Fact Sheets

Museum Support Center

September 1, 2009

The Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center was dedicated in May 1983, after two years of construction and a decade of planning. At that time, the building included four storage pods, offices and labs in a unique zigzag-shaped design, covering 4½ acres of land in Silver Hill, Md. The building incorporated the latest in museum technology and was designed to provide the optimum conditions for both the preservation and study of the Smithsonian’s collections. The future needs of the Institution were addressed in the design with a plan for two additions.

In April 2007, the first addition—Pod 5—and its related laboratories were opened at the east end of the MSC, adding approximately 125,000 square feet to the original building. By mid-2009,

Pod 5 housed all of the National Museum of Natural History’s biological collections (25 million specimens) preserved in fluids, such as alcohol and formalin, and informally known as the “wet collections.” The facility has the latest technology for the safe use of flammable liquids. 

In February 2010, renovations on Pod 3—which previously held the wet collections—will be completed. This pod will accommodate collections from the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Museum of African Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, as well as Natural History collections that need a special environment.

To ensure the collections are available for future generations, the environment within the MSC is strictly controlled to minimize impact on collections. The climate-control system maintains the desired environmental conditions in all areas of the building year-round. Based on recent research by engineers at the Museum Conservation Institute (located at the MSC) and the Smithsonian’s Office of Facilities, Engineering and Operations, in general, the target temperature and relative humidity are 70 degrees Fahrenheit (+/- 4 degrees) and 45 percent (+/- 8 percent), respectively.

A modern pest-management program, involving the inspection and treatment of incoming collection materials and the placement of insect traps throughout the building, permit staff to monitor the situation in the center and prevent the development of infestations that could be harmful to the collections.

Because the MSC is home to some of the nation’s most valuable museum collections, there is a security system that employs a combination of security officers and monitoring and detection equipment. Upon entering the facility, individuals are required to pass through a security checkpoint. Visitor access is strictly controlled and the building is not open to the public.

The five large pods, each approximately the size of a football field and rising to approximately 28 feet in height, are separated from an office and laboratory complex by a 20-foot-wide central corridor or “street.” Pods 1, 2 and part of 4 contain more than 15,000 storage cabinets. A portion of Pod 4, referred to as “high bay,” houses oversize specimens such as boats, totem poles, fossils and meteorites.

In the Department of Anthropology, collections management staff, curators, conservators and other scholars conserve and study the Smithsonian’s archeological and ethnographic collections relating to cultures from around the world. The National Anthropological Archives, which includes sound and paper recordings of early endangered and obsolete languages and the Human Studies Film Archives, are located in the MSC.

Researchers in the Departments of Botany, Entomology, Invertebrate Zoology and Vertebrate Zoology study plant and animal DNA in the Laboratories for Analytical Biology. In two separate buildings located near the MSC, the Departments of Vertebrate Zoology and Paleobiology store modern and ancient marine-mammal skeletons. These collections are actively used by researchers and include skulls from the largest whales to smaller animals such as seals, sea cows and dolphins. 

In a specially constructed clean room, the Department of Mineral Sciences stores the Antarctic meteorite collection in cases flooded with nitrogen gas so that specimens from space are kept free from earthly contaminants. Many fossils from the Department of Paleobiology are housed in Pod 4, including dinosaurs, turtles, horses and ancient plants.

Oldest Collections
The collections at the MSC include items acquired throughout the history of the Smithsonian as well as those dating from before its founding. Specifically, there are anthropological and natural history specimens gathered by the Wilkes Expedition (1838-1842) and diplomatic gifts to American Presidents, the earliest piece was a gift to President Martin Van Buren (1837-1841). Other items include material from the Perry Expedition to Japan (1854).

Size of the Collection
There are currently more than 54 million collections items at the MSC.

Collections Space
The collections storage space at the MSC totals 435,000 square feet.

Other Collections Facts

  • Oldest items: Iron meteorites estimated to be 4.56 billion years old.
  • Coldest items: Tissue samples stored at -130 degrees Celsius.
  • Heaviest items: A fossil weighing 5,291 pounds and a pepper-mill grinding stone weighing 3,646 pounds.
  • Longest item: A 44-foot totem pole.
  • Smallest items: Microscopic animals and plants.

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Linda St.Thomas
(202) 633-5188

Becky Haberacker
(202) 633-5183