Up in Arms

Published — April 17, 2012 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Navy failing to preserve historical culture, IG report says

An internal report warns that the service is ill-equipped to protect artifacts, records

Introduction

The group tasked with preserving the rich history of the U.S. Navy could be putting artifacts, paintings, and documents “at risk” — possibly due to massive spending on the service’s 200th anniversary.

That’s the conclusion of a report by the Navy Inspector General’s office, conducted last August but only released to the public in recent days. The report, an inspection of the Naval History and Heritage Command, is pessimistic about that office’s work.

The report criticizes the Navy for a lack of environmental controls for archived records, including microfilm and CD-ROMs; the “disenfranchisement” of the professional archivist and librarian workforce — which it depicts as having been marginalized; and a tardiness in collecting current information for future archives.

These shortcomings are striking, given the military’s tradition of obsessive attention to the history of battles and lesser engagements so that commanders can learn what went right or wrong and how to avoid making similar mistakes. “More than most professions, the military is forced to depend upon intelligent interpretation of the past for signposts charting the future,” Gen. Douglas MacArthur once noted. The French general Antoine-Henri Jomini, added that “Military History, accompanied by sound criticism, is indeed the true school of war.”

Whether the Navy’s agency can change its path on its paltry budget — $38 million to manage the archives, museums and the most notable artifact of all, the U.S.S. Constitution floating in Boston harbor — is uncertain. But a number of historians interviewed for the report said they worried the leadership at the Command is too focused on big ceremonies, such as a series of bicentennial events celebrating the War of 1812.

According to an April 15 account in The Washington Post, the Navy is concerned about declining public awareness of the Navy’s military significance, and views the celebrations — whose preparations have cost $12 million over the last five years — as a key public relations tool. The Inspector General’s report states that despite hopes that the War of 1812 celebration could be the “moon shot” that turns around public perception of the Navy, “many staff historians feel senior leadership is focused on commemorations to the exclusion of other critical mission areas.”

While the conflict was the first war the formalized Navy played a part in, the decision to build a massive PR campaign around the War of 1812 — a war rarely in the public consciousness and one without a clear winner — may seem an odd choice. But that hasn’t stopped the Navy from attempting to capitalize on the anniversary, with kiosks and displays going up around hundreds of American museums, a new website, and a video narrated by actor Richard Dreyfuss.

The IG’s conclusions were based on surveys of personnel, on-site focus groups, and inspections. On the whole, workers were greatly dissatisfied: The “Quality of Work Life” score was “the lowest ever observed throughout the existing [Command] database.” The hands on assessments of 39 historical programs found eleven that were “on track,” nine that “need more attention” and nineteen which were “off track.”

The report mostly blames the office’s leadership. While staff levels have shrunk among archivists and the work force has suffered from being left out of the decision process, the Strategic Planning Office has failed to develop “effective metrics” to evaluate progress and has not implemented a heavily delayed strategic plan. Meanwhile, the eleven experts in the Department of the Navy Secretariat chartered with providing independent advice and recommendations have not met in the last three years.

“Irregular funding exacerbated by poor communication has resulted in staff shortfalls and created excessive budget uncertainty” throughout the agency, according to the IG.

The Command maintains 230,000 square feet at the Washington Navy Yard, as well as a dozen museums spread throughout the country. Many of these lack the proper technology to maintain their collections. The HVAC systems in “most” building do not meet the standards used by museums, libraries and archives around the U.S. In one telling case, a lab-grade refrigerator was bought to store the most endangered microfilm, but the device could not run properly in the “high humidity environment” of the archives.

Developing a future for the archives is also a challenge, according to the report. Over 60 percent of the various Naval commands around the globe are not fulfilling their obligation to submit written testimony and notes to the archives, while there are too few archivists working to formulate oral histories of current events. Some of these flaws were noted in a review two years ago, but “we found a lack of significant improvement on documented deficiencies” since then, the new report states.

The report recommends the appointment of a blue ribbon panel made up of “eminent historians” to suggest needed changes, calling it “a matter of priority.”

“Most of what came up in the report is not anything new to us,” Command spokeswoman LCDR Heidi Lenzini told the Center. “The IG confirmed things we already knew and it helped spur leadership to do more, and we have not stopped moving.”

As to the staff complaints about the bicentennial event, Lenzini dismisses those as comparing “apples to oranges. “The problems we’ve had have been issues for several decades,” she said, and were unrelated to the War of 1812 events.

Lenzini compared the challenges of updating the Command to a marathon, saying the report was really a snapshot of last August and the group has agency has continued to improve since the summer. “I think, as painful as it is to look at, [the report is] not bring us down. We’re not hanging our heads in shame … Every day it’s being improved upon.”

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