Celebrating 100 Years
Elizabeth Dietrich and the Museum Support Center
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.
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.
Liz Dietrich talks about one of the more memorable moments of moving the collections to the Museum Support Center.
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