Smithsonian’s Priceless Collection Threatened By Asbestos, Disrepair in Storage Facility

With a mind-boggling 137 million items, the Smithsonian Institute is facing an upward battle on how to properly maintain and manage its vast collection. In a sizable challenge, the Smithsonian must figure out what the best way to store its priceless collection. For now, the storage facilities charged with protecting the rotating collection are in disrepair, suffering from damage from Mother Nature and asbestos contamination.

This week, a House committee, charged with overseeing the world-renown institution, convened to discuss the on-going maintenance problems plaguing the museum. According to testimony by Scott Dahl, Inspector General of the Smithsonian Institute, the current storage facilities are failing to meet the comprehensive needs of the collection, and because the storage facilities are deficient, the museum’s priceless collection is at risk. Without proper environmental controls, contamination from asbestos and other toxins could threaten the integrity of the museum’s more delicate objects.

Finding asbestos in structures built in the 1950s is not uncommon. A highly versatile material, asbestos was used in roofing products, insulation, floor and ceiling tiles and plumbing materials. Asbestos exposure is linked to lethal medical conditions including lung cancer, mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis.

The Smithsonian’s top officials also admitted that they are trying to relocate the objects stored at the decrepit Suitland facilities, and that the Smithsonian would “prefer not to use them.”

Located in Maryland, Suitland houses millions of artifacts for the Smithsonian’s massive collection. Built in the 1950s, Suitland was never intended to be used as a permanent solution to the Smithsonian’s on-going storage problems. Over the years, wear and tear have rendered some of the buildings at Suitland unusable and unsafe. Further, an audit on the management of the storage facilities in 2006 uncovered serious issues in inventory and security. As a result, many items stored at Suitland are missing, stolen or subject to poor inventory control.

However, Smithsonian officials reassured members of the House Committee on House Administration that the items that are in storage are safe. The Smithsonian has already spent $390 million in updates for storage facilities, but, museum officials are quick to caution that maintaining the collection and storage facilities is an on-going problem.

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