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Lincoln Death Chair.
Lincoln Death Chair.

Cleaning the Henry Ford Museum

Field review by the editors.

Dearborn, Michigan

We received mail from Theresa Sullivan-O'Neill, a member of the Cleaning Staff at the Henry Ford's Museum & Greenfield Village, one of America's biggest collections of stuff. She agreed to describe the collection from the perspective of the team that keeps it polished and dust-free on a daily basis:

We are organized into two groups: operations and historical cleaning. Our Operations Cleaning staff start work at 4:00 A.M. to take care of our basic cleaning -- things such as bathrooms, offices, food service areas -- anything that is not a collection item. This includes the showcases.

Lincoln Death Chair

I can tell you from MUCH personal experience that the Lincoln chair is a mess every day, while the case that houses Edison's last breath generally just gets dusty. That, though, is because Edison's last breath is behind a rope barrier. However, Lincoln's chair has always been a very popular piece in our collection, and has always attracted a lot of attention.

Clyde Barrow's Letter

Telephony display.
Visitors can let their greasy fingers do the walking over the Telephone History cases.

Another piece that I've given a lot of directions to is, surprisingly, the letter from Clyde Barrow to Henry Ford that is in our "Automobile in American Life" exhibit. And, for the record, that exhibit's cases seem to be touched more often than in any other area of the museum. (This also depends a lot on how a case is made (whether it is upright or low), and whether or not it is behind a barrier or not. However, the AAL exhibit is very, very popular with visitors to the museum.)

Our Historical cleaning staff, which includes five women and one man, take care of the collections. Some collections are extremely tall or high, such as the steam engines in our "Made In America" exhibit, or the airplanes, some of which are suspended from the ceiling. Some things, such as the pits beneath some of the engines, are very deep, and require some real thinking as to how to access them. Other things are so very fragile that special cleaning tools and techniques must be used. Special training and assistance is given by our Conservation staff, with whom the Historical cleaning people work very closely.

Dust of the Ages

We generate a considerable amount of dust, and that, by far, is the most common cleaning task. The cars are cleaned with damp cloths and then wiped with dry ones to remove the dust. Other things, such as jewelry, will have dust removed by using a soft brush very gently.


Lunar Rover.
Lunar Rover, next to the 1896 Ford Quadricycle.

The Reagan car and the Kennedy [Death] Car collect a lot of dust, because they are located near the entrance in a high traffic area, with a door to a courtyard nearby. They are dusted every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But the Kennedy car also gets touched a lot, so those fingerprints must also be removed. The oils from hands can do considerable damage to our collections, which is why we ask visitors not to touch -- but people don't understand why. If they could see the pictures of some of the damage done to collections just from fingerprints, maybe they wouldn't touch as often. But everyone thinks their one touch won't harm a piece, so they do it anyway. And with the hundreds and thousands of people who think that way, well, we end up with quite a mess to take care of.

Dealy Plaza Joyride

We have even had our security staff remove people from the back seat of the Kennedy car, by the way. One door of the Bubbletop (Eisenhower's car) fell off when a visitor reached over the barrier to open it for a better look.

Animal Visitations

Another interesting (?) cleaning challenge is messes created by wildlife, particularly raccoons. They are a problem in both the museum and the village. One time I had to clean Lindbergh's motorcycle after a raccoon that was in a bay in the ceiling directly overhead decided to hang his hindquarters over the edge and relieve himself.

Good-bye Lunar Rover

We no longer have the Lunar Rover. It was sent back to NASA either last year or early this year. I was kind of glad to see it go so I wouldn't have to clean it again -- but it wasn't in "my" section at the time, either. It was very difficult to clean, because a lot of it was fragile, and it was made of so many kinds of materials. The seats were kind of like lawn chairs, and the material snagged EVERYTHING. The little "dishes" at the top of it were like baskets that collected dust, and I always ended up with a face full of dust. Cobwebs formed quickly, too, and it always looked like we hadn't touched it in months. So, I, personally, was happy to say good-bye.

A final note to visitors: Please respect the artifacts in ANY collection. Just look and don't touch. There are so many problems involved in preservaton and conservation to begin with, and the damage done by visitors who handle artifacts just makes the job more difficult. If you respect the rules, these pieces will be around for many more years of visitation to all of our museums and attractions.

Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation

20900 Oakwood Blvd, Dearborn, MI
I-94 to northbound Southfield Fwy/Hwy 39, then to exit 4, Oakwood Blvd. Left on Oakwood.
Daily 9:30-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $30 museum, $33 Greenfield Village.
RA Rates:
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