The Collection Move: Plan, Plan, and Plan some more

As Dumbarton House is temporarily closed for installation of a new HVAC (heating, ventilation, and cooling) system, we want to share our behind-the-scenes experience and learning online. Over the coming months, staff and guest contributor reflections will be posted here regularly and updates will also be posted to social media. We are delighted to receive your feedback and for you to share your experience too – please join the conversation!


In this first post, Jerry Foust, our Collections & Facilities Manager, who is also project manager for the HVAC project, gives an initial overview of what is involved in organizing a major renovation project in an historic house museum.

Any project involving the movement of a museum’s collection to an offsite location is one that requires a great deal of planning and resources. The more issues you can identify and plan to address in the beginning the fewer problems you are likely to have to confront once the project begins. However, add into the mix the planning of an office relocation, the oversight of the installation of a new HVAC system, and the installation of a new collection and archival storage space equipped with specifically designed compact shelving and you have the making of a project that can quickly get out of hand. The good thing is that none of this is entirely one person’s responsibility or job. It takes a village to move a collection and renovate a space and that is where the really valuable application of resources comes into play. You will notice as we go through the description of this project that both planning and the involvement of the entire team was essential to a successful move.

Pack, ship and store every object in our collections?

Assessing the Approach and Scale of the Project

So, you say you want to move your museum’s entire collection of objects and archival documents to offsite storage.  The first thing you might want to ask yourself is whether you can actually avoid doing this.  In fact, this is exactly what we did.  Once we knew the project to replace our aging HVAC system was going to go ahead we began discussions about what the construction project might look like.  We spent months talking with art handlers, preservation consultants, construction managers, engineers, and numerous stakeholders in our museum about how the work might progress.  An attractive possibility was that the work be conducted in phases, first one side of the house then the other.  We could move the collection to one side while another side was being worked on.  This might solve issues with paying for collection storage space and hauling the objects completely offsite.


Full site clearance our best option

Full Site Clearance the Way to Go

As a result of our discussions, including a one day workshop addressing the needs of the project and the needs of the collection, we began to see that a phased project would not work.  Any money saved by not moving the collection offsite was lost during a phased project with an extended construction time in terms of scheduling issues, lost revenue because of an increase in downtime for the museum and site, concern that it would require more handling of collections objects, and the question of how we would maintain security of the collections during the phased storage on site.  It was clear the museum collections would be moved offsite.  Start packing everyone!

A full inventory is essential – Jerry Foust and Josh Kline working on ours

Working up an Inventory – Essential First Step

The first step for us, now that we were sure the collection had to be moved, was to make sure we knew what the hell it was we had in the collection.  We would, while securing objects in appropriate housing, perform a complete inventory and conditioning of the collection.  Scott Scholz (Deputy Director & Curator), Allison LaCroix (Collections Assistant), and I worked to reconcile objects and records to account for every object in our collections.  It was not always an easy task but it gave us the opportunity to place our hands on every single object and come away with an answer on the status of each object.  This full inventory will be extremely valuable beyond just preparing for the move.

Running in parallel with the preparation of the objects was the task of understanding what we had in the NSCDA archives.  The NSCDA archives evaluation was handled by Keri Donohoo (Membership Coordinator), Catherine Nuzum (Membership Assistant), and Alexandra Parker (Archival Assistant).  Again the initial push was to know what it was we had.  The work began by creating a finding tool for the archival materials.  This too allowed us to be able to know what we had but also with an eye to future to be able to assist the members and other in research regarding the organization.


Collections Assistant, Allison LaCroix, packing special objects


The next step, now that you know what you have (more or less), was to focus on the packing process.  Human and financial resources really begin to come into play here.  Qualified people who understand the basics of packing objects and are particularly good at 3-dimensional puzzles are of immense help in situations like this.  All of our lovely archival material suppliers out there are very helpful but unfortunately there is never a box or folder that ever quite fits anything the way you would want it to.

Large-scale paintings have boxes built around them to ensure a snug fit

Not Just One Move…

Packing boxes also requires an eye to the future of that box.  One, how is this box going to fit on the transport truck to the storage facility?  Two, how is this box going to be stored at the offsite facility?  Three, while packing be mindful that the object in the box is going to be moved within the museum, out to a truck, it will ride in the truck, be moved off the truck into storage.  Is your favorite piece of Chinese export porcelain ready for the journey?  Oh, then flip and repeat the process six months from now.  Once back at Dumbarton House how will that box or object fit into collection storage or will it be going on view.


Each item is carefully boxed to ensure its safety during the move

Shipping and Storing

Now with the inventory and packing of collections well underway we looked to see how we might best have these objects shipped and stored.  We knew we didn’t want to send out objects one box at a time.  So, we explored how we could place these boxes on pallets in order to coalesce many move objects into a few move objects.  Placing the individual boxes on pallets seemed the most logical approach but what kind of pallets.  We could go to the local grocer and see if we could get pallets for free.  The problem was we had no idea what had been shipped on the grocer’s pallets or where they came from.  Wooden pallets might have insect infestations.  So, the free grocer’s pallets option was completely out.

Dumbarton House curatorial team packing our collections –
Curator & Deputy Director, Scott Scholz and Jerry Foust, with Allison LaCroix updating inventory.


Help from the Community

It was during this time that I came across the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) website.  They had moved their objects from New York on plastic pallets that had sidewalls and covers.  This was a solution that we thought would work great for us.  It was here that the broader museum family came to the rescue.

I had contacts at Colonial Williamsburg who had contacts at NMAI.  Introductions were made and the project described.  In the end our amazing colleagues at NMAI agreed that a loan of 20 kivas to Dumbarton House would be a great solution.  The people at NMAI not only shared materials in the form of kivas they shared their own move manual.  This helped us in understanding and planning for the packing of delicate items that we had put off packing until we could come up with a solution.

In the end, we had more than 850 boxes of varying sizes that we were able to consolidate onto 20 kivas and 10 open pallets. This reduced the square footage of the offsite storage and reduced our costs. But more importantly it provided another layer of protection for our collections items during storage and transport.


Bonsai Fine Arts loaded up and transported our collections for storage

Did I mention the need for ongoing planning?

Through planning and team work the move of the collection for our project was made easier, safer (for both people and the collection), and more cost effective.   Remember to plan, plan, and plan some more.

This blog entry was focused on the move of our collection offsite.  Check in again to see how the HVAC install is going.  Sometimes plan, plan, and plan some more entails scrapping your plans and going in slightly different directions.


Jerry L. Foust, Ph.D.