The Big Move or, How to Relocate 20,000 Objects Without Losing Your Mind!

When you think about museum storage, what springs to mind? Perhaps an attic stuffed to the rafters with dusty boxes and the occasional bat? A leaky basement where mildewing sheets cover mysterious lumpy piles of objects? Or maybe you imagine something like the vast, secret government warehouse in the Indiana Jones films, where endless rows of crates go to be forgotten….

The reality is a little more down-to-earth than the cavernous warehouse, and in better shape than the dusty attic or damp basement. In fact, the National Law Enforcement Museum’s collection just moved into a brand-new storage facility, pictured below.

This move was no small feat! The museum’s collection comprises over 20,000 artifacts, ranging in size from photographs, pins and uniform buttons to furniture, artwork and an entire car. Relocating a museum collection is a little more complicated than packing up a house or business. So how did I do it?
To begin with, it’s important to explain how museums display and store artifacts. Nearly every museum has far more artifacts in its possession than it has space to display them; on average, American museums have only 10% of their collection on display at any given time. Here at the Museum, we have nearly 800 objects on display, meaning that only about 4% of our collection is in the galleries. What do we do with the rest? They are stored in a special off-site facility with a carefully-regulated environment to keep them preserved for as long as possible. But these objects don’t just go into boxes or cabinets and disappear forever! They are regularly accessed by our curatorial team, photographed, researched, and examined as part of our continuing exploration and documentation of the history of law enforcement.
When the museum decided we needed to move to a new storage facility, that meant I had to take some crucial steps before moving day:
1) Perform a shelf inventory of the current storage facility and make sure that everything we have record of matches what’s on the shelves. When objects are moved around, sometimes they don’t end up back where they belong; before a move it’s crucial to make sure every artifact is in the right place, or we could lose track of something along the way.
2) Design the layout of the new collections space and decide where every artifact would be placed after the move. The artifacts that were already stored in cabinets would be placed back in cabinets, but many of the artifacts we keep in boxes on open shelving would be rearranged on the other side. I had to consider spacing, artifact materials, weight, fragility, and frequency of use when deciding what would go where.
3) Finally, I had to label every box with its final destination so that unpacking would go smoothly. Just as you might label boxes as “kitchen” or “master bedroom” when you move out of your house, we had to give every box a destination in its new home. But unlike your house move, I had over 1,500 boxes to label!
Once the collection was ready for the big move, I called in the experts at ELY, Inc. to pack the artifacts and relocate them to the new facility. Art handlers from ELY are experts in moving museum artifacts; they carefully documented, packed, and transported our entire collection without a hitch. ELY also helped me figure out how to safely move some of our larger and more challenging objects, such as a 30-foot flag and our biggest item, the 1990 Chevy Caprice used by the Beltway Snipers. The Beltway Sniper car had to be carefully wrapped, loaded onto a tilt-bed truck and slowly driven the short distance to the new facility. Once there, it was placed on GoJak car dollies, which act like roller skates for the car’s tires, and carefully rolled into place in our new storage space.

Following several months of work, a few headaches and a couple of creative solutions, we now have our entire collection in an excellent new storage space, designed specifically for our needs and maintained at the highest standards. I couldn’t ask for more than that!
So what’s next for the National Law Enforcement Museum’s collection? Now that it’s unpacked we can welcome researchers back to our facility to learn from our collection. I am also working with our curator to rotate some artifacts out of the galleries downtown and replace them with objects currently in storage. And of course, we are continuing to collect new artifacts as we work to become the foremost repository of American law enforcement history in the country.
If you are interested in donating a law enforcement artifact to the National Law Enforcement Museum’s collection, please reach out to us via the Contact page for more information.