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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

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A row of a variety of cars parked in a large room

Cars are just one type of artifact that have found a good home in our new collections storage facility, the Main Storage Building. / Photo courtesy Cayla Osgood

With more than 26 million artifacts in our collections at The Henry Ford, storing them all can be a challenge—especially the large industrial, agriculture, and transportation objects. That changed a few years ago, when we began working on an exciting and important project for our institution—the creation of our Main Storage Building, or, as we call it, MSB. Our staff answer a few questions about our newest storage building below.

What is MSB?


MSB is a 400,000-square foot building adjacent to Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Ford Motor Company occupies the front half of the building, while The Henry Ford occupies the rear 200,000 square feet of space. Today, 178,000 square feet of the MSB is used exclusively for collections storage. The remaining space in The Henry Ford’s portion of the building is home to shipping and receiving, our photo studio, office space, and institutional non-collections storage.

Black-and-white photo of long, low building across a grassy lawn
This 1936 photo of the Ford Engineering Laboratory building gives a sense of its scale. / THF240744

What is the history of the building?


Built in 1923–1924, the Ford Engineering Laboratory housed Ford Motor Company’s tool design, production engineering, and experimental engineering research departments. Henry Ford and Edsel Ford both had offices there and, throughout Henry’s lifetime, the lab was the true heart of Ford. The facility was expanded and remodeled several times over the years but had been vacant for some time before the agreement between Ford Motor Company and The Henry Ford was reached.

You can view hundreds of photographs and other artifacts related to the history of the Ford Engineering Laboratory in our Digital Collections, and you can learn about the design of Henry and Edsel’s offices in the building in this blog post.

Cars and other objects stored in a vast, tall room with many windows
Though we only recently acquired the building, this is not the first time our artifacts have been stored at MSB. This 1926 photo shows objects collected for the not-yet-completed Henry Ford Museum being stored in the Ford Engineering Laboratory. / THF124539

How did we acquire our portion of the building?


In 2016, we entered into an agreement with our neighbor, Ford Motor Company, to acquire half of the Ford Engineering Lab building. The contract allows Ford to occupy the front half of the building for office space and their corporate archives, while The Henry Ford occupies the rear 200,000 square feet, now referred to as the Main Storage Building, as full owner of that portion.

A person stands with arms outstretched in a large doorway connecting one large, empty room to another
The Henry Ford’s collections management staff was very happy to visit MSB on our first day of possession, before any artifacts had been moved in. / Photo courtesy Cayla Osgood

Why did we decide to consolidate our collections storage?


Like many museums, The Henry Ford has faced challenges in storing and caring for our holdings, especially the large industrial, agriculture, and transportation artifacts that make up much of the collections. For decades, we rented offsite warehouse space to house these materials. With them came problems—poor accessibility, overcrowding, landlord and lease challenges, and an inability to invest appropriately in rental property. We have made huge strides in caring for and preserving our collections by moving into MSB, including improved access, easy-to-maintain storage environments, enhanced security, and a reduction of overcrowding in storage areas.

Shelving holds many boxes, crates, and shrink-wrapped pallets
Pallet racking and thoughtfully packed artifacts allow us to fit tens of thousands of objects, both large and small, into MSB, while ensuring both their safety and ease of access. / Photo courtesy Cayla Osgood

How did we consolidate our collections storage?


As you might expect, moving tens of thousands of irreplaceable artifacts, many of them large, heavy, and/or fragile, from offsite storage into a new building was a challenge. Learn more about this long and complex process in this blog post.

How much of THF’s collection is housed in MSB?


The MSB represents more than 70 percent of The Henry Ford’s total collections storage space. The building currently holds over 40,000 artifacts, with more than 10,000 of these digitized and available for browsing in our Digital Collections.

Wooden rakes, yokes, and other items hang from a wire grid in a hallway
Agricultural implements hang from a wire grid within MSB. / Photo courtesy Cayla Osgood

What types of artifacts are stored in MSB?


Within MSB, you’ll find items from our Michael Graves Collection, Westinghouse Historical Collection, Lillian F. Schwartz & Laurens R. Schwartz Collection, Industrial Designers Society of America Collection, Bruce and Ann Bachmann Glass Collection, Bobby Unser Collection, and American Textile History Museum Collection, to name just a few. The artifacts it holds were created as early as the 16th century and as late as this year, and represent a century of institutional collecting, dating back to Henry Ford’s early collecting a full decade before our official dedication in 1929. You can see some staff-selected highlights from MSB in this expert set.

What types of collections work happen in MSB?


In MSB we had an opportunity to create a new collections operations workroom that acts as a collective workspace for multiple teams, including collections management, registrars, curatorial, and photography. In the workroom, we see collections items both existing and new to the collection. Types of work include cataloging and numbering (for tracking), creating storage mounts and boxes, and staging for research. We also pack artifacts to lend to other institutions.

Our conservation department utilizes two different lab areas to treat all artifacts requiring attention in the MSB—everything from vehicles to glass. Photography of smaller objects happens in the photo studio in MSB or in the workroom, while large object photography happens throughout the building—meaning our photography team is quite adept at working with a variety of space and other constraints. You can read more about some of our large object photography projects in MSB in this blog post.

A variety of large objects sit on the floor or on pallets in a row in a large room
Large artifacts such as these might be photographed in or near their storage locations in MSB for maximum digitization efficiency. / Photo courtesy Cayla Osgood

Beyond this ongoing work, we are still completing our move into the building—all 40,000+ artifacts are being organized, inventoried, and positioned into their permanent locations throughout MSB.

What enhancements are planned for MSB in the future?


As a significant addition to our campus, many enhancements are planned for MSB to optimize the structure for historic collections. Currently, we are continuing important infrastructural work, like roof maintenance and HVAC upgrades, so our collections have appropriate environmental controls to ensure their physical integrity for many years to come.

Once that is complete, we can turn our attention to maximizing our square footage for both access to the collections and issues of density. Specially designed storage furniture called compact shelving helps alleviate wasted aisle space while keeping objects safe and accessible to curators for research, exhibits, and digital uses. As we unpack, this type of storage furniture will allow us to make the most of the 178,000 square feet we have so that we can continue to collect well into the future.

We are so pleased to have this new space and look forward to sharing much more about the work we’re doing and collections we’re housing in MSB!

collections care, Main Storage Building, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

While we have a photo studio where we do most of our artifact photography using white backgrounds and strictly controlled lighting, many times we encounter things that are too big for this setting—for example, a car! In those cases, we need to take ourselves and our studio on the move, and our newest collections storage building, the Main Storage Building (MSB), gives us a perfect environment for that. While sometimes space can be an issue (there are only so many places you can store dozens of wagons and plows), we make the most of the room we have and get creative in the meantime.

For example, to photograph “The Busy World” automaton wagon, it first needed to be moved out of a row of wagons and into an open space to give us room to set up our lights and camera.

Yellow wagon with glass windows revealing scenes on side
“The Busy World” automaton wagon in storage in MSB before photography. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo

Yellow wagon with glass windows on side, behind which are small dioramas
The completed photograph of the automaton. / THF187282

Since the Unimate robot was featured in an episode of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation, we needed to capture new photographs of it for our Digital Collections before the episode aired. While we had a little more room to work when photographing the Unimate (this was before MSB was as full as it is today), we still benefitted from having the ability to set up all around it because it is extremely heavy and cannot be easily moved. We had to use the space around it to access both sides for our standard photography.

Large, squat robot  with swing arm in the middle of a  large space; photo on tripod and tethered laptop computer on table in the foreground
Photographing the Unimate. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo

Large, squat beige robot with a swing arm and text "UNIMATION, INC." on side
Completed photo of the Unimate robot. / THF172780

It was a similar situation when we photographed the 1977 Ford Mustang II. Though now this area in MSB houses an array of agricultural equipment, such as plows and wagons, in 2018 we were able to use the open area to photograph the Mustang II for the first time so it could be viewed online.

Black car surrounded by other vehicles in warehouse space; lights and camera on tripod pointed at it
Photographing the Mustang II. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo

Black car
Completed photo of the Mustang II. / THF173560

This next example shows a more current look at MSB in 2021. As you might be able to see, there are many more vehicles now occupying the large area where we shot the Unimate and Mustang II. So when we were tasked with the job of photographing a 1925 Yellow Cab, we were unable to circle around it and had to work with our collections management team to move the taxi for us as we documented it.

A yellow car sits in a cramped space among other vehicles in front of a white background, with carts of photo equipment, a camera on a tripod, and lights on stands in the foreground
Photographing the 1925 Yellow Cab taxicab. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo

You can also see that we created our own white background around the cab with tall foamcore boards (a little thing that helps immensely with post-processing in Photoshop). But our “studio” was surrounded by another car to the right and a wagon to the left! All this careful maneuvering and setup was necessary to get the final image.

Yellow and black car with text "Yellow Cab Co." on side
Final photograph of the 1925 Yellow Cab Taxicab. / THF188014

Looking at the completed image, you probably would never know what it looked like when we were photographing it out on the floor in MSB!

My final example, the Ford COVID-19 mobile testing van, was so tall that it almost reached the ceiling in the tallest room in MSB. Since it’s a full-sized van, it isn’t easy to move—especially inside a building. In case that isn’t enough, its current neighbors in storage happen to be a couple of large fire engines. Regardless, we got creative again and we were able to get photos of the van despite these challenges.

Man works at photographic equipment among several vehicles in a large room
Photographing the Ford COVID-19 mobile testing van. / Photo courtesy Jillian Ferraiuolo

Tall red van with text and large waving American flag on side
Completed photo of the COVID-19 mobile testing van. / THF188109

Besides being an invaluable space to store an extensive variety of precious artifacts from our collections, MSB also serves as a functional space for us to use as photographers—so we can digitize artifacts even if they’re larger than we can accommodate in our photo studio.


Jillian Ferraiuolo is Digital Imaging Specialist at The Henry Ford.

Main Storage Building, photography, photographs, digitization, collections care, by Jillian Ferraiuolo, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

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.

A group of long metal implements lay on a table
Implements lined up for inventory. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski

A group of vacuum cleaners sits on two pallets in a large room with other boxes, worktables, and items in the background
Vacuum cleaners ready to be packed. / Photo by Kathleen Ochmanski

A variety of large equipment sits on tables in a large room
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.

A number of people, some wearing jumpsuits and respirators, work on cars and other equipment in a large room
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.


Boxes and objects strapped onto pallets
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.

Two people stand with an open beige-and-green car on the loading ramp of a truck; one kneels in front
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 large piece of wheeled, black machinery sits on multiple dollies in a bright room
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.

View down aisle with pallet racking on either side filled with chairs, desks, shelves, and other furniture
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.

A group of people wearing masks pose for a photograph in front of, and behind, on a ladder, a large sign
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!


Cayla Osgood and Kathleen Ochmanski are Assistant Collection Managers at The Henry Ford.

Main Storage Building, COVID 19 impact, conservation, collections care, by Kathleen Ochmanski, by Cayla Osgood, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford