Katherine Meyers and Ann Stegina 2016-07-11 13:47:54
When most people think of going to a museum, they picture galleries with expansive white walls and brightly lit exhibits organized in neat cubes. Boarding a World War II–era aircraft carrier to wander along its decks doesn’t exactly spring to mind. However, in the early 1980s, Zachary Fisher, a New York real estate developer, rescued the ship Intrepid from a scrap heap with the intention of creating a place where people could learn the history and science behind the aircraft carrier. The ship opened as the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, located on Pier 86 on the West Side of Manhattan, in 1982. Since then, the museum has expanded into an entire complex that includes the Cold War-era submarine Growler, the supersonic jet Concorde, and the space shuttle orbiter Enterprise. Intrepid served in World War II, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War before becoming the centerpiece of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. In its 31-year naval service, the ship survived kamikaze and torpedo attacks. It also participated in the space program as the recovery vessel for the Mercury and Gemini capsules. The ship was decommissioned in 1974. At that time, the U.S. Navy removed useful and security sensitive items before handing the ship over to Fisher and the Intrepid Museum Foundation, a private non-profit 501(c)(3). From Bow to Stern In 2010, the museum received an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Museums for America Collections Stewardship grant. The grant allowed the museum to hire two collections assistants to catalog its backlog of historic items as well as document the unrestored historic spaces on board Intrepid. Since becoming a museum, about half the ship had been used for offices, exhibitions, classrooms, and storage. However, the remaining half had never been systematically documented. Many spaces had remained untouched since the ship’s decommissioning, and historic artifacts and archives remained in their original places. Intrepid is 900 feet long (the length of three football fields) and has eleven main decks, so this documentation project was a sizable task. Over the last few years, the collections assistants and staff involved in the project combined their training in museum studies, archaeology, archives, and preservation to develop a plan for protecting the ship’s historic spaces and artifacts. Moving systematically deck by deck through the Ship, staff identified and photographed every compartment. Small artifacts and documents were removed for processing and storage. Staff developed documentation to track what was found in each space and then compiled this information into the Sites module of The Museum System (TMS, a collections management system)—a module normally used for archaeological digs. Throughout the project, progress was tracked on a color-coded map. Staff affectionately referred to the project as “spelunking.” Venturing Below Decks Although the project has been a huge success, we experienced a wide learning curve and several setbacks along the way. The first challenge was implementing safety measures to visit unrestored areas of the ship, with the cooperation of the museum’s Operations Department. When Intrepid was decommissioned, ship systems were deactivated. When it became a museum, the ship was equipped with new electric and ventilation systems only in the areas open to the public or used by staff. As a result, unrestored areas are unventilated and, in most cases, unlit. Hatches to below-deck spaces needed to be opened weeks in advance of documentation activities to allow for air to circulate. Staff obtained headlamps for unlit areas and received confined spaces training. To address particulates in the air, staff received Occupational Safety and Health Administration training for protective equipment such as respirators. After tackling the more accessible areas of the ship, the collections assistants documented decks below the waterline. Imagine climbing a ten-foot ladder coated in grease with only a headlamp for light, and you’ll have some idea of what this experience was like. Despite our training and equipment, a few areas were simply too unstable to be documented. One of the biggest setbacks we encountered was the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which hit in the fall of 2012. While Intrepid weathered the storm fairly well, the flooding knocked out the museum’s electrical system on the pier. The museum was closed to the public for two months. As reopening took priority, the documentation project paused. IMLS was very generous, extending the grant deadline by a year (unfunded) so that staff had time to complete the project. Other challenges involved creating unique identifiers for each space. Spaces on board an aircraft carrier are named and numbered, which may be found by examining maps and signage. However, sometimes different spaces have the same purposes, names, and even numbers. In order to differentiate these spaces, we developed a new naming system that utilized directions as well as supplementary numbers. A last challenge was streamlining the process for efficiency. As the project progressed, we realized that some steps could be reordered or had ceased to be important. For example, at the start of the project, every tag indicating that a piece of machinery was decommissioned was removed for processing. We then realized that some appraisal decisions should be made while in a particular space. With many examples of nearly identical tags already collected, we stopped removing them. Graffiti and the Chaplain’s Wine The objects and archives we discovered provide insight into the daily lives of sailors and the workings of the ship. We found Lt. Osborne Lee Brockman’s stash of manuals and pamphlets in a desk drawer in a stateroom. We can imagine him perusing an aviation supply catalog, looking for new gear. Graffiti that counted down sailors’ remaining days in the Navy or kept track of exercise routines gives a glimpse into personal feelings and experiences that may not be documented elsewhere. Some of the most remarkable finds are unfortunately not recoverable: sailor art. Sailors would often personalize their generic berthing and work spaces by painting on the ship’s walls, called bulkheads. Subjects ranged from landscapes to their work on board and was created with whatever materials sailors could find. Artwork in public exhibit spaces is protected under Plexiglas. However, artwork in other areas of the ship is so massive, both in dimension and weight, that it can never be moved. The best that the collections staff can do is take as many photographs as possible. As the museum grows, we hope to restore more spaces, but even so, preserving this artwork is difficult. One of our favorite finds happened while performing maintenance in the ship’s library. Our fabrication team moved one of the bookshelves and discovered the wrapper of a Baby Ruth chocolate bar, an empty pack of Camel cigarettes, and a half-consumed bottle of sacramental wine. The chaplain’s office was located right outside the library, so one can imagine how those items ended up stashed behind the bookcase. These objects were recently featured in our exhibit Objects in Conversation. Gaining a Fuller Picture There are still a few stray spaces in need of documentation, but by and large the ship has been thoroughly photographed. With all of this documentation, staff are inevitably backlogged in entering information, but the collections team is steadily chipping away at the task. To date, we have cataloged 420 spaces, half of which are entered into TMS. We are also arranging and describing objects and papers removed from the ship. TMS’s functionality allows for linking records in its Objects module to the spaces cataloged in the Sites module, preserving the context of where material was found. As records are processed, we are addressing preservation concerns for records found in dirty, rusty and moldy areas. Now that we have a fairly complete picture of the current state of the ship, staff will be able to track future changes. Most excitingly, the museum recently received a grant from the New York City Regional Economic Development Council to create three-dimensional scans of the entire ship. This project will be invaluable in making the ship accessible and in developing innovative educational programming. The ship documentation project has been incredibly rewarding for all involved. We’d love to hear from other institutions embarking on similar projects in surprising spaces. Contact Ann Stegina at astegina@Intrepidmuseum.org.
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