Preserving the Hardware of War

On This Page Navigation

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.

Preserving the Hardware of War: Challenges Faced in the Adaptive Exhibition and Storage of the US Army's Technological Artifacts

Presenter: Raymond Barnett


The US Army’s Center of Military History (CMH) macro artifact collection is a highly unique and diverse collection spanning the entire history of the US Army, with a particular emphasis on the military technology utilized during the eras between World War I and the Cold War. The collection’s unique and diverse nature can oftentimes present challenges and highly technical complications regarding its long-term preservation and care.

This presentation is intended to guide the audience in an examination of some of those challenges, beginning with an exploration of the macro artifact collection of CMH. How is a macro artifact defined for CMH? What types of artifacts comprise the collection? Since long-term conservation and exhibition were not considered during the design and manufacture of these technological, surprisingly difficult-to-preserve military artifacts, what are some of the challenges faced as part of their exhibition, conservation, and long-term storage? These topics and more will be explored, expanding on those concepts most relevant to the audience of this symposium. This presentation will be both text- and image-based, conducted through the use of an interactive PowerPoint presentation.

Building upon these issues, the presenter will then demonstrate lessons learned and solutions created in addressing these complex and unique challenges. Concepts considered include proper accessioning and cataloging procedures unique to CMH macro artifacts; identification and appropriate abatement of potentially toxic or hazardous materials; appropriate methods for completing critical procedures vital to the long-term conservation and exhibition of materially complex, high-technology artifacts; and other related topics.

Next will be a candid examination of some of CMH’s past, “less-than-optimal,” collections care practices. Issues for which solutions were identified and enacted in recent years will be discussed, with specific examples provided to illustrate the points being made. For example, a discussion of efforts undertaken to address past deficiencies in the proper hazardous materials abatement of a large percentage of CMH macro artifacts will lead into specific examples of ways in which this deficiency has been corrected. This will then lead into a discussion of efforts put into the clarification and alteration of established policies and procedures to ensure that similar deficiencies do not occur again in the future. It is thought that the frank and open exploration of these challenges and solutions may help attendees identify potential ways in which these lessons learned might be adapted and applied to their own institutions, many of which may be facing similar situations with their own macro artifact collections.

Finally the floor will be opened up for a guided questions session, with the expectation that specific challenges faced by other institutions will be shared. It is hoped that audience members and presenters together might be able to help provide the genesis of a solution, if not a full-fledge answer to the problems raised.

A white man with short brown hair wearing a black polo shirt standing at a microphone.
Raymond Barnett, Museum Curator, US Army Center of Military History, Museum Support Center-Anniston


Ray Barnett: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I'm sure you're all wondering why I called you here. My name is Ray Barnett, and I will be talking on preserving the hardware of war. That's a mighty big title. First of all, I wanted to say thank you to Mary and to Ms. Debbie and all of the NCPTT. I think I got that acronym right, the NCPTT folks that put this together and allowed us to come and participate. Thank you guys very much.

Mary, you mentioned the macro. What is a macro? First, before we even start with that, let's talk about what we do at Anniston. Here we are. You can see, do we have a laser pointer? On the top, like that? I need to know how to go pew pew. Can't work this high tech equipment. All right, thank you. Got it, thank you, man. All right, so everyone is familiar with Atlanta. Hopefully, you're familiar with Birmingham as one of the few areas of sanity in Alabama. Here we are. It's a rather large, complex reservation. The Anniston Army Depot, they store ammunition. They used to store a lot of the chemical weapons that were in the US Army as arsenal until recently. They did a lot of destruction there of the chemical weapons by treaty.

We're repository and a storage facility for nearly 150,000 museum artifacts to include micro scale and a macro scale artifact, that micro scale are things that we can consider uniforms, small arms, decorations, accessories, that sort of thing, bayonets, edge weapons. Macro scale artifacts, tanks, aircraft, trucks, field guns, things that are in a lot of your collections as well. In our definition, a macro is anything too large for a single soldier to carry or one that's driven, flown, ridden, or operated in some manner. That could include everything up to say a 105 millimeter projectile. One person can carry that, but it's not easy. The composition of it is sort of a gray area. It could be a micro. It could be a macro. We tend to keep those in the macro region.

These are some examples of the larger scale artifacts that we have. We've got the MBG to the left. Full disclosure here, I am a space nerd. I studied museum conservation of primarily aluminum, composed artifacts designed to fly in space, 7075 T6 aluminum, that sort of thing. Naturally, I work with tanks and Jeeps. Fortunately, there is some overlap with things like the Huey there, the helicopter, that's the Vietnam there. In fact, that particular Huey has already been hung up at the National Museum of the US Army up in Fort Belvoir that they're building, they're building currently. It should open next year, so if you guys want to see that, you'll be able to if you're ever in the DC area.

This kind of gives you an idea of the ways in which we store things. The micros, you can see here. All nice and neatly arranged in Hollister boxes, Hollinger boxes, not Hollister because we don't know about Hollister. The Hollinger boxes, the archival supply, blue board, that sort of thing. Everything is nice and neatly arranged. Then, you've got the macros. Please. You're good. As you can see, they're all exposed and sad and lonely. They're kind of pushed off into a corner and largely forgotten. That's why they brought me in, to sort of try to rectify that situation as best I'm able.

The objects that we consider macros, now they were not designed originally with decades of uses of museum artifact. They're designed for a specific function with a defined shelf life. Some of these things were only expected to survive a month or two. They were designed for a specific purpose, primarily a war purpose, and they were expected to be battle loss or in some way maybe re-utilized afterward, but museum artifacts typically were not considered during the design and construction of these artifacts or would be called artifacts now. They often possess hazardous materials, and we have encountered, I'm kind of telling on our organization a little bit here, so forgive me.

Four people standing inside a large building as the rotor-less UH-1B Huey helicopter is being moved.
UH-1B Huey helicopter, an example of an artifact type in the CMH collection.

James and Bill, I apologize but I'm kind of going to hear some dirty laundry during this, but hopefully, we can all learn from it. These macro artifacts, they typically still retain battery such as lead acid and radiation sources, toxic carcinogenic materials, and we talked about beryllium a little bit yesterday. We have artifacts that retain beryllium completely unencapsulated and if you don't know what it is, you could get right into it. We deal with thoriated glass, radium sources, cesium components, that sort of thing, so a lot of radiation and toxic materials. Of course, the ubiquitous petroleum oils and lubricants, POLs, hydraulic fluid, fueled, engine oil, that sort of thing.

Some of these artifacts possess battle or service related damage, which further undermines their condition as an artifact. Now, a lot of folks in here are probably familiar with their collections as far as scale items and they keep them in operational condition. I know the folks over at the Lone Star Flight Museum. It's a flying museum. You keep your hardware flying. We, by regulation, are not allowed to do that. We have to try to keep our macro artifacts in as complete and preserved a condition as possible, but they must be inoperable. They cannot be utilized for their original intended purpose any longer, nor can they be modified in the future to regain that purpose or that capability.

What are we facing? This kind of gives you an idea. On the left here, a lot of folks may recognize. This is a duplex derived tank, the type used on the morning of June 6th, 1944 during the invasion of Omaha Beach and several other beaches. On the right, this is an actual DD tank that was sunk on that morning. It was one of the original, I believe, the 7 29th armor division, I believe it was.

It swamped on its way to Omaha Beach and sank to the bottom of the English Channel. It sat there for 33 years. All but one of the crew were able to get out of it unfortunately. In 1977, a fringe company dove off shore, raised it, and it's been on display at their facility for another I think 40 years. It came to us through a purchase. This was the condition we received it in.

You really can't see it, but there's still coral incrustation. There's evidence of its life at the bottom of the English Channel. The interior has been completely destroyed and wiped away. Really, all it is is it's a hull with elements that used to make it a tank. This is before, and this is the after. This sort of gives you an idea of the level of deterioration and in degradation that we're dealing with with a lot of these macros.

What happened with our collection? Why did we get to such a state where so many issues were discovered recently? A lot if it was due to, here you go, a lack of experience with preventative conservation of large scale technological artifacts. Folks just didn't know how to take care of these things, so they didn't. There was a lack of funds, of course. Materials were expensive, and if you don't know what you're doing or have enough people, then you'll run into problems as well. There's a lack of knowledge. A lot of folks didn't know what these items were. They specialized in textiles, so naturally, you go out and make them catalog a tank and unfortunately, they didn't know what they were doing.

It's not through any fault of theirs. They did the best they could, but it comes to a point where we have to sort of go back and correct the sins of the past. They also had a severe lack of appropriate storage and exhibition facilities. They thought, "These things are made of metal, so they'll be here for our grandkids' grandkids. Don't worry about them." Unfortunately, these tend to be some of the most susceptible to damage, these types of artifacts. Despite their menacing countenance, they tend to be the ones that face the most problems when it comes to degradation and the need for collections care.

A faded maroon M26 Pershing tank sits on a cement tarmac with other tanks behind it.
A M26 Pershing tank stored outdoors

Museum Support Center-Anniston, Alabama

How do we go about correcting this problem? Well, first of all, we're going to start by making sure that what our records say is correct. Believe it or not, I mean, I know that's a novel concept, right? We need to ensure their accession to catalog records are correct and are up-to-date. We also need to improve the training across the entire organization to help ensure proper cataloging takes place initially. I've worked hard to try to make sure there is a common nomenclature. Billy, we were just talking about the common nomenclature. Even if it isn't something that necessarily everybody wants it to be, we still need to kind of come together and decide on a common vocabulary, a common vernacular, a nomenclature to describe these artifacts and to make sure that we are talking apples to apples. You'll see in a moment why that's important.

A simpler, better, more widely disseminated preservation procedures. A lot of our artifacts aren't at my facility as the museum support center. They're not in storage. They're on exhibit, and so we need to make sure that folks who are responsible for these things, directors and curators in the field, have an understanding of what it is they have, the best ways in which to take care of them, and also to know what types of deterioration to look for and how to monitor it, so you can over time, determine okay, well we're seeing degradation here, here, and here. Here's the best way to approach addressing that and trying to head it off before it becomes a major problem.

I would like to see our system get to the point where we, to the greatest extent possible, preserve original coatings, markings, and sub straight materials and rely less on expensive and historically destructive restoration procedures. If that's at all possible. We all know entropy's going to have its way. We get that. Currently, we're looking at restorations between two and five years. If I can make that an interval of 100 years, how much better would that be for future generations to be able to look at these artifacts and be able to determine historical information from the context, information that they contain, markings, that sort of thing.

Just an example of the first thing I mentioned, the poor record keeping. This is a page from our database software. This is called A Casting. Army, historical collections, and S, I don't remember what S stands for. Billy, you can tell me. Yeah. Army stuff. I like that one. This is a typical description tab. It's for an up-armored Humvee. First of all, I'm responsible for all of these macros when they arrive. This came from Fort Polk, and nobody told me it was up-armored. I've got a forklift that could handle a standard Humvee, no problem. You up-armor this thing, you double the weight. And so, I'm over there with my forklift dee dee dee. I'm going to get it off the trailer and my back wheels start to fly up. I'm thinking, "Something's not right."

We had to get a 36K forklift to come and get this thing off, because again, they didn't tell us it was up-armored. As an example, here's the physical description. Box shaped vehicle with four rubber tires painted green. You all, I can't make this up. These are some good folks I work with, but I mean, that's some Sesame Street stuff right there. One of these things is not like the other. Another issue I faced, if you looked at this tank, this is a Soviet tank, okay. You can look at it. You can tell it's Eastern block of some type. It could be a T55 based on the turret. If you're familiar with this type of armor, there's a lot of elements that you can kind of clue off on to give you a general idea of what this is, but it was cataloged on the left here as a type 69, which is a Chinese variant of a T55.

Okay. If you look at the running wheels, and there are clues that these things give you if you know what you're looking for. The spacing on the road wheels is backwards for a T55. The biggest gap would normally be up front instead of the back. That kind of was my first clue that something isn't right here. This isn't necessarily a T69. I got inside, and I saw nothing but Cyrillic. Not a Mandarin character to be found. I'm thinking, "Hmm, wow. The Soviets built type 69s for China? I didn't know." I got to doing a little bit of research and the road wheel gap, believe it or not, is what gave me the clue. We had a T62 mis cataloged as a Chinese type 69.

A lot of you folks are probably glazing at this point saying, "Who cares?" It's a big deal because we were in the middle of borrowing a T62 from the Marine Corps Museum because we didn't think we had one. Well, lo and behold, one just magically appeared in our collection. How about that? This is why proper cataloging and recognition is so critical. One of the things I've done, one of the first things I've done is to go in and try to institute a form for the baseline condition assessment of every macro across the museum support center to start, but across the entire center of military history. Every macro should have at least one of these forms to document its current condition so we can then monitor degradation over time.

Hopefully, annually or biannually, biannually, however you pronounce that, would go in do an updated report, and that would help us to track degradation. The next step in correcting the sins of the past and one that we're currently embroiled in is the abatement of hazardous materials. We're currently going through every single artifact and ensuring that all weapon systems have been properly demilitarized, de milled, removed and encapsulate, and/or encapsulate all radiological materials. We're finding a lot of World War II era speedometers. The faces were painted with radium, and they're still hot. Some of them have broken glass, which is not good. They taste weird. I'm telling you. I mean, you could taste the color blue. I don't understand how that works.

We have to remove and/or replace all toxic fluids. We're working on trying to find some analog fluids that help inhibit corrosion but aren't so toxic. Some of this stuff is nasty. We remove all batteries. That's how I blew out my back, was pulling out 72 pound batteries from the guts of an M60 tank. If you guys want to talk offline, I'll tell you all about that. We're ensuring that pressure bearing systems like fire suppression systems, bore evacuators, things that get all the nasty smoke out so it doesn't poison the crew inside. You need to make sure all of those are at ambient pressure and that the bottles and containers have been empty. You can leave them in place. You just need to drill a hole and visually verify, yes, these things are empty. They're depressurized. They're not a danger.

You're going to get some bubba in there with a wrench banging on these things and he's going to be trapped in a very confined space with what amounts to a missile. These things are under high pressure, and it's happened. We got to make sure that future generations are aware and they know what they're dealing with. Let me know, we know the presence instead of replacing hazardous materials such as those carcinogens that I mentioned earlier to make sure that we address any potential future health concerns or public hazards. Ensure all these actions are properly documented. I wrote that in red for a reason because we have to let people know, first of all, what they're dealing with and second of all, every alteration of these artifacts has to be documented properly. You can't just yank out batteries and not tell somebody. That's not how it works. It shouldn't be how it works.

Remember, I told you those batteries in the gut 7M60 tank. They're heavy, you all. Ask me how I know. They're dirty. Had three or four of them break open because they're in plastic containers and powdered lead tastes very sweet. Ask me how I know. These are some more abatement images. On the right over here, this is another Huey helicopter that we had given to us from the Air National Guard at Maxwell Air Force Base. It had been sitting outside for 25 years with a full tank of fuel. That's us draining it. This truck came from West Germany full of fuel and still had all its batteries. Again, these are decades that these have been sitting there in this condition.

Every last one of these issues should have been addressed before they were cataloged. That's where we're headed is to try to make sure that all of these things are taken care of before we excession and catalog another macro. Currently, we are under pressure to right size the collection. In order to do that, right sizing meaning make sure that everything that we have fits our proper storyline and that it's not excess. We have a lot of excess materials. In the past, folks collected just because they could collect. Well, we can't do that anymore. We have to ensure that we're adhering to strict collections policies as I said at the bottom and to help do that, what we're doing is we're going through and we're assigning a tier designation to every macro.

Tier one, or one of a kind, topological examples. Now, these when I say topological examples, they're going to be a part of our topological collection. We want to be a repository of engineering information and a knowledge as well as museum artifacts. We want the core of engineers or future designers be able to come back and refer to an M4 Sherman if they need to. You can look at schematics all day long, but nothing beats coming and actually taking physical measurements and dimensions of a real 3D artifact. They function in multiple roles here, not just as an artifact.

Tier two are important, but not necessarily the last of their kind. They can be displayed indoors or out, but if they're displayed outdoors, they have to be displayed under cover on a concrete pad. Tier three, typically those are the ones that will relegate or second over to a National Guard Unit or something. They're going to be gutted. They're going to be what we call flower pots. They're usually surplus examples, not considered museum quality. There's an example that is represented either elsewhere, maybe better, by another artifact. Then, tier four, of course it's excess and you're going to disposition it from the collection. We are catching so much grief about dispositioning our artifacts.

So much. Disposition. What does that even mean? Now, if a macro is deemed excess, if it becomes a tier four in the ranking system, we need to dispose of it properly. The way we do that is we will offer it to Takom, the tank and automotive command for the US Army, and we make sure that their life cycle management command is aware that we've got all these extra vehicles, and we give them the opportunity at first, right of first refusal to say, "Hey, we've got these things. Do you have anybody that has requested this type of hardware from you for display, whether it be to go into their exhibit, become a flower pot, whatever purpose?" As long as they promise they won't reactivate the gun and drive it down Main Street, we let them handle that. We just let them know we have it.

Then, we also will try to seek out appropriate organizations ourselves for which these dispose artifacts may produce. We got two examples, one of which I got here. This is a Soviet Cold War era D30 field houser, field gun. I was told by the gentleman that's over the Field Artillery Museum at Fort Sill that the second forces assistance were gated at Fort Brag a current active Army unit is tasked with going to Afghanistan and training their army on the proper use of these particular guns. They're still actively used in most of the world, so rather than turn this thing in and have it go to what we call Captain Crunch, basically be de milled and destroyed. We offered it to the Second Security Forces Assistance Brigade.

They now use it as a training aid. It found a second life again in a teaching role. Not necessarily its original purpose, but it is something that they can train their soldiers who then go to Afghanistan to train their forces, their National Army. We had another instance where the old guard up in DC, they use M5 three inch guns from World War II. We discovered that we have two that are excess. They've determined that they want one, so one of these will now become part of the Presidential Salute Battery and it had just been sitting at our facility for 25, 30 years. They had no idea it was there, but we reached out to them. They were grateful, and they'll be taking possession of it in the near term.

Now, if the disposed artifact is refused by Takom and we can't find another appropriate home for it, by regulation it has to be turned in to what we call DLA, DRMO. The Defense Logistics Agency, what is it? Defense Re utilization and Marketing Office? Yeah. The DRMO, they can offer a few of our artifacts like Jeeps, commercial vehicles that were pressed in the military service, like CutVees, some of you might know what that is. Those can be offered for sale to the public on websites like Iron Planet, that sort of thing. A lot of these things have a de mill code, like CDQ, some of the nasty codes that indicate that these artifacts must be destroyed. They cannot be sold to the public.

Now, most of these artifacts that are assigned as de mill codes, they will be used as range targets. They'll find a second and a third purpose as a gun re-targets. It's better to shoot at something rather than just shoot at paper targets all day. That makes a lot of folks upset. I just wanted to reassure everybody that we go through multiple, multiple steps to try to find proper homes and find any way we possibly can to save these artifacts before they're offered for gun re-targets. We don't just do that as a first step. Unfortunately, some of these pieces that we turn in, they don't even have that option. They have to be destroyed completely upon submission to the RMO, small arms like that automatic weapons are in that category.

Now, all macros turned into DRMO must be fully abated and certified safe prior to turn-in, meaning that all fluids have to be removed, batteries have to be pulled out, radioactive sources have to be removed. Everything that we should've already had done for that artifact for our purposes, DRMO requires it be done before we turn them in, so we're doing a twofold process here. We're not only correcting our own sins, but also we're trying to fulfill the requirements of DRMO prior to the artifact turn-in. It's doubly important.

A corroded tank battery with rusted connectors sitting in a deteriorated compartment.
Heavily deteriorated batteries during removal from the hull of an M60 main battle tank being turned in to Defense Logistics Agency’s Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office (DRMO).

These artifacts, I like to say they're going to meet the Lord. Some of you guys may recognize the M551 Sheridan Vietnam era. Cold War, that's aluminum armor tank. Only weighs 17 tons which it sounds like a lot, but when you consider an M60 weighs around 60 tons and One currently what, 70 plus tons. Yeah, that's a light guy. We were able to lift it with a forklift, but it's going to meet the Lord. You have this one right here. This pad, it came all the way from Fort Mead. It had been sitting out in the weeds. This is at Fort Mead, and then this is on the trailer going to DRMO and that's my supervisor Ray Lindsey waving bye bye. Handsome fellow there. Okay. To conclude.

We know that we, you, all museums face numerous challenges in exhibiting and storing these macros. We all face the challenges, but fortunately, we all face the challenges. We can come together and share our solutions. That's what we're trying to do here is sort of start a dialogue. We are establishing a strong collections. Preservation policy is key for any collection. We're coming to find that out ourselves. We try to ensure that each artifact is properly cataloged, abated, and conserved as well as possible. We work to identify and correct any past deficiencies, but then we don't just stop there. We also attempt to make sure that those same mistakes are not repeated which I feel like is key because otherwise, why bother?

Remember, there's never going to be enough money, people or time, so we just do the best we can to make wise choices with limited resources available. Like I said, we're sort of telling stories out of church here, but I feel like it's one that's probably pretty common to most people. You guys might relate to some or all of what we're talking about. Are there any questions? Any suggestions?

Speaker Bio

Ray Barnett is a Museum Curator for the US Army’s Center of Military History, Museum Support Center in Anniston, AL. His career emphasis is the conservation, collections care and management of large-scale “macro” artifacts to include tanks, trucks, aircraft, and field guns stored at the MSC-A. Previously he served as the Artifact Collections Manager for Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. He also worked as a Collections Specialist for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. He graduated from the Middle Tennessee State University’s Public History master’s program, and has a Bachelor’s Degree in History from University of Houston.

Last updated: June 2, 2021