The Collections Processing Unit (CPU) is within the Collections Department of the Collections, Archives, and Logistics Directorate. The core responsibility of the Collections Department is to properly protect and provide accountability for the artifacts in the National Collections held by the National Air and Space Museum. CPU manages and maintains objects on exhibit and in storage at our three locations—the National Mall Building in downtown Washington, DC, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, and the Paul E. Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland.
CPU performs a variety of fundamental roles in the stewardship of more than 70,000 objects in the National Collection. Specifically, the unit is responsible for the handling, movement, transport, maintenance, preservation, storage, shipping and receiving of those collections. This responsibility also includes maintaining comprehensive records that describe each artifacts’ historical significance, physical characteristics, and complete tracking of each item’s location and condition over time.
Artifact Processing and Documentation
The unit processes all new artifacts brought into the collection as well as artifacts loaned to and from other institutions. This includes coordinating inspections with curatorial staff, relocating objects to/from storage and other Museum department locations, maintaining inventory databases, and completing photography records and other documentation associated with artifact cataloging. Our staff also fabricate storage and shipping containers for the artifacts in our collection, primarily with archival materials.
In addition, staff and expert volunteer contributors push the boundaries of digitization projects that bring high-resolution sets of images to Smithsonian public web sites in support of Institution-wide Open Access initiatives. These methodologies include ultra- high-resolution multi-image composited imagery, panoramic virtual museum tours of artifact interiors and museum spaces, Reflectance Transformation Imagery (RTI) to enable enhanced examination of physical characteristics of artifacts, and photogrammetry of selected objects to create full 3D virtual models.
CPU manages the Museum’s storage facilities, which consists of 17 buildings totaling approximately 330,000 square feet of space. Storage is constantly changing through relocation of objects, buildings being upgraded, or reorganization to ensure safe access and efficient movement. We also maintain one of the largest equipment fleets within the Smithsonian Institution, including vehicles, trailers, forklifts, cranes, and mobile work platforms.
Artifact Movement and Research Support
CPU is responsible for the movement of artifacts in support of the installation and deinstallation of exhibits. Additionally, we move objects between other departments such as Exhibit Production, Conservation, the Preservation and Restoration Unit, and Photo Services to facilitate those units’ functions; as well as curatorial and exhibit designer inspections and viewing of objects by researchers, scholars, fellows, and other Museum visitors. We also collaborate with other departments in the planning of Museum projects, programs, and events. In fact, if there is any potential impact to an artifact, CPU is involved. Every act of physical handling and transportation is performed with the utmost care and caution, as a reflection of the unique and irreplaceable nature of every item in the collection.
The Collections Processing Unit (CPU) is responsible for the movement of a very wide range of objects at the National Air and Space Museum. The collection includes all sorts of items—military insignia, collector’s cards, oil paintings on canvas, watercolors, photographs, a space shuttle, satellites, computers, rockets, aircraft of all types, cameras, spacesuits, navigational instruments, and many, many more.
With such a broad range of artifacts, CPU staff bring to bear a similarly wide range of techniques, equipment, and skillsets to safely handle objects during movement, where every item is an irreplaceable and historically important national treasure. CPU is part of the museum team that works to manage the complex environment of object movement among three separately located facilities. Additionally, CPU coordinates transportation of objects with external partners to process incoming and outgoing loans and to receive new objects being brought into the collection.
Imaging Special Projects
The National Air and Space Museum enjoys the benefits of many volunteers who contribute hours and hours of their time and share an extraordinary amount of their expertise they bring with them. Two of those volunteers—Jon Barrett and Jim Walker—have formed the backbone of the Collections Processing Unit’s (CPU) development of documentation photography and object digitization for over a decade.
Working in close conjunction with CPU and the National Air and Space Museum staff at all three of the Museum facilities, they have experimented with a number of digital imaging techniques to help bring the collection and the museum to the world in virtual form. Through their digitization of collections objects in storage and behind the scenes, members of the public gain access to viewpoints and details that are otherwise unavailable. And through virtual tours visitors can explore spaces that cannot be seen or accessed.
Specialized techniques have included composited photography of flat and three-dimensional objects to create ultra-high-resolution images of key objects, Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to capture surface details and textures in a dynamic viewing environment, photogrammetry to produce 3D virtual models of selected objects, UV-induced visible light fluorescence imaging, and panoramic photography to produce cylindrical and spherical dynamically viewable virtual tours.
This blog provides some insight into a virtual tour of the NASM main building downtown. This virtual tour provides a further value as a snapshot in time, captured on camera over several years around 2015 to 2018—a snapshot in time that is now part of our own history, as the complete renovation of the museum building will replace all of the galleries with a new and exciting era of exploration for our visitors.
One fascinating item in the Museum's collection is General James H. Doolittle’s tablecloth. By capturing nearly 100 closeup digital images and stitching them all together, the resulting image shows the entire 6 foot by 7 foot tablecloth, with the ability to zoom all the way in to see the individual stitches on any one of over 800 signatures of famous and historical aviation figures from the early era of flight.
The National Air and Space Museum holds the vast majority of NASA’s historical spacesuits, from developmental models to Apollo suits that protected astronauts working on the surface of the moon. In December 2011, the CPU moved the entire collection from Suitland, Maryland, to new storage facilities in Chantilly, Virginia.
Also in the collection, a series of experimental research materials and models developed by Samuel Pierpont Langley, the third Secretary of the Smithsonian and a scientific pioneer in the earliest days of powered flight. Rehousing that collection in preparation for transport to new storage brought a number of challenges to the fore.