A Hunt for History: Locating NIH's "Lost" Artifacts

by Victoria A. Harden, Ph.D., NIH Historian

After more than a century of existence, NIH almost certainly has many objects of historic importance. The problem is that no one knows exactly how many such objects exist - or precisely where they are. A new inventory being conducted by the NIH Alumni Association should provide a unique chance to register NIH's historic artifacts and protect them for future generations.

Under a contract with the NIH Historian's Office, the alumni group is launching a six-month effort to identify and label artifacts of historic importance to NIH. Because a major part of that effort involves locating objects relating to the intramural program, all investigators and support staff are asked to be on the lookout for potential historic items within their institutes and to alert the Alumni Association to them.

Over the past few years, the NIH historian and other staff of NIH's DeWitt Stetten, Jr., Museum of Medical Research, a museum without walls that has exhibits in the Clinical Center, Building 1, and Building 31, has grown aware of the apparent loss of several historic artifacts. In May 1994, the museum was granted authority to identify, label, and protect objects of historic importance. Subsequently, a contract was awarded to the Alumni Association to inventory and label existing historic objects throughout NIH.

The goal of the project is not to disturb or move the historic objects, but simply to identify and label them. The labels will alert anyone who may be considering discarding such objects that they are of historic importance and should be sent to the Stetten Museum rather than thrown away. Objects that anyone wishes to donate now will be reviewed by the museum's Collections Committee for possible acquisition.

The range of objects and memorabilia to be identified is broad. Examples include building cornerstones, memorial plaques, sculptures, busts, portraits, gifts to NIH or an institute, awards to NIH or an institute, photographs in which individuals and the date of photo are indentified, time capsules and their contents, historic clothing worn in labs, other historic laboratory fixtures or equipment, blueprints of building floor plans, and architectural models. No personal property of NIH personnel will be included unless voluntarily offered and appropriate, such as high-level awards for work done at NIH.

In general, scientific instruments are not included in this project. Any instruments with possible historic value should be offered directly to the Stetten Museum. Documents - letters, memos, laboratory data, notebooks, and the like - are also not included because they are the subject of a separate intramural records study being conducted in conjunction with the National Archives and Records Administration.

To facilitate the new effort to inventory historic objects, NIH Deputy Director Ruth Kirschstein has asked each institute, center, and division (ICD) director to appoint a contact person for the Alumni Association. The alumni group, in turn, has organized volunteers to take responsibility for each ICD. These volunteers will locate objects through discussions with a variety of institute personnel - both current and retired - and through physical inspection of facilities. Because many objects may be in storage or even located off-campus, staff should direct alumni representatives to the locations of important items. At the end of the project, a list of the historic objects will be generated, maintained, and updated by the NIH Historian's Office.

Questions about the project should be directed to Richard Seggel, chair of the NIH Alumni Association's historical committee (phone: 301 424-6449).

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