worked to bring this historic vehicle – first of its type – back to Fort Leonard Wood when it was retired.”
The other one, she said, is a device designed to mitigate exposure to chemical agents.
“The second would be an infant protector, (which is) designed to give temporary minimum protection against chemical and/or biological contaminants,” she said. “I am fascinated with the simple design of this object.”
Both Riley and Franklin encouraged the public to see artifacts like these upon the museum’s reopening, which is tentative given current public health and social distancing protocols. More specific information about the reopening will be released as it becomes available.