In the Museum: The Bodyguard

In the Museum: The Bodyguard

In addition to guarding the National Air and Space Museum’s treasured trophies, Alex Spencer is responsible for the British military aircraft holdings, and the 13,000 artifacts that make up the flight matériel collection. Eric Long

Trophies awarded by the National Aeronautic Association reside at the National Air and Space Museum, where they can be kept in a controlled environment and seen by the public. They leave the Museum just once a year, for the association's awards dinner.

In the past, Museum personnel didn't accompany the trophies when they left the building. During the 1978 Collier award dinner, held at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., someone "borrowed" the 27-inch-tall bronze top piece of the Collier trophy. After the Washington Post reported the theft, an anonymous caller suggested that the top could be found near a certain bush at Fort Foote, a small park near Oxon Hill, Maryland. "There's probably only about $100 worth of bronze in the thing," NAA spokesman Vic Powell told the New York Times, "but it has tremendous symbolic and historical value."

To tighten up security, in 1989 the Smithsonian assigned an intern, Alex Spencer, to take responsibility for the trophies. Twenty years later, Spencer, now a curator with the Museum, continues to watch over them.

For most of the year, the trophies remain in glass cases on the Museum's first floor, but when awards time rolls around, Spencer is ready. "I get word about two and a half months ahead of the presentation event," he says. The NAA or other sponsoring organizations will provide a loan agreement, which stipulates that Spencer accompany the trophy during the loan.

Craftspeople at the Museum's Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland, built a plywood case for the two most prominent NAA trophies, the Collier and the Mackay, given for advancement in aeronautics and most notable military flight, respectively. The case has special supports and blocks that mate with the trophies and stabilize them within the case. Ethofoam, a light but extremely dense foam material valued for its inertness, protects against shocks. Finally, an inert adhesive material called "quake wax" helps to maintain a firm grip on the object.

On the day of the event, Spencer opens the display case and packs up the trophy. He and an assistant load the precious cargo into a Smithsonian van and drive it to the venue where the trophy banquet will be held. Spencer unpacks the trophy on center stage and works with lighting designers to get just the right positions. "Usually there's a photo session just before the event," he says. "When the event is over, you have a crowd that will gather on stage to get pictures." Spencer keeps a close watch to ensure the revelers do no harm. "I try to keep people away from it as much as I can, to prevent them from hugging it, touching, putting drinks down on it, and that sort of thing," he says.

As soon as the partying dies down, Spencer packs the trophy back up and drives it back to the Museum, regardless of the hour. "My goal is to get there by 11 or not later than midnight," he says, after which additional Museum security kicks in. He leaves the trophy packed and locked up overnight, and the following morning, returns it to the display cases.

A few years after the Collier theft, a trophy was left at the Museum's loading dock, where it sat, undiscovered, until the next morning. When Spencer took over the job, he said, "This is not the way we're gonna do this anymore." So these days, if you borrow a trophy, you get Alex Spencer too.

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