Changes and Challenges in the Archives at the National Museum of the Pacific War

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This is a transcript of a presentation at the Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: World War II to the Cold War, June 4-6, 2019, held in Fredericksburg, TX. Watch a non-audio described version of the presentation on YouTube.

Changes and Challenges in the Archives at the National Museum of the Pacific War, 1963-2019

Presenter: Chris McDougal


The National Museum of the Pacific War, in different forms, has been in existence since 1963. Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz gave his blessing to the creation of the museum in that year with the understanding that it would honor those who served in the Pacific Theater and not himself. With that in mind, the museum archives have grown to house a variety of analog and digital mediums that tell the story of the war as seen by the individuals who experienced it. The archives grew and expanded along with the museum and preservation challenges have occasionally been encountered. Through thoughtful and efficient means each instance has been successfully addressed.

White male with very short gray hair, beard, mustache, and glasses wearing a light gray shirt, polka-dotted black tie, and name tag.
Chris McDougal, Archivist/Librarian, National Museum of the Pacific War


Chris McDougal: I'm honored to be here today. Before presenting my findings, I would like to start off with a quote from Fleet Admiral Nimitz. During a speech in 1946, he said, "At the time I graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, I was convinced that a man's head was just like a bucket. It would only hold so much. The Navy quickly revealed to me that the more I live and learn, the more I find there is to learn." I think many of us could relate to that quote at some point in our lives, and I know that I can, after looking back at my time at this museum. What I learned while doing research for this presentation, is an example.

I think it would be best to begin by briefly providing a backdrop to the evolution of the archives at the National Museum of the Pacific War. The beginning of the museum's timeline is 1963. In that year, several local businessmen decided to turn the Nimitz Hotel, up there on Main Street, into a memorial to local son, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. Admiral Nimitz was living in California at the time and a few months before his 79th birthday, he was informed about the plans that were being made in his hometown. He thought the idea was a great one, but requested that the museum honored those who served under his command and not himself.

Black and white photo a crowd over 50 of men, women, and children fill the museum lobby.
Opening day of the Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz Memorial Naval Museum.

The museum opened to the public in 1967 with a small volunteer staff. The photo at the top was taken on opening day. The Admiral Nimitz Foundation was established in 1971 and has provided direct oversight of the museum since that time. During the late 1970s, the exterior of the Nimitz Hotel was restored. The hotel's façade, as Admiral Nimitz would have known it as a child, had a steamboat appearance. That was done away with during the 1920s and changed to a Mission Revival appearance. Museum leadership wanted to restore the hotel to its original appearance and the photo at left gives some sense of what it looked like after completion.

The museum expanded greatly in 1992 when the foundation purchased almost two acres of land and a building near the Nimitz Hotel from the H-E-B supermarket chain. The photo at bottom right shows the final result of a three-phase plan to improve the land and building. The final phase of that plan was completed in 2009. Now that the museum's background has been very quickly established, I will move on to the development of its archives and research library.

Before doing that, I want to stress that the importance of these particular collections at this museum has always been appreciated. Lack of both funding and storage space are typical problems encountered by many archives and libraries. Past curators at this museum were very familiar with both issues and through the years, those challenges were dealt with as best possible. Today, as you will see, the museum's collections are maintained in an optimum environment.

At this point, I should highlight a few things that I noticed while researching the first few decades of the archives and library collections. First, the collections were kept at more than one place. During the 1970s and for some time after, the archives and library were stored among multiple buildings and they were moved several times. Second, it should be noted that during this early time period, the archives and library at this museum, we're not very large and many of the items in the collections were related to Admiral Nimitz and his family. Third, the Nauwald Building, seen here on the left in 1975, played a major role in the history of the collections at this museum for almost 30 years before they were moved to their present location. Admiral Nimitz's paternal aunt and her family lived in the Nauwald Building during his youth, so it was natural that the museum would eventually obtain it and make plans for it.

The Nauwald Building first appeared in the museum's plans during 1970. A conceptual prospectus was prepared around that time. This document presented a way forward for the museum as a whole, and described how each component within it should function. That document offers the first visualization of the museum's archives and research library. According to the prospectus, the Nauwald Building was viewed as an ideal place to have the archives and for people to conduct research. Plans called for the building to be restored on the outside to its 19th-century appearance and for a museum collections preservation area to be created inside of it that would have climate controls and a storage vault for valuable items.

In actuality though, the foundation would not be able to move forward with any work on the building until it was donated to the museum a few years later. The diagram seen here on the right indicates some of what was envisioned at that time. After it was donated to the museum, the building was cleaned and renovation work was completed, but it would be several years before any of the museum's collections would be stored there. I want to go off-script here for a moment and point out that that building is currently the command post up there on Main Street.

Three reports issued by two conservators and one archivist during a span of 10 years provide some overlapping observations concerning the museum's collections from the late 1970s to late 1980s. Storage, funding and staff awareness are topics that these reports all have in common. Conservator Perry Clark Houston issued the first report before restoration work began at the Nimitz Hotel in 1978. At the time, museum staff consisted of the director and six full-time employees.

According to Mr. Houston, the director, Doug Hubbard, was the only trained professional and was aware that collections care needed to improve. He also wrote that the collections were kept either inside the museum or a 12-foot by 15-foot by 8-foot concrete vault in a building behind the museum known as the Nimitz Barn. Out of four possible locations for the collections, Mr. Houston thought that the Nauwald Building would be the best one. In a letter accompanying his report, Houston suggested a three-phase plan to get the archives and research library to an acceptable level of care at that building.

At the time though, a complete renovation of the museum was the priority and that meant plans for the Nauwald Building were scaled back with part of the archives and most of the research library moved there while work on the museum progressed. In 1984, Conservative Robert F. McGiffin was asked to survey the museum collections. According to McGiffin, the archives at that time numbered around 5,000 items. He noted that many items are in need of conservation and that funding was the reason. He also stressed that staff were doing the best that they could and some items had already been professionally conserved.

Finally, McGiffin made the observation that conditions at the Nauwald Building needed to be improved, but it was a best place to store the collections. Two years later, during 1986, an archivist with the Texas State Archives, Michael Green, conducted a site visit and evaluation of the museum and its collections. The report that Green submitted afterward pointed out that storage conditions overall were poor at the museum and that collections at the Nauwald Building were kept in an environment conducive to mold. As a positive though, Green wrote that staff members were aware of the issue and plans were being developed by them to create a stabilized environment.

Museum leadership appeared to agree with Green's assessment and in 1987, several months after the issuance of the report, the collection stored at the Nauwald Building were moved to a part of the Nimitz Hotel that had historically served as the kitchen, seen here in the upper left of this image. This area was climate-controlled and offered some room for collections growth. At that time, the first inventory of all items in the museum's collections began, and it was completed during the following year in 1988.

During 1990, it was announced that the foundation had been approached by the H-E-B Supermarket Company concerning the possible sale of its property and building located near the museum. During that same year, a document titled the Admiral Nimitz Museum State Historical Park Preservation Plan and Program was produced. The number of staff at the museum at that point was 13 and two of them were curators of the collections. Guidelines for the curators to follow were included in the plans and among them were pest control, temperature monitoring, and humidity monitoring.

Similar to what Perry Clark Houston had suggested more than a decade previous, it was also planned for the archives and research library to be relocated to the Nauwald Building until a permanent home, the old H-E-B building was ready to move into. A couple of museum newsletter's items concerning the collections during the 1990s help explain why the new building was needed. A 1994 article estimated that there were approximately 7,000 photographs and more than 40 linear feet of documents in the collections. Three years later, in November 1997, a curator wrote that the archives had grown to include 10,000 photos and more than 140 linear feet of documents, manuscripts, and oral history interviews.

The research library, which was moved to the back of the Nauwald Building during the late 1990s, experienced similar growth. As of 1997, there were an estimated 3,000 books in the collection. Around that time, three major book donations arrived at the museum from the estates of historians, Fred Gerner, John Costello, and Roger [Pino 00:11:57]. Two volunteer librarians catalog this influx of books and as a result, the number of books in it was doubled to an estimated 6,000 volumes as of the year 2000.

Phase two at the George H. W. Bush Gallery was completed in 1999. And looking forward, phase three appeared in the distance. Both funding and planning would need to be accomplished to make it a reality. That would eventually come together but in the meantime, a more immediate project developed at the Nimitz Hotel. The building needed major repair work that was eventually scheduled to begin in 2003. Because of those two projects, the museum's collections were packed into moving trucks during May 2003 and sent to a Texas Parks and Wildlife facility in the state capitol.

While there, everything was inventoried and the items were recorded in a new database. That work was still underway in 2005 when the foundation's partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department ended and a new one began with the Texas Historical Commission. By the time the collections were returned to the museum in June 2006, more than 40,000 item records had been created. A 2,400 square foot climate-controlled Quonset hut was constructed by the museum for the return of the collections. The intent was to store them at that location until they could be moved to their permanent home at the George H. W. Bush Gallery once phase three construction was concluded.

During the next phase of the museum's history, it continued advancing toward excellence. The museum's vision statement from the year 2000 announced the goals to be met during the next decade and beyond. The very first goal on the list had particular significance for the curatorial department, it was to hire and support professional staff. In addition to the existing curator and associate curator positions, three new positions would eventually be added to the staff that would care for the museum's collections. An archivist was hired in 2006 and a registrar was added in 2008 and during 2013, the position of associate archivist librarian was added.

When construction at the George H. W. Bush Gallery concluded in 2009, the permanent home for the archives was established on the third floor of the building. Space in the new location allowed for 37 rows of stationary and movable shelving, fireproof cabinets, and an art rack. Storage would be secure and environmentally controlled. Other than the archives, the third floor contained space for a conservation lab, a quarantine room, a research library, and a reading room. Unfortunately, time would be required to fill each of those rooms with the items needed to begin operations. New shelving units were not installed until 2011 and by that time, there were more than 48,000 items in the museum's database. Much of this material remained in storage at the Quonset hut and a plan to move, rehouse, and inventory everything in storage was unveiled and initiated in mid-2011. At that time, it was estimated the entire process would take three years to accomplish.

Also, during 2011, a donation of compact shelving provided a place to move the research library. That collection was located at the Nauwald Building and at some point, it was discovered that a silverfish problem had developed in part of it. When shelving in a new research library was installed, the issue was resolved by freezing. The books were boxed at the Nauwald Building and then each box was vacuum-sealed in plastic and placed onto pallets. The pallets were then moved into a large commercial freezer. After two months, each pallet was removed to thaw. After thawing, the pallets were then refrozen for an additional month. The first thaw simulated seasonal change and if silverfish eggs were in the books, they would hatch at that point and die during the second freeze. Each pallet was then thawed out the second time, and the books were shelved in the new library.

2015 is the year I entered the picture as assistant archivist librarian. At the beginning of my employment, I was told the archives and library would be mine to organize. After spending the first couple of weeks processing a large collection with the chief archivist, I was on my own. Before making any attempt to work in the collections, I surveyed them. I began with the research library and discovered there were approximately 8,000 cataloged books on the shelves. The main concern that stood out to me was condition. A large number of the books had damage caused by heavy use, insects, water or freezing. Additionally, I noticed there were several dozen books on the shelves that were fragile and had been wrapped in plastic and pressure-sensitive tape. Upon closer examination, I also found that many of the books had newspaper clippings, correspondence, note cards, business cards, sticky notes, bookmarks, and paper clips in them.

Next, I began surveying the archives. Shelving in the archives consists of three stationary units located at the front, middle, and toward the back of the room with 34 rows of movable shelving in between them. I began at the front shelves and worked toward the back of the room. The first items I found were 214 linear feet of process collections in old document boxes. These collections had a mixture of books, manuals, flight logs, newspapers, magazines, personal papers, 3D artifacts, photographs, photograph negatives, vinyl recordings, scrapbooks, framed items, and rolled items in them. The next items I found were 204 linear feet of unprocessed institutional material in boxes, plastic bags, and stacked loosely on the shelves.

Nearby, I found a mixture of boxed audio and video recordings that measured 47 linear feet. In the following three rows, I've found several large, unprocessed donations that were in boxes and plastic tubs and totaled 183 linear feet of material. Toward the back of the archives, I found more processed items in 30 flat file drawers, 41 flat storage boxes, and one large plastic tub. I also found framed items stored in the art racks in the last two rows of shelving and at the very end of my archive survey, I discovered 20 linear feet of digital and analog recordings inside of filing cabinets.

Pest control and environmental monitoring had been observed in this room and all others on the third floor, and I saw no signs of a chronic problem. Among all the containers in cabinets that I examined here or anywhere else on this floor, I found only two items that had severe preservation issues. Those were reel-to-reel films that had vinegar syndrome. The quarantine room next door to the archives was my next stop. In that room, I found donations of various sizes that added up to 216 linear feet. Most were a mixture of paper and 3D artifacts, and I found that many of them had been at the museum for more than five years at that time.

After having a closer look at the curatorial office area, I had found 30 linear feet of donations and many of those too were donated more than five years previous. After checking the curatorial database, I discovered an additional 503 linear feet of material stored with the 3D artifacts on the second floor of the gallery. These donations had been among the collections that were sent to Austin to be inventoried in 2003 and were returned in 2006. Pest control procedures have been observed at each location that these items were stored, and I found no related issues among them.

After writing down a location's condition and the amount of these materials, I decided it would be safe to consolidate and move everything into the archives so that I could organize them and start processing. After adding the figures in my notes, I discovered that I was faced with 356 linear feet of processed material that needed to be rehoused and 1,184 linear feet of unprocessed material with more coming in on a regular basis from donors each week. Before focusing on the archives, I spent some time in the research library.

When donors, researchers, and special guests arrive on the third floor of the gallery, the library is the first area they see. For that reason, I thought it would be best to make it a priority. I started by weeding out damaged books from the shelves. I also examined as many of the other books as I could and removed sticky notes, newspaper clippings, or other items that I found in them. After switching my focus to the archives, I made time to revisit the library to catalog and add replacement books. Today, the number of books in the research library is smaller than when I began, but all have been examined to make sure they are in good condition.

During the next 30 months, I focused in on the archives. I began at the back of the room and worked with the flat files and flat storage boxes. Several of the flat file drawers contained scrapbooks, newspapers and books. I removed those and rehoused them with items that were the same or similar. The flat storage boxes primarily contained scrapbooks, but almost all of the boxes had been in use since the 1990s or before. These boxes had been moved many times and several were in poor condition. I wrapped each of the scrapbooks with acid-free tissue and then rehoused all of them in new flat boxes.

My next goal was to process the 503 linear feet of donations that I discovered on the second floor of the gallery. Records had already been created for each of those items while they were stored in Austin, but the records only contain minimal description. I needed to not only rehouse these items but also described each one individually in the database. Processing these donations became an ongoing project that I would return to when I was able and I finished the last of them in May 2018. During my initial survey, I identified 214 linear feet of document boxes that contain a mixture of items that had been previously processed. Items that had similar or same storage needs or concerns such as newspapers, books, and photo negatives were rehoused with like items.

I should stress here that all of these items were individually accessioned to maintain provenance. When all of these items had been rehoused and the items that remain of the original 214 linear feet consisted of service records, photos, diaries, letters, and other papers related to individual service members who served in the Pacific and Asiatic theaters of the war. I rehoused these collections into document boxes according to branch of service in which the individual served. In other words, items from those who served in the Navy, Merchant Marine, Coast Guard or Armed Guard are stored and gray document boxes. Items from the Marines are stored in tan document boxes, and items from the Army, Army Air Corps, or Army Air Force are stored in black document boxes. These boxes occupy the first row of processed collections in the middle of the archives.

When I was not working on other projects, I processed the 204 linear feet of institutional material, 183 linear feet of large donations and all archives material from the quarantine room, plus the donations found in the curatorial offices. Providing access to this and all other material in the archives is my primary purpose and to help make that happen, I sometimes use the More Product, Less Process method of processing. By doing this, I focused on immediate preservation concerns and then folder arranged and described at the series level so that some of those larger processing jobs could be accomplished quickly.

As of today, after completing all of the projects I described, all pre-2015 donations have been processed or rehoused and the backlog only consists of 299 linear feet of material that accumulated after I began working for the museum. All of this material is properly stored, and we remain pest-free and climate-controlled. The archives and library collections at this museum made a long, strange trip during the last 50 plus years, but they have been cared for as best possible along the way and will continue to be in the future.

Thank you.


Mary Striegel: Thank you, Chris. We have time for one or two questions.

Speaker 1: How much of your collections you're now getting are... like, they'll scan in photographs and documents and send to you rather than the originals. How do you deal with the disk of digital data?

Chris: Well, before I arrived, it was minimal but it's becoming more frequent now. There have also been situations where donors would rather bring their items, have us scan them, and keep the scans, but they want the originals back. That's happened a couple of times. We do have an ongoing digitization project. All of the legacy digital material is being transferred into that. Yes, we would like the originals but digital is sometimes all we end up with.

Speaker 2: If one had lots of books for potential donation, how would we find out if you're interested in obtaining them or not?

Chris: No. No. I'm welcoming donations of all sizes. We've had several very large ones over the last three years, and I wouldn't turn anybody away. They would just contact me directly.

Speaker 2: And what do you do with duplicates?

Chris: Good question. We're planning on having a book sale later this year. A very sizable one.

Mary Striegel: The question is similar to one I have and that is, I'm sure there are many people that have archival materials from their family members. Do you have a list of things that you are seeking, or do you have a collections management plan that would say the types of things that you would want?

Chris: Anything that's related to a service member we're interested in. We don't really discriminate. Well, let me kind of amend that. Artifacts, that's a different story. Archives, just anything we'll take. Because, I mean, we are all about preserving anything related to all service members. So anything archivable.

Mary Striegel: So, for example, letters home?

Chris: Letters home, service records, photographs, ephemera.

Speaker 3: I'm guessing you're thinking, though, just those that served in the Pacific, correct?

Chris: Yes. Just the Pacific. Yes. Any ETO folks we end up referring to New Orleans.

Speaker 4: Do you have any plan for dealing with and storing the time-based media, the electronic recordings stuff with vinegar syndrome? Do you have cold storage at all?

Chris: Yes, we have cold storage.

Speaker Bio

Chris McDougal is the Archivist / Librarian at the National Museum of the Pacific War (NMPW). He completed an MS in Library Science during 2011 at the University of North Texas and began working for the museum at the beginning of 2015. During 2018 Mr. McDougal obtained certification from the Academy of Certified Archivists. While working at the NMPW, he has been responsible for all aspects of reorganizing the library and archives into their current iterations. Along the way, Mr. McDougal has discovered, documented, and addressed a variety of past and present preservation challenges encountered in the NMPW library and archives collections.

Last updated: June 2, 2021