Understanding ABMC: A Look into Collections and Preservation

Understanding that pieces of our American heritage were being lost, nearly 50 years ago Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, changing the way the U.S. government preserves our tangible history.  While the law emphasizes the preservation of physical structures and sites, it also includes the management of historic resources and artifacts.

As an agency grounded in our nation's history, the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) created a Directorate of Collections & Preservation in 2015 as a way to formally manage these resources. “It’s ABMC’s first every program to systematically identify, evaluate, document, and preserve collections and historic resources, which include everything from historic furnishings to paintings and sculptures to photographs and rare books and also historic buildings, archeological features, and cultural landscapes," said Christine Landrum, Director of Collections & Preservation.

A key element to creating a new program like this is defining what will be kept in the collection. To do so, the team is developing a Scope of Collections, which provides a specific framework for what ABMC manages as museum property, and what falls outside the scope. The cemeteries have archival items such as rare books, maps and drawings, and blueprints, in addition to original furnishings and fine art, and some, such as Belleau Wood, Pointe du Hoc, Montfaucon, and Somme American Cemetery, even have archeological items. These are the types of artifacts that will fall within the definition of ABMC's collections. “We want to ensure that everything that goes into the collection is tied to our commemorative mission," said Landrum.

Managing a collection of this nature and making it available for exhibits, and educational, research or interpretive purposes ensures these physical items that tell the ABMC story are forever maintained. "The intellectual and physical access to our tangible history is what’s going to help keep the memory of that person, or that unit alive," said Landrum.

While the program is still in its infancy, some of the long-term goals include:

  • Identify, evaluate, document, and preserve  ABMC cultural resources to include 100 percent accountability
  • Establish and maintain a collections storage facility and repository including systems and processes
  • Enhance physical and intellectual access to ABMC Collections
  • Provide technical assistance and education to ABMC staff
  • Create a full, detailed inventory of the agency's historic structures and other types of cultural resources

With only two full-time employees constituting Collections & Preservation, there is a lot of work to be done.  “We’re small, but we have a big and critical mission," said Klydie Thomas, Curator of Collections.       

Because their mission includes the management of artifacts, historic structures and cultural landscapes, the team works with staff in the field and within other ABMC departments, including engineering, horticulture, historic services, and interpretation.  A common challenge is helping staff appreciate that a recent resource may be an artifact that needs to be catalogued.  In the world of Collections & Preservation, an artifact is defined by its historic significance, not by its age. "Something we created five years ago can have value from a preservation standpoint,“ said Landrum.   While Landrum and Thomas bring the expertise to this program, it will be a collective effort by all ABMC staff to protect the agency's tangible history.

The program will evolve and grow, setting new standards for how the agency manages these resources. In May 2016 the directorate completed its first formal accession—the official documentation showing ownership of a particular artifact or historic document—a historic poster of the city of Chateau-Thierry during the early years of World War I.

“The property we manage belongs to the American people," said Landrum. "We have a moral obligation to do so in fulfillment of ABMC’s mission and our commitment to serving cemeteries."

Questions and Answers about ABMC's Directorate of Collections & Preservation as answered by Director Christine Landrum:

Can I, as a member of the public,  donate an item to ABMC?

Right now, because we’re building the program, we don’t have the framework just yet to accept donations, and we do not have adequate and sufficient storage space. When we are ready to consider donated items, we will make this information publicly available on the ABMC website.

Can I, as a member of the public or a researcher, come and look in your archives?

Currently, we don't have a central location that houses all of our items. Until the program is firmly established, we won't have a physical archive space to visit. If you have a specific question, please send us an email and we'll do our best to accommodate your request in collaboration with other ABMC directorates such as Historical Services.

For an agency that's 93 years old, why is this program just being established now?

We've always taken our history as an agency very seriously, however, we never had a formal, systematic program in place to manage structures, sites and artifacts. We're simply professionalizing the process now and focusing our efforts to apply the same gold standard of care to cultural resources that ABMC has been applying to the operations and maintenance of cemeteries for the past 93 years .