The Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI), located in Suitland, Maryland, is the center for specialized technical collections research and conservation for all Smithsonian museums and collections. The MCI combines knowledge of materials and the history of technology with state-of-the-art instrumentation and scientific techniques to provide technical research studies and interpretation of artistic, anthropological, biological, and historical objects. Through its Protecting Cultural Heritage and Preventive Conservation Programs, and by participating in the Smithsonian’s signature Preparedness and Response in Collections Emergencies (PRICE) program, the MCI responds to the threats facing cultural heritage in multiple and complex ways. This includes: analyzing and consulting on preservation environments; developing less invasive and damaging storage, display, and conservation techniques; and supporting U.S. agencies and the museum community in identifying illicitly trafficked cultural heritage artifacts and objects. For example, the MCI works with the U.S. Department of State on a highly successful training program at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage in Erbil, which supports the rescue and recovery of Iraqi and regional cultural heritage artifacts.
The MCI, as the only Smithsonian resource for technical studies and scientific analyses for most of the Institution’s national collections, brings unique analytical capabilities to Smithsonian researchers, including a central mass-spectrometry instrument core and advanced technological capabilities for analyzing biomolecules. These services are available to Smithsonian units at no charge. In addition to responding to requests for consultations from within the Smithsonian, the MCI handles requests from affiliates and outside organizations, such as the White House, U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of Homeland Security — Homeland Security Investigations, U.S. Department of State, and many other federal, museum, and academic organizations.
Means and Strategy
To achieve the strategic goal of Enhanced Interdisciplinary Research, the MCI will collaborate with the Smithsonian’s scientific researchers and research centers and provide increased technical and research assistance to Smithsonian arts and humanities researchers, collections, and museums. The MCI will initiate, facilitate, and support technology transfer for the Smithsonian’s collaborative research projects by using biomolecular mass-spectroscopy, including biological isotopes and proteomics (i.e., the large-scale study of proteins; particularly, their structures and functions). The MCI will also conduct fundamental research into mechanisms of degradation and biodeterioration, preserve cultural heritage, and harness new technologies. The MCI’s research programs will cross boundaries between Smithsonian units as well as support all of the Institution’s signature programs and Institution-wide stakeholders. The MCI will also support the conservation and heritage science fields through publications, hosted symposia, presentations, invitation-only seminars, lectures, and its website, to disseminate the results of its research programs.
In FY 2023, the MCI will continue to develop its biomolecular mass-spectrometry and proteomics capabilities as a part of the Smithsonian’s central research infrastructure. Proteomics is an area of rapid growth in biological and medical research that is being driven by advances in molecular separation and mass-spectrometry technology. Along with genomics, the field has the potential for rapid acquisition of data that speeds the discovery and identification of organisms, the linking of genotypes and phenotypes, and the development of novel biomolecular markers. Proteomics, in tandem with genomics, is expanding our understanding of biological and ecological functions. These capabilities will allow the MCI to gather more information from Smithsonian collections, cultural objects, and biological specimens, and to learn more about their materials, origins, and the causes of their deterioration.
To achieve the strategic goal of Expanding Digital Technologies, the MCI will provide improved digitization support for making Smithsonian research and collections accessible in ways that broaden public access to collections, exhibitions, and outreach programs. The MCI will conduct advanced research and development into effective and economical digital imaging technologies that are appropriate for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, blogs, mobile applications, and virtual reality. The MCI will achieve the Smithsonian’s goal of reaching one billion people by revitalizing the MCI webpages to engage 21st-century audiences and to highlight the Institute’s large, visionary, interdisciplinary research and scholarly projects. The MCI will make its research products and records secure and accessible through The Museum System (TMS), and with repositories such as the Digital Asset Management System (DAMS), Smithsonian Research Online, and Figshare for Institutions, an open platform for publishing and sharing Smithsonian research data.
To achieve the strategic goal of Understanding and Impacting 21st Century Audiences, the MCI will provide heritage literature references to professionals and the public. The MCI's technical information office will continue serving the museum and cultural heritage management communities, museum studies students, and the public. The technical information office answers direct inquiries and distributes general guidelines in printed and electronic formats, handling more than 800 information requests annually. The MCI will continue enhancing its digital and social media to increase the impact of the Institute’s research and outreach programs. The MCI, in collaboration with Smithsonian museums and Affiliates, will offer public programs to present the results of MCI research, heighten awareness of the problems of preserving cultural heritage, and gain information about the nature and scope of problems that the Institute’s clients encounter. The MCI will also collaborate with Smithsonian museums and Affiliates to offer media events, printed and online materials, presentations, workshops, and demonstrations to reach new audiences, especially those targeted by the Institution’s newest museums.
In addition, to achieve the goal of education, the MCI will engage and inspire diverse audiences, focusing on training higher-education students and professionals. The MCI will continue to promote career development for Smithsonian conservators and other collections care providers through colloquia, symposia, and workshops, as well as distance-learning opportunities. The MCI will continue to offer internships and Fellowships for students pursuing careers in conservation and conservation science, as well as support diversity programs inside and outside of the Smithsonian, which are seeking to attract students from a wider variety of backgrounds to pursue conservation and conservation science careers.
In particular, the MCI will participate in initiatives with Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other local and national partners to highlight cultural heritage and conservation as possible career paths. Through its partnership in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage, and Archaeology, housed at the University College, London, the University of Oxford, and the University of Brighton, the MCI is supporting advanced training for museum professionals who want to learn new methods of digital documentation for cultural heritage collections and obtain new tools for evaluating museum storage environments.
In keeping with this goal, the MCI is providing in-kind support and leading a partnership with the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage program to train local communities in the rescue and recovery of regional cultural heritage. The crisis caused by ISIS endangered irreplaceable world cultural heritage and the local citizenry requires consistent support to recover from the destruction and ensure that these treasures are safe and preserved. Currently, an interagency agreement with the Department of State and other grants are supporting salvage and recovery at the important archaeological site of Nimrud and other major cultural heritage sites in Iraq. The Smithsonian continues raising additional funds for operations and expanded programs at the Iraqi Institute. Given adequate support, the Institute can become a regional center to educate the local population in the preservation of their cultural heritage.
To achieve the strategic goal to Preserve Our Natural and Cultural Heritage, the MCI will support Smithsonian museums and research centers in their efforts to improve stewardship and scholarship of the national collections and will disseminate collections information to the larger museum community and the public. To this end, the MCI is chairing the new Council of Conservators and Conservation Scientists that seeks to share best practices, current research, and laboratory facilities and equipment across the Institution. In addition, the MCI will pursue collaborative conservation treatment projects with other Smithsonian units to provide conservation guidance and analytical technical consultations to the art and history museums for their more challenging and unique objects. The Institute has a proven track record of establishing scientifically-based environmental standards for museum collections, detecting unsafe conditions and materials for museum exhibition and storage, and solving biodeterioration problems — including those that involve buildings and monuments. The MCI is expanding its research in preventive conservation by developing new tools and partnerships that aid in avoiding deterioration caused by environmental factors. By co-chairing the Smithsonian Collections Space Committee’s new preservation environments subcommittee, supporting the PRICE team, and chairing the American Institute for Conservation Materials Selection and Specification Working Group, the MCI helps develop best practices in collections care across the Institution and the U.S. museum community. The MCI’s photograph and paper conservation lab will support conservation and research for the Smithsonian’s fragile and at-risk photographic collections and the Institute will continue to assess and remediate collection hazards.
In addition, the MCI will focus on using less invasive and damaging materials and procedures for collections conservation, reflecting the importance of incorporating energy-efficient and “green” materials and practices into the Institute’s work. Through continuing communication and interaction with museum conservators, the MCI will identify special training needs and research projects, and will develop research and symposia to address the most urgent collections preservation needs, such as preventive conservation in museum environments (involving light, temperature, humidity, and pollutants), and museum hazards (such as pests and pesticides).
To achieve the strategic goal of Enabling Cost-Effective and Responsive Administration, the MCI will support an efficient management infrastructure. The MCI will use the Smithsonian’s Strategic Plan and its own strategic plan to properly allocate its budgetary and human resources, and to secure additional financial resources for its high-priority programs. Resource allocations will be tracked against performance metrics in each of the strategic areas, and against the needs and goals of the Smithsonian’s museums and research centers. The MCI will encourage staff to participate in budget-performance integration, succession management, and leadership development programs. In addition, the MCI will continue to implement and communicate efficient, rational, and creative operational and administrative practices so staff can advance the Smithsonian mission in a transparent manner that reflects the Smithsonian’s status as a public trust.
Finally, the MCI will maintain an efficient, collaborative, committed, innovative, and accountable workforce through leadership development, evaluation, and support of staff, and the recruitment, selection, and development of diverse, highly skilled employees. The MCI will promote diversity in working with the Institution’s employees, Fellows, interns, volunteers, and vendors while also improving communications with internal and external stakeholders in both the public and private sectors.