This presentation is part of Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: WWII to the Cold War, Fredericksburg, Texas, June 4-6, 2019.
by Alexander MacKenzie
When the National Park Service (NPS) assumed stewardship of the museum at Springfield Armory over forty years ago, it inherited a complex collection. Originally managed by the US Army as part of the renowned government arms factory, the museum was formally established in 1866, and open to public visitation in 1871. By the time the NPS took over administration of Springfield Armory National Historic Site, the museum was already over a century old, housing thousands of muskets, rifles, pistols, machine guns, swords, and bayonets, but also gauges, tools, fixtures, machinery, and institutional archives – all combining into and one of the largest collections of its kind in the world. It was never a museum in the traditional sense, but rather a technical reference collection for the research and development function of Springfield Armory. Where the Armory had a mission to develop, evaluate, and then manufacture small arms for the US Army’s combat forces, the museum became a resource to inform and support that mission. Therefore, it’s less a museum and more an archive of the activities and interests of Springfield Armory itself.
While there was always an element of public access at Springfield Armory museum, the focus on long-term preservation came to the forefront with the National Park Service’s preservation-driven mission. As a technical collection, the firearms were at times actively used and maintained as such. The engineers working at the Armory could borrow a rifle, fire it any number of times, and return it after they gathered the data needed. Today, the bulk of the preservation work focuses on attacking the remants of their former use. The park’s stabilization program includes removal of old lubricants and preservatives, corrosive powder residues, accumulated dust, dirt, and even unloading a few older muskets, before applying protective barriers that ensure preservation over function.
With the NPS mandate for interpretation alongside, if not a half-step behind, preservation, maintaining public access to these collections today makes for interesting obstacles to visitation – both public and virtual. The sheer size of the museum and archival collection, reflective of the breadth and depth of Springfield Armory’s history over two centuries, prevents physical display in its entirety. However, this provides a great opportunity for experimentation with virtual access. As the park probes new ways to encode information and metadata, it has found that most current museum cataloging vocabulary and nomenclature are too broad for a collection of this nature, and providing accurate access with fine granularity has been an ongoing challenge. The park is also experimenting with different schema and content standards as a way to approach aggregated searching across a variety of physical and digital formats.
Managing collections at Springfield Armory National Historic Site is an operation as complex as its contents. Implementing the National Park Service’s mission of preservation and public access presents some problems unique to highly technical institutional collections, but potential solutions and implementations could have far-reaching impacts and benefits to the preservation field.
Alex MacKenzie is the curator of collections at Springfield Armory National Historic Site. He is the author of “Springfield Armory: Images of America,” and co-author of a chapter in The Legal Guide for Museum Professionals entitled, “Managing Historic Firearms in Museum Collections.” He writes a regular column, “Curator’s Corner,” in the magazine Man at Arms: for the Gun and Sword Collector, and has appeared in several TV and Youtube programs focusing on historic firearms and Springfield Armory. Alex lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters.