The Henry Ford has nearly 26 million artifacts in its care—on exhibit in 82 buildings, housed in the Benson Ford Research Center archive, and stored in multiple storage areas. Caring for these collections is an endless task—light levels, temperature and humidity variations, programmatic usage, even the nature of the artifacts themselves (many items in our holdings were never designed to last)—all create difficulties from a preservation standpoint. Even the most apparently durable and indestructible seeming artifacts need to be cared for—whether on exhibit or held in storage.
For many years our greatest storage problems related to off-site storage in buildings that were not intended for museum collections and whose distance from campus made access difficult. This situation changed in 2016 when The Henry Ford entered into an agreement with our neighbor, Ford Motor Company, to acquire half of the Ford Engineering Lab, a 400,000-square foot building immediately adjacent to Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.
The Henry Ford’s facilities team began a complicated renovation process on the space, newly designated as Main Storage Building (MSB), turning what had been a cubicle warren of offices into a space suitable for storing historic materials. While the process of rehabilitating the building got under way, historical resources staff began determining where to place and how to move a vast range of over 36,000 artifacts—from giant printing presses and steam engines to tiny buttons and toy tea sets.
The first step in the moving process was to identify collections of similar items (for instance, plows) and create an accurate inventory of what was stored offsite. In this early phase of the project, we would gather anything and everything we thought could be part of this grouping, stage it in one area, and check that the accession number (a unique number assigned to every museum artifact that links the object to information and records on the object—essentially, a Social Security number for artifacts) on each item matched the record in our collections management database. When we encountered objects without accession numbers, we considered these “found in collection” items, and assigned them inventory numbers so they could be tracked in the in the future. After all the new records were created and accession numbers verified, we could then track locations using barcodes and scanners.
Implements lined up for inventory. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
Vacuum cleaners ready to be packed. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
Communications and information technology collections gathered for inventory. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
Before packing, we always assess the condition of the artifacts. We look for mold, hazardous materials, or signs of infestation. In most cases, items were vacuumed or dusted before they were packed away, but sometimes they required more attention to mitigate future problems. In these cases, collections were either isolated or cleaned by conservation staff in one of two labs that were set up in the new building before being moved to their final location within MSB.
The conservation team (pre-pandemic) cleans oversized artifacts in our new lab to prepare them for storage in MSB. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
When packing up the collection, we packed similar items together using archival-quality materials. The move team developed a packing system that could be applied to nearly all of our artifacts. This standardization helped us create more space-saving density in the new building, and helped us to move faster, as we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel every time we encountered a new type of artifact.
Our packing systems were designed to handle both movement and storage, and included these tools and tactics:
Pallet box containers are stackable gray containers that can be filled with small collections, often housed in custom-built boxes that we created.
Flat pallets are used for heavy objects secured to pallets with plastic banding. Sometimes we attach plywood to the top of the pallets to create a flat surface.
Flat pallets with sleeves are used for lightweight objects secured to pallets with Velcro or ties. The pallet is wrapped in a pallet sleeve for additional protection.
Crates. While we don’t build crates in our department, we do repurpose them for use with heavy, difficult, or fragile artifacts.
Soft-packing is wrapping artifacts entirely in soft foam or blankets.
No packing at all is sometimes warranted. Not everything can be packed with packing materials, so such items are carefully strapped onto or into a truck.
Packed collections ready to move, including flat pallets, custom boxes, and pallet boxes. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
Our original moving schedule was spread over 24 months—but then came the COVID-19 pandemic. To meet the changing needs and budget of the institution, we streamlined our operations and adapted our process to accommodate additional staff and contractors to move as quickly as possible while maintaining our standard of collections care and keeping staff safe and healthy. Twenty-four months became nine months—nine months in which we processed, packed, and moved over 17,000 artifacts to complete the move out of offsite storage.
While collections operations staff handled the majority of the objects, we relied on help from three types of contractors: professional car movers, rigging experts, and professional art handlers.
Using professional car movers allowed us to move more than one vehicle at a time, which greatly increased our speed.
The Warrior is loaded into a semitruck (pre-pandemic). / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
The rigging experts had bigger forklifts, trucks of all sizes, and cranes for moving our largest objects.
A steam traction engine is lifted onto custom-built dollies to roll out of the offsite warehouse. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
Finally, professional art handlers were called on to handle and move furniture from our collection, and to offer extra hands to pack and move glass, ceramics, and communications collections located in the warehouse.
Furniture collections stored in MSB. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski
We also mobilized our fellow staff members to accelerate the move. Registrars worked at the warehouse each week for six months, helping us complete the inventory phase of the move and soft-packing what they could along the way. Team members from the conservation department worked on artifacts as they arrived at MSB and also ventured to offsite storage during the final three months of packing to help clean the artifacts before they were packed. Also, we can’t thank our shipping and receiving staff enough for helping offload our non-standard objects. We could have never accomplished our nine-month goal without all of these dedicated staff!
On Tuesday, March 16, 2021, the final artifact made its way from the warehouse to MSB. The core team and all who collaborated were there to witness the 606 Horse Shoe Lounge sign loaded onto our truck for the final journey. The sign belonged to the “oldest and last” remaining nightclub from Detroit’s legendary Paradise Valley neighborhood. This last artifact represents the end of an era for Detroit—and for The Henry Ford’s offsite collections warehouses.
Team photograph with the last artifact to leave the warehouse. / Photo by Rudy Ruzicska
MSB is now home to more than 40,000 artifacts previously located in offsite and onsite storage areas, as well as recent new accessions. Centralizing our collections in MSB is an important step in helping us advance collections care through increased access and improved environments. Most importantly, MSB has allowed us to consolidate a large portion of our collections and our collections work into one building, a first for The Henry Ford. While these items are now successfully located in our new building, we continue to work to make MSB truly shine.
Our move from offsite storage has come to an end, and as we continue to unpack, rearrange, and further consolidate our stored collections (there are 14 storage areas onsite…) we are looking forward to sharing more of what MSB has to offer!