Up-Close With the Langley Artifact Collection

Posted on Thu, March 1, 2018
  • by: Courtney Asher, Collections Processing Unit intern

When you think of the National Air and Space Museum, images of planes, like the Spirit of St. Louis, or spacecraft, like the Space Shuttle Discovery, typically come to mind. However, did you know less than one percent of the Museum’s entire collection consists of complete aircraft and spacecraft? In fact, the Museum’s collection is quite diverse. Artifacts range from pilots’ uniforms and spacesuits to flight computers and Transformers toys!

I had the incredible opportunity to work with the small artifact collection during my internship with the move team at the Museum’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility. Since 2011, this team has been working to move around 50,000 small artifacts from the Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland, to the new collections storage facility at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

Courtney Asher reviews a Langley artifact in preparation for the photography session. Credit: National Air and Space Museum.   

During my time with the move team, I was constantly blown away by the types of artifacts we encountered. We worked on a variety of invaluable and unique items few people get the chance to see. These treasures included artifacts like Charles A. Lindbergh’s monogramed green pajamas, a pair of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s fur lined flying boots, blue spacesuit gloves, and aviators’ helmets.

The artifacts I worked most closely with belonged to Samuel P. Langley, the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Langley was a contemporary of the Wright brothers and conducted experiments with the goal of creating the first flying machine. His famous Aerodrome Number 5 is on display in the Early Flight exhibition at our National Mall building. My project focused on the parts used in Langley’s experimental models. These included a multi-cell kite, propellers, and rubber band engines used to power his aerodromes.

A Langley triangular kite on its custom-made handling tray. Credit: National Air and Space Museum.   

My project was to prepare these items to move to the Udvar-Hazy Center, following the Collections Department’s best practice guidelines. Like the rest of the small artifacts, these Langley artifacts will move into more ideal storage conditions. When not on display, Museum artifacts are housed in a climate controlled environment. The new storage rooms at the Udvar-Hazy Center provide a secure space with custom temperature and humidity controls. These ideal conditions help prevent deterioration which can be caused from light exposure, pollutants, pests, and unstable climates. This storage will better preserve artifacts for future generations.

To prepare these artifacts for the trip to their new homes in storage, I created custom acid-free board boxes to house each artifact. I also made supports and handling trays, customized for each artifact’s needs. These features ensure the artifacts are securely cushioned within their boxes and are handled as little as possible. Even after the move, these boxes and supports will continue to benefit the Langley artifacts. Serving as long-term housing in storage, they will make the artifacts more accessible for examination by staff and researchers. These steps are preventative measures which help safeguard the artifacts from deterioration.

An early Langley pusher aerodrome which was powered by rubber bands. This artifact rests on a handling tray in its custom-made archival box. Credit: National Air and Space Museum.   

During this project, I also created and updated information on the Museum’s digital database. The database archives all important information regarding each object in the Museum’s collection, including things like the artifact’s materials, markings, and dimensions. The Langley artifacts all had similar materials, but ranged in size from the palm of my hand to a printer.

With the assistance of the survey team, I also completed current condition assessments of the artifacts. Assessments document and rate concerns for the artifact’s stability. This helps staff determine which artifact needs to be treated by the Conservation Department to stabilize and/or reintegrate the appearance of deteriorated objects.

To complete the collections database records, I assisted volunteer photographer Jim Walker to take high-resolution photographs of the Langley artifacts from all angles. These high-quality images help reduce the number of times an artifact is handled in order to prevent any possible damage. Once the photos have been processed and the records are approved by the responsible curator, these images and select information regarding the artifact will be available on the Museum’s website.

Volunteer Jim Walker takes a high-resolution photograph of a Langley artifact. Credit: National Air and Space Museum

The artifacts from my project, along with the over 900 other magnificent small Langley artifacts in the Museum’s collection, are now ready to make the journey to the Udvar-Hazy Center. Although my internship has come to a close, the move team continues to work hard to safely transport these incredible artifacts to their future home. Next, the move team will be working with artifacts like survival equipment, parachutes, and instruments. Make sure to stay tuned!

  • An early Langley fuselage identified as a transverse rubber band engine.

    An early Langley fuselage identified as a transverse rubber band engine. This artifact was rehoused on a handling tray and placed in a custom-made box. Credit: National Air and Space Museum

  • This artifact that looks like a ship’s mast is actually a Langley aerodrome frame part.

    This artifact that looks like a ship’s mast is actually a Langley aerodrome frame part. Archival materials were used to rehouse this artifact. Credit: National Air and Space Museum

  • An early Langley test wing form with some of the original fabric still attached.

    An early Langley test wing form with some of the original fabric still attached. Credit: National Air and Space Museum

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