One door locks behind us. Another awaits at the end of a cinderblock entryway.
In a moment, we will enter a room packed with a Richmond museum's irreplaceable treasures: documents and paintings, firearms and swords, furniture and textiles, glassware and jewelry, even souvenirs. They fill shelves, drawers, cabinets and racks.
Some are too fragile for public display. Some are held primarily for research. Some are duplicates that rotate on display. All demand the highest standard of care — even knowing the best way to pick up each item. (Gloves or no gloves? Cotton or latex?)
Four prominent Richmond museums cracked open their vaults recently to discuss how they provide that care. And this is no simple storage for the American Civil War Museum, the Valentine, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.
There's certainly security: locks and keys, elevators operated by key cards, even limited disclosure about storage locations.
There's also great attention given to creating ideal conditions for preserving artifacts. Temperature and humidity levels remain within a narrow range. Storage compartments maximize space while accommodating the unique dimensions of items. Pest control is a given.
"What people see (on display) is only the tip of the iceberg," said Jamie O. Bosket, president and CEO of the VMHC, known previously as the Virginia Historical Society. "Below the surface is a massive repository of one of the greatest treasures in Virginia. More than half of this entire building is not open to the public. It is dedicated to secure storage for our collection."
"It costs a lot to care for objects in perpetuity," added Kelly Tomajko, a Denver-based museum veteran who is now a museum storage solutions expert for Spacesaver Corp. She noted that for institutions, the terminology can matter — including in fundraising.
"We started calling it preservation and not just storage. We had preservation cabinets, preservation rooms," she said. "Preserving treasures is what we’re doing."
And there are lots of them.
"I’m talking about 9 million items," Bosket said of the VMHC collection. "It’s one of the largest history collections in the country and certainly in the state, and one of the oldest. We started receiving things in this collection in 1831, and we have been collecting ever since."
Here's a look behind the storage scenes at four of Richmond's treasure troves.
AMERICAN CIVIL WAR MUSEUM
The beauty of the ACWM's new building, now under construction at Tredegar on the downtown riverfront, extends to the unseen: At least a quarter of the building will be devoted to state-of-the-art preservation space.
The building is set to open next spring, but for collections director Robert Hancock and operations director Christie Ann Bieber, a big moment comes earlier: By the end of this year, the museum will have to move everything out of its Clay Street building.
Already, the archives collection of documents has been transferred to the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. Though still owned by the ACWM, the archives will create an unmatched resource for researchers when added to the extensive Civil War records already in the VMHC collection.
Hancock calls it "basically one-stop shopping for researchers. It will be a huge collection when the two of them are combined."
Other artifacts will be housed at Tredegar. "We have the largest collection of Civil War Confederate artifacts in the world," Bieber noted, and only a small sample can be on display at any time.
The preservation facilities at Tredegar will be on the second floor and above. That eliminates the worry about potential water seepage into a basement, where some storage is now.
Of course, river flooding presents a different problem.
"When you’re on the banks of the James," Bieber said, "that was a big factor in the siting of the building and the way it was designed and making sure the collections storage was above any potential flooding."
Though the storage space in the new building won’t be larger than before, it can hold more because the compact storage units are designed around objects in the collection.
Women's dresses, for instance, are folded into boxes now — "which is fine," Hancock said, but unfolded would be better.
"If you’re talking about silk dresses that originally had hoop skirts, there’s a lot of material there. They take up a lot of room when you lay them flat," he said. Working with Spacesaver Corp., "we’re having them design larger trays so we can lay them flat."
Smaller trays already hold some items, such as a fragment of curtains that once hung in the sitting room of Varina Davis, whose husband, Jefferson Davis, was president of the Confederate States of America. During the Civil War, the family lived in the home now known as the White House of the Confederacy.
"Sliding trays like this allow us to take out the artifact for examination without handling the artifact," Hancock said. "The less handling, the better."
In the new facility, some quilts in the collection will benefit from being rolled up rather than folded. Rifles will continue to be stored upright, and swords will still rest blade-down. Pistols will remain cushioned in drawers with cutouts shaped for each weapon. Saddles will have individual mounts. Furniture will be placed in big bays.
The storage environment will be maintained at about 50 percent humidity and a temperature of 68 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
"That’s a general, overall condition where most pieces are fine," Hancock said, adding that he looks forward to a new HVAC system and fewer repair calls.
The "eclectic collection," as he calls it, continues to grow from its 1896 roots as the Museum of the Confederacy.
Recently, a set of Civil War musical instruments arrived, including a rare and ungainly relative of the tuba called the ophicleide. It has been resting on top of cabinets because that's where it fits.
The instrument looks sort of like a big saxophone (though they are not related) and sounds more like a sousaphone.
"The problem they found is that it sometimes gave what they called unpredictable sounds," Hancock said. "I didn’t know what it was until I looked it up.
"To be honest, after 27 years, I still come in here sometimes, when I'm working with something, and it’s pretty cool. It's still interesting even after all this time."
By the numbers: ACWM
Collection: about 100,000 documents, 15,000 objects and 6,000 original photographs
Typically on display: about 1,000
Of note: Largest item is E.B.D. Julio's painting "The Heroes of Chancellorsville" (more commonly known as "The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson").
VIRGINIA MUSEUM OF HISTORY & CULTURE
The VMHC features some of the newer storage conditions in town. A four-story wing completed in 2006 and the entire top floor of the museum are dedicated almost entirely to storage under systems that closely monitor humidity, temperature and lighting levels.
In all, about half of the quarter-million-square-foot complex is devoted to storage and care.
"All of our collections storage is in purpose-made spaces — which we’re really proud of — in secure locations," said Bosket, the president and CEO. "You have to go through active staff spaces, usually through multiple access points, to get to it."
It’s a good thing, considering that about 9 million items are being preserved here (more than 8 million are documents). Bosket, who arrived at the VMHC in February 2017, said it took him six months to learn his way around the building’s collections.
In one room, you’ll find compact storage walls — each with about a dozen paintings hung on them — sandwiched together on a track. When the walls are closed, everything inside has extra protection from light and temperature fluctuations in a minimum amount of space. But curators can easily slide apart the walls just enough to open one row at a time.
In another area, walls might be configured to hold dozens of rifles standing at attention. To access them easily, despite the extra weight, curators can open an aisle by cranking handles that shift the walls slowly from side to side.
Shelves of rare books feature George Washington’s signed copy of "The Complete Farmer" from 1793 and an original King James Bible from the translation’s first printing in 1611.
Keeping track of so many items is a priority. Researchers must make an appointment to view artifacts that are not on exhibition or available digitally. The collections staff will bring items to the library reading room and return them to storage.
"Very early on when I arrived," Bosket said, "one of the archivists said to me, 'The reason we’re so very, very careful about retrieving and returning things, if something is mislaid in a place this big, it’s as good as lost forever.' "
Having worked at Mount Vernon for 10 years before coming to Richmond, Bosket is particularly fond of VMHC artifacts related to the nation’s first president. He gently opened a box that holds Washington's personal diary from his first term as president.
"You can see, here is the inscription of March 1790," Bosket pointed out.
Most of the personal diaries and artifacts that Washington kept himself are at Mount Vernon, the Library of Congress or the Boston Athenaeum.
But the VMHC's first president was John Marshall, the renowned U.S. chief justice and the author of an early definitive biography of Washington.
To write it, "he actually borrowed items from the Washington family," Bosket said. "This diary, for whatever reason, never made it back to Mount Vernon. It was given to us by John Marshall’s son. It was one of the first items to come into the collection in the 1830s.
"Now, let me put this back before I get in trouble."
By the numbers: VMHC
Collection: about 9 million items (including more than 8 million processed manuscripts; 290,000 prints and photographs; 200,000 books and 32,000 museum objects)
Typically on display: about 1,000
Of note: About 15,000 of the books are rare; museum has more than 5,000 maps and one of the largest portrait collections in the South.
VIRGINIA MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
Artistic expression may lend itself to creative extremes, but when it comes to storing art that's not on display, the VMFA's emphasis is strictly utilitarian.
Cinderblock halls lead to rooms filled with metal shelves and cabinets. Paintings hang on wire screens that pull out for access. Security extends to a completely enclosed loading dock big enough to hold a 53-foot tractor-trailer carrying precious works of art for an exhibition.
Stephen Bonadies, senior deputy director for conservation and collections, doesn’t even like to talk about where storage facilities are located within the VMFA (though storage takes up only about 3 percent of the main museum building). Suffice it to say that a casual visitor is not going to see them.
"When we’re charged with protecting the collection, there are areas that are considered sensitive, and this would fall in that category — not broadcasting where it's located in the building, how things are housed. It's 'The Thomas Crown Affair,' sort of," he said, referring to a movie about a museum heist.
He leads the way down a flight of stairs, a door closing behind him, while talking about the percentage of the permanent collection that is on display. Nearly 36,000 items are owned by the museum, but about 22,000 must be protected from prolonged exposure to light.
"When you back out items that are light-sensitive — photos, textiles, anything on paper,” he said, "and consider that we have over 3,200 objects on display currently, we’re at close to 25 percent of our collection being available to visitors — which is really quite a high percentage. Most museums range between 3 and 5 percent."
He noted that items in storage are at greatest risk when being handled, and staffers must be on alert when works are out of place.
In a storage room for paper-based objects, for instance, a wide storage cabinet/table was topped with several notes of caution. First was an eye-catching depiction of stop signs warning: "ART ON THE LOOSE/ unhinged or otherwise vulnerable."
On top of a poster-sized piece of white paper, a yellow piece of paper read "ART BELOW." An inch-wide margin on the protective cover meant that someone could lift it to take a look without touching the art itself.
A stack of poster-sized white papers was topped with a lilac sheet saying "Art Storage/work in progress."
A tracking system also helps to minimize handling, Bonadies said. Hundreds of prints and photographs are stored in archival boxes throughout one room.
If you wanted to see a Frances Benjamin Johnston photograph of Virginia taken in 1932, you’d be directed to "this room, this shelf, this box," Bonadies said. "Normally on each box we have an inventory list. We want to eliminate the need to rummage, if we know it’s 49 of 50 photos."
He outlines several goals for storage: "that objects are housed safely, that we can accurately track the location of every object, that the objects are relatively accessible to staff, and cleanliness as well."
To maintain humidity and temperature levels, location within the building is also important. Storage shouldn’t be next to a boiler room, and underground storage can pose problems, too. (VMFA storage is above ground.)
"Many museums have storage rooms located in the basement," Bonadies said. "I think we all have experienced wet basements. Well, that kind of moisture promotes mold growth and mold is damaging."
A monthly inspection helps identify problems early, he said. And every few years, the museum does a comprehensive inventory of the collections — which extend far beyond the paintings, sculptures and, of course, the famous Faberge eggs associated with the VMFA.
Larger objects range from a set of cigar store Indians that came into the collection in 1957 to a suite of Russian folk-inspired furniture, acquired in 2016, that was created around 1900 in the same period as the Faberge eggs. A set of firedogs were recently on display with a fireplace surround.
"You look at the wholeness of our collection," Bonadies said, "we truly do embrace all art forms."
By the numbers: VMFA
Collection: about 36,000 items (including more than 2,600 paintings, 1,600 sculptures, 18,600 prints and drawings and 9,600 decorative arts)
Typically on display: more than 3,200
Of note: Largest object, at 24 feet tall, is the outdoor sculpture "Chloe" by Jaume Plensa.
The Valentine, the museum of Richmond's history, was chartered in 1892 to collect, preserve and display what is now an extensive array of photographs, textiles, train sets, dolls, paintings, furnishings, decorative arts — even storefront signs, business records and more.
Methodically following a master plan, the museum has restored the Wickham House, which was built in 1812 at one end of the 1100 block of East Clay Street; restored sculptor Edward Valentine’s 19th-century studio in the garden; restored an iron-front home at the other end of the block for staff offices; and renovated galleries and education space.
"And now we’re on to this last piece — at the core of what any museum is: the collections," said William Martin, executive director.
Fundraising is a big part of that project, but ingenuity also comes into play.
For instance, about 35,000 costumes and textiles are a renowned part of the Valentine's holdings, and curator Kristen Stewart has drawn on volunteers and her New York connections to begin work on a new storage system for hanging garments.
Volunteers came in on a Saturday to make specially padded wooden hangers for some of the more delicate garments in the collection. Think sock puppet, and you’ll get an idea of what the final product looks like — a socklike sleeve, with the ends sewn together, that holds archival batting material in place around a hanger.
"Wood is a problem — not only the hardness but also the material," Stewart said of typical hangers. "We want to prevent contact. The ones before had muslin on them. It was a barrier, but often garments would fall off."
The padding also eases the stress on the dress. "In older garments, the seams may already be compromised,” said Stewart, who spent several years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. The padding also prevents sagging at the end of the hanger, which creates unsightly shoulder protrusions.
Other do-it-yourself solutions include foam-and-board systems for holding canes and shoes in place. Pliable foam rods, similar to those that people might use to seal gaps in their houses, are cut to size and glued in place to cradle or separate delicate items.
It's better than the previous tie-down system. Stewart noted that while archivally sound, tie-downs can create indentations or abrasions on the objects.
The museum's collection, which grew out of 19th-century businessman Mann S. Valentine Jr.'s wide-ranging interests, has remarkable breadth, and with such scope, it still reveals surprises.
A few years ago, a library staffer looking through general reference files discovered a few strands of hair belonging to John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. A letter written in 1957 by a Valentine librarian explained how it came into the collection.
Sculptor Edward V. Valentine, who was the museum founder's brother and its first president, had been a longtime friend of actor Edwin Booth, the assassin's brother. According to the letter, the hair was given to the minister who led the burial services for John Wilkes Booth. A descendant of the minister was aware of Valentine’s interest in the Booths and sent him the hair. It was stuck in a folder and apparently had remained there ever since, though it has now been moved to a more protected area.
Martin is looking ahead to bigger solutions for collections storage. The emphasis is on safety for the artifacts, including precise environmental conditions, as well as public access.
"There is this balance," he noted. "Textiles, under ideal conditions, are never exhibited more than three to six months and require a certain, particular environment. Color negatives and nitrate negatives require almost freezing temperatures. ...
"Our next big project is looking at how do we improve our storage and allow our collections to grow."
Martin noted that even amid emerging digital access and virtual reality, there can be something almost magical about standing in front of the real thing.
"How you engage in this relationship — between a real person and a real object around a real idea — is sort of what we do," he said. "If that’s your mission, then making sure that those objects are well cared for is central."
By the numbers: The Valentine
Collection: about 1.6 million items (including about 1.5 million photographs; 100,000 books, manuscripts and ephemera; 45,000 general items and 35,000 costume/textile pieces)
Typically on display: several thousand
Of note: About a fifth of the museum's space is dedicated to storage, but roughly 1,000 oversized objects are stored off-site.