Volunteers Help Keep Museum Objects Clean

Posted on Thu, April 14, 2016
  • by: David Burns is a volunteer at the National Air and Space Museum.

When visitors enter our Museum, many are awed by the number of artifacts that are on display. We’re often asked, “How do you manage to keep everything clean?” That is a terrific question, especially since there are more than 6,000 artifacts on display at any time on the floor or hanging overhead, with more being added each year.

Cleaning and inspecting the artifacts is critical to preserving the Museum’s collection. Dust is one of our biggest challenges since it can affect the condition of the artifacts that are on display. It accumulates on the artifacts and retains moisture from the surrounding air which can cause corrosion. Airborne salts from road treatments, abrasive particles from soil, and organic material from visitors all add to the mix. If left alone, the dust and other dirt can permanently damage the artifacts by staining, etching, or corroding surfaces. It is a continual concern for the Museum since the care of the collection is the highest priority. To combat this, the Museum has three sources for inspecting the artifacts and keeping them clean: a small contracting team, a small full-time crew, and a team of about 18 volunteers comprised of docents and visitors services personnel. The teams work behind the scenes early in the morning at the Museum in Washington, DC and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia to inspect and clean each artifact on a rotating cycle. Most artifacts are inspected and cleaned about every three to four months. The results are cataloged by the cleaning crews so that a history is maintained for each cleaning session, and the records become a part of the Museum’s official archives.


Volunteer David Boggs carefully removes dust from the replica 1908 Wright Flyer in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. 


Volunteer Gary Connor uses a soft brush and vacuum to remove layers of dust from the spar assembly for the Apollo Telescope Mount. 


Volunteers Bob Thompson, Bob Monday, Larry Grube and Scott Willey clean the Apollo Telescope Mount Collar.


In addition to cleaning, the crews photograph problems or damage that they encounter to ensure that the collections staff and curators can get a glimpse of the problem and determine if it’s something that needs their immediate attention. The photos also provide a pictorial history of any changes to previously reported conditions. The volunteer cleaning team also help in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hanger by assisting the conservation and restoration staff in preparing artifacts for display at the Museum in Washington, DC and at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The crews spend nearly 2,000 hours each year cleaning the artifacts. This helps the Museum avoid additional costs. It is also a source of great personal satisfaction to the cleaning teams — they realize that they are trusted to care for some of the nation’s most historic air and space artifacts and that they are contributing to their preservation and longevity for future generations to enjoy.

April is National Volunteer Appreciation Month. The National Air and Space Museum has more than 900 volunteers! Find out more about volunteering with us.