Secretary Lonnie Bunch on the Invisible Work of the Smithsonian’s Conservators

From deep cleaning to painstaking repairs, caring for Smithsonian’s 155 million objects requires serious TLC—and steady hands

Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit
To keep Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit from degrading, conservators designed a custom mannequin that allows air to circulate inside. Jim Preston / Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

After the Smithsonian collects an object, what happens to it? Some objects go on display, some become vital resources for researchers and scientists, some are loaned to peer institutions or federal agencies.

But none of this would be possible without conservation: the complex technical work to preserve, restore and research the 155 million objects in the Smithsonian collections. From pigment to porcelain, silk to stone, our conservators support the material needs of every Smithsonian museum. Whether protecting revered artifacts from rare bacteria or pioneering new methods in spectroscopy, Smithsonian staff combine object expertise and state-of-the-art technology to better understand the natural world, history, aerospace, archaeology and art.

I am awed by this work. It requires great technical acumen, ingenuity and meticulous attention to detail. Many of the objects we collect need serious TLC: intensive cleaning, painstaking repair, storage in a controlled and safe environment. And at the Smithsonian, we specialize in things that are old, fragile and irreplaceable. Often, there’s only one chance to get the process right. In other words, conservation requires a steady hand and nerves of steel.

In preparation for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, conservators from the National Air and Space Museum launched an intensive conservation project of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. Initially designed to keep Armstrong safe on the Moon’s surface for a brief period of time, many of the specialized materials had begun to degrade. Using 3-D scanning, photogrammetry, chemical analysis and CT scanning, conservators documented the suit’s condition, assessed necessary interventions and constructed an environment that would keep the suit safe for decades to come.

As a historical institution that serves the entire nation, we have a responsibility to help protect significant objects outside our walls, too. The Smithsonian cannot collect and conserve everything. That’s why I’m especially excited by our external partnerships and collaborations in conservation. For instance, the Museum Conservation Institute, the Smithsonian’s center for specialized collections preservation and research, recently partnered with leaders of the Tlingit Indian community to help analyze and replicate a sacred ceremonial crest. Whether we host conferences or consult on a particularly tricky case, success means sharing our discoveries and supporting conservation efforts more broadly.

The Smithsonian’s vast collections enable Americans to engage with our past and understand our national identity. Conservation ensures that our cultural and natural heritage will come alive for future scholars, students and citizens.

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