The Museum Support Center: Preserving the Army’s history through art

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers Live
World War II-era canvas and framed art is stored on metal screens at the Museum Support Center on Fort Belvoir, Va. The storage space takes up the bulk of the facility, totalling 60,000 square feet. (DOD photo by Jacqueline M. Hames)

World War II-era canvas and framed art is stored on metal screens at the Museum Support Center on Fort Belvoir, Va. The storage space takes up the bulk of the facility, totalling 60,000 square feet. (DOD photo by Jacqueline M. Hames)

In a nondescript building just off the beaten path on Fort Belvoir, Va., stands a state-of-the-art facility that houses priceless works of art and artifacts that tell the stories of an army and its Soldiers.

Known as the Museum Support Center, the building serves as the headquarters for the U.S. Army Center of Military History’s Museum Support Program and home to a modern conservation and storage facility.

Chris Semancik, chief of the collections branch at the MSC, explained the main purpose of the facility is to house the Army’s collection of over 16,000 works of art, and to support the development the National Museum of the Army. Though the center is not open to the public, many pieces of the art stored there will are loaned out to various exhibitions.

“We have purview of all Army historical property in 62 museums and over 200 historic sites in CONUS and OCONUS,” Semancik said.

The facility is kept at a standard 70 degrees Fahrenheit and a constant humidity, filtering outside air through enormous banks of air handlers that change the volume of air in the 120,000 square foot structure four times an hour. The air, some of the cleanest in the Washington, D.C., area, Semancik noted, is filtered down to the particulate level as small as 1/32 the width of a human hair.

“That is the basis of everything we do here. If we don’t have that, we’re not in business,” he said of the environmental controls. Art and historical artifacts could be damaged if not kept at an even temperature and humidity, ruining valuable pieces of history. Even the loading dock is optimized for the care of collections coming in and out of the facility. The dock is an enclosed space, capable of handling two tractor-trailers, with its own environmental controls. The air has positive static energy and pushes outwards, taking any contaminants away from the building, Semancik explained.

“When something comes in off of this dock, our conservators and curators come out and check it,” he said. “They want to make sure there are no pests, any type of mold issues, anything that could be introduced into the environment that could contaminate it.” Items that don’t pass inspection are quarantined on the loading dock, or in a nearby storage room until they can be cleaned.

Once collections have been inspected, they are unpacked and property accountability starts, which is where the real work begins.

Collections carefully catalogued, curators recording where the object came from, filling out appropriate tax forms, cleaning and reviewing the item, and then researching it before entering all that information into a web-based database, Semancik said.  Objects and artworks are photographed during the cataloguing process to record specific identifying marks, note any problems and maintain a visual record for future conservators, perhaps helping to determine if colors fade or an item deteriorates over time. These pictures are also included in the database and can be turned into high-quality reproductions for public display.

“It’s a constant struggle between preserving (the artwork) for the future and letting the public see it today,” Sarah Forgey, Army Art Collection curator, said, noting that moving original art from museum to museum could potentially damage it.

“The digital age is allowing us to meet that need,” Semancik said.

The conservation staff takes over once objects have been catalogued.

“(They) will assess material here, not only artwork but small arms, swords, uniforms, flags and they will recommend a treatment protocol. That treatment may be very simple, one that can be done in house, or it may have to go out in batches and they will write contracts to do that,” Semancik added.

Just across from the conservation lab is the collection storage room, where the majority of the art is placed in long-term storage between exhibitions.

Army Art Program

At 60,000 square feet, the main storage area in the MSC takes up the bulk of the building, and most of that space is reserved for art.

“The collection here for the most part is 20th century work,” Forgey said, striding into the dark room. Motion sensor lights flickered on to reveal a cavernous room, one side filled with recessed metal screens laden with framed or canvas art, and the other side populated with archival drawers used for storing art on paper. Much of this art was created by Soldiers – virtually all of it portrays Soldiers.

“World War I is when the Army Art Program officially started. Now, there have been artists recording battles since battles began,” Forgey continued. “There’s a big tradition of artwork inspired by war. Our program started in World War I with eight artists, and those artists were sent to France and commissioned as captains in the Corps of Engineers.”

Those artists were deployed with very little military training, and were chosen for their artistic skills rather than their tactical acumen. Their mission was broad: Cover everything the Army is doing, from camp to the battlefield. They created around 500 works of art, Forgey explained, that were given to the Smithsonian because there was no Army art collection at the time.

The War Department began a program in World War II with 43 different artists, half civilian and half Soldiers. They had the same mission as their World War I counterparts, to cover everything about the Army, regardless of subject matter. Three months into the program, Congress cut funding. Soldier-artists were reassigned to other duties, while civilian contracts were picked up by Life magazine to continue as war correspondents. The art created during that time came to the Army Art Program after the war, Forgey said.

The MSC also houses a small collection of German war art, collected by the famed Monuments Men during World War II. The collection consists of propaganda, portraits of leaders, and other political artwork. About 425 pieces of the 8,700 pieces recovered were retained for the MSC to study.

While there was no program during the Korean War, the Army did have one during Vietnam. For most of the war, 10 teams of artists, with about four or five artists on each team, were deployed to Vietnam on 90-day cycles. Artists would spend 90 days in the field, and then 90 days creating completed works in the studio based on their experiences.

“As we enter the Vietnam period, you can see we have a really drastic change in style from what we were looking at in World War II,” Forgey said. “The artists are very influenced by the art of the time, they are working in a more expressionistic style. It’s looser; it’s very, very emotional. The colors are bright. This one is titled ‘Patrol in the Jungle,’” she continued, gesturing at a painting on a screen executed in bold strokes of blue, green and black. Figures of Soldiers waded through swamp across the canvas.

The rehousing of the art-on-paper is a large project Forgey is currently working with the assistance of Kelly Russo, Art Collection intern. They are working to properly transfer the art to acid-free mats in “everything proof” archival boxes.

“The art on paper isn’t stored on screens hanging vertically like the paintings that you saw and the reason for that is paper is very, very delicate and gravity destroys it over time,” Forgey explained. “Similar to how when you hang your sweaters up and the shoulders will get all discombobulated.” The boxes are resistant to changes in temperature, humidity and moisture and keep out damaging light.

Forgey, as the curator, manages the entire art collection and she takes pride in the position. “It is a lot of responsibility,” she said, moving from the vertical storage space to the archival cabinets. “It is a very solemn task that I take very seriously and our staff does as well.”

Artist in residence

The MSC and the Army Art Program focus on the conservation of the Army’s art, but is also always looking to the future. The program’s resident artist is often tasked with recording aspects of military life the MSC does not have in its collection yet.

“The artist in residence is the modern face of the program,” Forgey said. “We’re doing right now what they did in World War II. So, when we send the artist out into the field we’re looking for places that we haven’t been yet, or a subject matter that we haven’t covered yet.”

Sgt. 1st Class Amy Louise Mills Brown, the current resident artist, was a high school art teacher before she enlisted in the Army as a multi-media illustrator after 9/11. She was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., for about five years before taking the position at the MSC.

“I had no idea how competitive it would be — I had to submit a portfolio to the curator, Mrs. Forgey. I pretty much had to have my career scrubbed by the branch to make sure that I was a good fit for this job, and I guess begging probably didn’t hurt,” she said with a laugh, “because I really, really wanted this job.”

It is a job Brown considers a once in a lifetime opportunity and something she gives her all to on a daily basis. At first, she thought she would have to tighten her artistic style to be able to pull off the job as the Army’s only official resident illustrator or combat artist, a position that required her to documenting history.

“I finally loosened up after my Afghanistan trip,” Brown said. “I felt, I think, maybe ready to do the job or more attached to the position, just that loose style kind of came back. But that pressure is intense.”

Brown is everything you would expect from a professional artist. Her studio is quirky, but tidy, while her apron is a mess of paint stains, but most importantly, she has a strong vision for her work.

“I am a multi-media person. I just love it. I love to mix cloth and metal or paint and pastel … I think that is very immediate and very raw sometimes,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be polished, and the moments you experience while you are overseas or even in a training environment are not polished moments — they are just what happens. So, for me …  my style lends that immediacy of the moment.”

While deployed in Afghanistan, Brown was able to document the disassembly of damaged vehicles into scrap metal, something that would have otherwise been lost to history because of a media blackout, no photos or videos allowed.

Brown wants her fellow Soldiers to know that she is telling their stories, but that she is not just an artist, she’s a Soldier first. “When it’s time to do business, if they’re digging a hole, I’ll dig a hole too.”

She feels that her legacy for this position should be documenting the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan, and plans to concentrate on those images moving forward.

“I appreciate that the Army is continuing this historical approach … that they see the importance of this type of documentation,” Brown said of the Army Art Program, “and I hope to be an advocate to continue.”