Medical museum prepares move from Walter Reed campus

How do you move an 86-year-old skeleton across town? Hundreds of antique microscopes? A single lock of Abraham Lincoln's hair?

This is the challenge the National Museum of Health and Medicine is facing. Under the direction of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which was instituted in 2005, the museum will be moving from the Walter Reed campus in Northwest Washington to its new location at the Forest Glen Annex in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Many have been watching the museum's neighbor, the 102-year-old Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Currently the hospital is working to transfer a different type of precious cargo -- wounded soldiers -- to the newly constructed Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia.

Meanwhile, with the move's deadline of Sept. 15 approaching, the museum's staff has been preparing, closing exhibitions on April 3, overseeing the construction of the new facility since 2008, and more recently, readying the collection, which consists of 25 million objects, for the 2.5 mile trip.

This will be the museum's 10th move. Founded in 1862, the museum at one time was located on the National Mall; it moved to its current site in 1971. The museum is federally operated through the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, which receives its funding through the Defense Department's Office of Health Affairs.

The museum's military background influences its mission -- to promote the understanding of medicine past, present and future -- and its exhibitions, which recently looked at battlefield medicine throughout the Civil War and at surgical instruments used in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.

The staff must take meticulous care with each object in the diverse collection, which includes the bullet that killed Lincoln and a large number of wet tissue samples. Summer temperatures and humidity are big concerns. While similar artifacts will be packed together to ease the process, every item will undergo a process that includes cross-checking the inventory, documenting its condition at the original site and constructing a custom case -- possibly of foam core or wood -- that will ensure stability during the move. Once in Silver Spring, an item must be checked again, another photograph snapped and a note made in its historical record that it was transported.

The new facility is in the final stages of construction that began in the summer of 2010. Given a budget of $12 million for the construction, the museum's staff worked with consultants and the Army Corps of Engineers to create a plan that would allow the collection to grow in the future and take advantage of new advances in technology. The final cost of the entire move has not yet been determined.

Once at the new facility, a new display system -- featuring high-density mobile shelving to hold specific types of material -- will make the collection easier to access.

In addition to kiosks and digital presentations allowing visitors to see more of the collection, the new museum site also will feature a a large glass window that will let visitors see behind the scenes at the storage facility and lab. "It creates a vital visible link and will tie the visitor experience with the exhibitions and the curatorial staff, allowing them to see the staff at work," Tim Clarke, deputy director of the museum said.

The move presents organizational changes as well. At its previous location within sprawling Walter Reed complex, the museum hosted roughly 50,000 visitors a year. After the move, the museum will have to create a trajectory of growth into the future, finding new ways to open up the front door to the public. Helpfully, admission will remain free.

Despite the changes, the museum will continue to serve all branches of the military, and its ties with Walter Reed also will endure. The museum plans to forge an academic partnership with the Walter Reed Research Institute, continuing to serve as a resource for researchers on topics ranging from traumatic brain injuries to the effectiveness of military armor, and will collaborate with the institute on new programs, exhibitions and collection acquisitions.

"The institute continues to grow, albeit at an admittedly smaller installation, but we are looking forward to it," Clarke said.

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