Skip to main content.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
{search_item}
Liz Dietrich in the collection stacks at the Smithsonian Oceanographic Sorting Center in Building 159 at the Washington Navy Yard Annex in 1980. Credit: Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dietrich.
Liz Dietrich in the collection stacks at the Smithsonian Oceanographic Sorting Center in Building 159 at the Washington Navy Yard Annex in 1980. Credit: Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dietrich.

Born in Ohio, Liz Dietrich spent much of her childhood moving around the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. She went to college at Michigan State, where she majored in parks and recreation resources, with an emphasis on environmental interpretation—a major that prepared her well for the work she does today. After graduating, she moved to the Washington, D.C., area.

She started at the Smithsonian in 1979, beginning her career at the Oceanographic Sorting Center, which was administered by the National Museum of Natural History and located out at Washington’s Navy Yard. The center served as a clearinghouse for the vast collections that came back from oceanographic expeditions. Use the audio player at right to listen to Liz Dietrich talk about her first job at the Smithsonian.

Liz Dietrich working on the National Museum of American History inventory, 1983, where exposed asbestos insulation required protective gear. Credit: Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dietrich.
Liz Dietrich working on the National Museum of American History inventory, 1983, where exposed asbestos insulation required protective gear. Credit: Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dietrich.

A few years later she moved to the Paul Garber facility, also out in Maryland, to work on the inventory program for the National Museum of American History—part of a massive Smithsonian-wide project to catalogue all of the institution’s collections. With the advent of computers, the Smithsonian began to create an item-by-item inventory. The process was laborious, with Dietrich and her colleagues initially collecting the information and writing it out by hand. Another section of the staff then entered that data into a local computer system, and then finally that data was uploaded to a centralized computer, where it was stored on tapes.

And then in 1983, she became one of the first move technicians for the new Museum Support Center (MSC), coordinating the transfer of materials from the overcrowded museums down on the Mall. For twenty years, she served as the move coordinator, overseeing the relocation of collections from the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, and other Smithsonian museums that have collections stored there. In 2003, she became the management officer of the MSC, in charge of administration—coordinating security, shipping, safety and disaster preparedness, collections support, and the planning and design and construction of new facilities.

The Smithsonian’s Museum Support Center was opened the year that Dietrich started working there. Located in Silver Hill, Maryland, some seven miles from the National Mall, the support center is designed to provide optimal storage and conservation areas for the institution’s vast collections. There were originally four “pods,” laid out in a zig-zag pattern, so as to permit future growth. Pod 5, which holds the “wet” collections (specimens preserved in alcohol, which—being flammable—pose serious safety and storage issues) from the National Museum of Natural History, was completed in 2007. Dietrich oversaw the design and construction of this most recent pod, which was the first project at the Smithsonian in many years to come in on time and under budget.

Over the course of her career, Dietrich has overseen the transfer and preservation of more than 55 million objects and specimens to MSC. The astonishing variety of these specimens poses its own challenges. There are microscopic-sized organisms, tissue samples stored in liquid nitrogen at temperatures of up to -190 degrees Celsius, ancient marine mammal skeletons weighing thousands of pounds, sound recordings of endangered languages, and meteorites that need to be stored in special cases flooded with nitrogen gas to protect them from earthly contaminants.

The MSC remains a model for the high-quality housing of collections, and it continues to add cutting-edge facilities for the preservation and study of the objects, specimens, and data used by the Smithsonian in their core mission: the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

 A panoramic view of Pod 4 at the Museum Support Center, with the Collections Support Staff responsible for the move of objects. Liz Dietrich is at far left. In the foreground at right is one of the Smithsonian’s two Easter Island stone figures.  Credit: Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.
A panoramic view of Pod 4 at the Museum Support Center, with the Collections Support Staff responsible for the move of objects. Liz Dietrich is at far left. In the foreground at right is one of the Smithsonian’s two Easter Island stone figures. Credit: Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.
video platform video management video solutions video player

Liz Dietrich talks about one of the more memorable moments of moving the collections to the Museum Support Center.

Images

An aerial view of the Museum Support Center in 1983, shortly after its completion. Credit: Photo by Jeff Tinsley, image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Archives.  Celebrating the first jar on the shelf in Pod 5, on April 26, 2007. From left to right: Liz Dietrich, Jerry Conlon, Vince Cogliano. Credit: Smithsonian Institution.
Liz Dietrich driving a forklift at the Paul E. Garber Facility at Suitland, Maryland, in 1983. Credit: Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dietrich. Liz Dietrich oyster diving in the Chesapeake Bay with Barbara Littman from the Smithsonian Oceanographic Sorting Center, January 1981. Credit: Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dietrich.
A Black Rhinoceros taken with bow and arrow in Angola (Portuguese West Africa) on June 3, 1966 by Robert Swinehart was moved to MSC in January 1986. From left to right, George Bolden, MSC Asst. Building Manager; Diane Nordeck, photographer from the Office of Printing and Photographic Services; and Wendy Jessup, MSC Collections Coordinator. Credit: Smithsonian Institution. The Biorepository, newly installed in Pod 3, in 2010, has the capacity to store 2.8 million two-milliliter cryo-tubes containing tissue or DNA, and it could be expanded to accommodate 3.8 million tubes in the future. The tubes are stored at temperatures ranging from -40°C to -190°C, in 58 mechanical freezers and 20 liquid nitrogen freezers. Credit: Smithsonian Institution.
The new meteorite cabinets, which house Antarctic meteorites in a nitrogen atmosphere to prevent contamination and slow deterioration, in Pod 3, 2010. Credit: Smithsonian Institution.

Audio

[ TOP ]