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‘Conservation Angels’ Will Lend a Hand at Naval Center

Today, angels will inhabit the Naval Yard.

Forty-two “Conservation Angels” will descend upon the Naval Historical Center, located beside the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington, for an unprecedented day of volunteer historical preservation.

Under the high ceilings decorated with hanging airplanes and amid the life-size ship replicas, the volunteers, called conservators, will help preserve military artifacts dating as far back as the 15th century and valued at as much as $19 million.

The annual event, sponsored by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, coincides with the organization’s six-day national conference, which is taking place in D.C. this year. The AIC selected the Naval Center for this year’s “Angels Day” because the center’s application “jumped right out at us,” said Michele Pagan, the angels coordinator and AIC member.

“The need is so great and the application was so well written,” she added.

Home to artifacts ranging from a life-size World War II training model ship (that never actually functioned because of technological advances during the four-year construction period), to a 15th century Japanese sword (recovered when Japan surrendered in World War II), to a rock from China estimated to be millions of years old, the federal collection is large and diverse. Claire Peachey, head conservator at the Naval Center, said, “We have thousands of objects that need care and we don’t have enough staff and resources to properly maintain them.”

Other applicants for “Angels Day” include the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and several National Trust properties.

“We were really thrilled to be chosen,” Peachey said. “We could really use a lot more hands to help get the materials into ideal storage.”

The Naval Center employs only two conservators, who are responsible for caring for and preserving all of the center’s artifacts. The volunteers will thus provide much-needed assistance in five different areas of the Naval Yard: the Navy Museum, the Navy Department Library, the Navy Art Gallery and the Navy Curator Office. The angels will spend eight hours working on books, timepieces, uniforms, ship pieces and flags dating from the Civil War to the Korean War.

Using supplies donated by conservation vendors, the conservators will “liberate” hundreds of flags from hermetically sealed bags and roll them onto acid-free cardboard tubes so “they’ll be able to breathe,” according to Pagan. They’ll also move documents into acid-free envelopes to prevent deterioration, build display supports for books, dress mannequins with uniforms, and create safe storage boxes for swords, hats and medals.

In addition to the tangible work the volunteers will provide, the NHC’s staff and nine interns will also benefit from the conservators’ expertise and advice.

“The training aspect is as important as any work that they will do,” said Edward Furgol, the museum curator. “Hopefully their impact will carry on much longer.”

Conservators are highly educated specialists. They usually attend degree programs — there are three in the United States — and participate in several internships, Peachey said. Private conservators charge an average rate of $80 per hour, so Pagan valued the conservators’ free service on “Angels Day” at $30,000.

“Conservation is quite expensive,” Peachey said. “Basically we’re getting free labor from 42 people.”

Pagan, a veteran angel, said of the event, “It’s very exciting because I know at the end of the day it’s a huge feeling of gratification. They will never forget this day.”

To meet the needs of understaffed and underfunded historical artifact collections, the AIC began the Angels program in 1988, when nationwide conservators helped the Louisiana State Museum to recover from a fire. The “conservation angels” are named after “Angels of the Mud,” a group of international volunteers who helped restore priceless art and library treasures in Florence, Italy, after a flood in 1966.

The AIC has about 3,100 members, approximately 1,000 of whom will come to Washington for the national conference.

The Naval Center is open to the public today and visitors can observe the conservators at work. Visitors must call (202) 433-6897 in advance to arrange admission to the Washington Navy Yard. There are about 1,000 daily and 15,000 annual visitors, according to Sheila Brennan, director of the Naval Center’s education and public programs.

Because conservation “tends to be one of the more ignored aspects of museum activities,” according to Furgol, both the NHC and the AIC hope the event raises public awareness about the need to preserve historic artifacts.

Falling on the 61st anniversary of the World War II Battle of Midway, Pagan said she expects quite a crowd of spectators.

“It’s really going to be a wild day at the Naval Yard,” she chuckled.

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