Army looking to offload surplus of artifacts

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Last week, a stunning new museum devoted to Army history opened its doors in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Meanwhile, the Army’s own museum enterprise, part of the Army Center of Military History, wants to divest itself of surplus items of the more than half million artifacts is now cares for. With what’s going on, the museum enterprise’s historic material division chief, Stefan Rohal, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Rohal, good to have you on.

Stefan Rohal: Good morning Tom.

Tom Temin: Tell us more about your office, the Museum Enterprise Historic Materials Division within the Army Center of Military History, not sure everyone knows this whole apparatus exists.

Stefan Rohal: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a little convoluted. So I’ll try to make it as clear as possible. The Army Museum Enterprise is sort of the overall entity and sort of oversight of all of our museums. And its mission is really to support the training, education and esprit de corps of soldiers and Army civilians, and really also serve as a repository and steward for the Army’s material culture. We also support research and development programs and civil works programs with the collection. And really the other main thing is to educate the general public about the Army and the heritage of its great service to this nation. Historic material division is really where all the artifacts in the Army artifact collections exists. It’s a centralized collection, even though we have 47 museums spread out across the country and a few overseas. The collection itself is centrally managed and out of historic material division. So the approximately 580,000 artifacts are accounted for and tracked via database and VR registrars here at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. So that’s where historic material division comes into play. And then our division reports to the museum’s Directorate which is part of the Center of Military History, which basically Center of Military History covers all history of the Amy, and we focus on museums. But Center of Military History covers writing and research and everything else in regards to history. And then Center of Military History, we’re under Training and Doctrine Command or TRADOC is our four star major command that we report up to. Hopefully, I know that’s kind of long, but hopefully that helps.

Tom Temin: Well, that’s so typical of the military, everything is kind of tied in in one way or another. And now you are divesting of some of the 580,000 artifacts. Why is that? And what type of quantities do you expect to get rid of?

Stefan Rohal: It’s a great question. When people hear divestiture or deaccession, it certainly causes pause. But really, it’s very common in the museum world and museums are always looking at their collections and what they need to retain and what may be excess. I think the reason the Army got to where it is today with the 580,000, and actually, it was close to 620,000 when I started three years ago, was that the Army Museum enterprise was formed in 2016. And all Army museums, except for I think two or three, then fell under trademark a few years later. So for the first time, all the museums were under the same command where in the past, they were spread out across the Army, and even though the collection was centrally managed to museums were not. And so that along with I think lack of technology led to all the museums sort of just collecting on their own. And so you had 47, and even more museums at one point, were just all collecting the same things. And in some cases, they were collecting very focused on what their museum mission was. But in other cases, they were just taking in representative examples of type and that led to mass duplication across the Army. And with improvements in technology, and communication and in databases, it really allows us now to take a look at the collection from a central standpoint, where in the past, I think it was sort of done more individually. And this is a years years in the making. Now we can really look at it as a whole, and sort of make those determinations. Okay, how many World War Two canteens do we need if there’s thousands? Because we only need a certain amount to show the different type of logical examples, maybe ones that were carried by individual soldiers, and how many we need to support our museums? And then once we look at that, we can then determine how much is excess. So that’s kind of how we’re looking at this and a whole.

Tom Temin: So the criteria then are based on how many there are, how many makes sense and what might already be on display in the museums. And I imagine there’s a lot of things that are not on display in warehouses?

Stefan Rohal: Absolutely. So the criteria we generally use, the criteria points, we use typological or how many examples that we have this certain model, all the used canteens, right. How many do we have of certain model of canteen? And then how many do we have that were actually carried by a soldier in combat, and we know that what we call associated history or it has a strong provenance to it. So we’ll look at kind of both of those areas. And then in terms of density studies, we’ll look at how many do we need typological to one support the research, but two support exhibitions that are museums and training because that’s really what we’re all about. And the idea is, we want to come to a point in which we have what we need. But we’re able to divest of what’s really more what we would consider surplus material than an artifact. Because that allows us to really put our manpower and our funding to preserve those things that are most important to the Army.

Tom Temin: And how do you actually go about disposing? It becomes surplus federal property — does it go over to the GSA?

Stefan Rohal: Absolutely. So we have to follow the same regulations as any Army entity. So we are working with DLA and GSA right now. And we’re working on sort of some beta tests and how this looks and how we turn in this material. And really, it does get turned in the same way any other surplus federal property gets turned in, however, we, I think, have a different target audience. So we are looking to get this material out to other museums, educational institutions, entities that qualify for the donation of historical assets via the Title 10. That’s what allows us to transfer that stuff out. So we’re trying to get it to these nonprofits, these state municipal organizations. And GSA already has a program in existence, which we can tap into. And that once it goes through the DLA and we’ll offer it out to other federal entities first, so Park Service, Smithsonian — entities like that. Once it goes through that screening process, it will go down to GSA and GSA will put it out through their program. And they have a regional program that allows museums and educational institutions to sign up and then look at the types of things that become available and really confident that they’re going to be able to place the majority of the types of things that we’re going to push out.

Tom Temin: And just out of curiosity, how did you come to this type of work? What is your background?

Stefan Rohal: So my background is I was always interested in military history. And I just really got lucky, I got my history degree at Penn State University. And I was able to get in at the Pennsylvania Military Museum, which is right outside of State College in Boalsburg. And I worked there for several years. And then I got in with the Marine Corps, I worked for the National Museum in the Marine Corps for 11 years. And now I’ve been with the Army for a little over three years. So it’s been wonderful to be able to support these museums and the veterans and just the education that goes on in these institutions, it’s really a wonderful job. And I’m grateful to have it.

Tom Temin: So it seems like in this divestiture, there’s the opportunity for a lot of local state township museums, historical societies, to maybe augment their collections with what the Army might consider surplus, but it’s something they don’t have.

Stefan Rohal: Absolutely, and that’s the main goal of the project is really just because it’s an excess to us, doesn’t mean somebody else doesn’t have a need for it. And really, that’s the hope. That’s where museums, public trust is a huge deal. And so for us, we want to make sure that the public understands that we are trying to place this stuff and that even though it’s access to us, we realize that other museums and other educational institutions may have use for it. So we’re really hopeful that this stuff can be used elsewhere.

Tom Temin: Now the National Museum of the US Army that just opened by the Army’s historical foundation. And I guess the Army has a role in helping it get established, will some of the stuff go there because they have about 1300 or 1400 artifacts, which doesn’t sound like that many for a museum of that scale.

Stefan Rohal: Actually, that lines up pretty much with what the National Museum of the Marine Corps opened with, I think they’re pretty much on par. And I think they’ve got a good number of artifacts over there. So the National Museum of the Army is also part of the Center of Military History. Now, the foundation raised the funds to build the building, but the Army actually runs the facility and its government staff that manage the museum itself there. So the Army artifact collection, the central collection, we were discussing supports the National Museum of the United States Army. So anything within that collection is available, and the National Museum and the Army is our Keystone Capstone Museum, I guess you would say, it’s going to reach the general public in a way that some of our other museums, which may be behind gates and garrisons and stuff can’t. So the most significant and most important artifacts are on display at the National Museum of the United States Army. And we proudly support that museum.

Tom Temin: And the final question, is it possible or does it ever cross your mind that out there in the attics and barns across America, there might be some Army artifacts that the material command does not have — the surplus materials and the historical commands do not have? And that if someone said, hey we got one of these, you might say, you know, we’ll take it.

Stefan Rohal: Yes, absolutely. I mean, really, the divestiture is we’re trying to right size what we have now and one of the reasons that we’re right sizing what we have now is because we’ve identified gaps in the Army collections. So while there are areas where we have a great number of representative examples, there are areas in which we don’t, I would say 20th century is probably the bulk of the collection. So anything that’s pre 20th century is definitely something we would look at anything that has a great story, even if it is World War Two. We have a lot of things but something that has a signature an Army story, a significant soldier story will always take a look at it. But also Modern Warfare is something that because the Great War on Terrorism still going on, a lot of that stuff is still significant to those veterans who have served so they haven’t necessarily donated yet, or in some cases, things that are controlled by the Army such as weapon systems and vehicles are still in use. So they’re not being retired yet. We can’t bring those into the collection. So, again, the goal is for right sizing, we want to divest the surplus so that those significant things can be preserved and that we can bring in other things of significance in areas where we don’t have as much in the collection.

Tom Temin: Stefan Rohal is chief of the Historic Materiel Division of the Army Museum enterprise. Thanks so much for joining me.

Stefan Rohal: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you and appreciate you getting the word out about our program and what we’re doing — and it was great to talk to you today.

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