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The Restoration Factory

May 2024
1min read

Each year a million tourists visit Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, but the building there that contains the greatest collection of historic memorabilia is closed to them. It is a sometime high school that now houses the Division of Museum Services, and it is packed with artifacts from national parks throughout the country, all either awaiting or undergoing restoration to their original condition.

The division was established in 1972 to cope with the great number of National Park Service belongings that were falling prey to age or vandalism. To this repository came clocks, oil paintings, guns, tableware, carriages, and even two tents used by George Washington. (These last needed cleaning, an immense task that required the construction of a tank holding four hundred and eighty gallons of water.)

Six thousand items arrive every year, many of no great merit. As an example, Walter J. Nitkiewicz, the paintings restorer, singled out a drab canvas which had hung in a Puerto Rican fort. “Somebody’s accepted it,” he said, “and now it will take an Act of Congress to get rid of it.”

But every item, however humble, is given painstaking attention and, with the small staff—seven paid “conservators” and a few volunteers—the backlog is growing. Arthur C. Allen, the division’s chief, said, “We figure that in about two million years we’ll catch up.”

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