State Department opens doors to historic treasure trove

Thursday - 9/5/2013, 3:11pm EDT

Washington, D.C., is a place where history is celebrated through its memorials and museums. But the city is also a place where making history is a daily occurrence.

These two aspects of history — the celebration of the past and the present — merge in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the State Department's headquarters building. The rooms are not just a treasure trove of Americana and objects of art; they serve as a backdrop for diplomacy by the Secretary of State during the course of his or her term.

These rooms have been closed for several weeks as conservators conduct their annual in-depth inspection and cleaning of the items on display. Federal News Radio got the chance to see the State Department's treasure trove of historic objects while renovation was going on. The collection of artwork and historic pieces contains more than 5,000 objects, with a collective value of more than $100 million.

(Story continues after photo gallery.)

On this desk, the Treaty of Paris was signed on Sept. 3, 1783. Click on the image to view a complete photo gallery from the State Department's Diplomatic Reception Rooms. (Photo by Michael O'Connell/Federal News Radio)

"The rooms evolved over a period of more than 50 years, in terms of the transformation architecturally, as well as the building of the collection, all through contributed funds," said Marcee Craighill, director and curator of the Dipolomatic Reception Rooms. "So, it's an amazing story of philanthropy and patriotism, not only in the objects in the collection, because each object has a story, either relative to the craftsman who made it or to a patriot who might've owned it or participated in an historic event, or commemorating historic events."

One of the State Department's most important historic objects is a desk where the Treaty of Paris was signed. The small piece of furniture usually resides in the John Quincy Adams Room, but during the renovation, it was moved to the Benjamin Franklin Room.

"It was a desk that was in Paris in the apartments of David Hartley," Craighill said. "On the morning of Sept. 3, 1783, the treaty was signed by John Jay, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. It ended the Revolutionary War. This is the desk where, students come into these rooms and they stop texting. It suddenly becomes a real moment where history happened. And, what we are also able to share is that history happens every day in these rooms. It is remarkable the events that take place. They are a backdrop for current diplomacy and these extraordinary events continue."

According to Craighill, the reception rooms are actively used by State Department staff for meetings and receptions — more than 800 official events in 2012 alone. Events ranged from bilateral meetings, State luncheons, press walkups, interviews with the secretary and swearing in ceremonies.

"The rooms were created, very purposefully, not only to reflect American history from the founding of our country, but also to reflect the architecture of that period, to create an environment that would inspire diplomacy, build friendships," Craighill said. "The spaces are intimate. They're not overwhelming. And so, the idea is that the best of American craftsmanship, the most representative art that tells a story of America, objects that have these deep, rich patriotism or philanthropy or participation in diplomatic events, surround current diplomacy."

Annual renovation helps preserve the collection

Every summer, the State Department closes down the Reception Rooms to allow staff members to clean, repair and renovate the objects on display. Craftsmen and specialists from around the country come to D.C. to help with the effort.

"We close for a few weeks in August for the amount of time that we can to do the various projects," Craighill said. "Some we have to postpone for a year or two based on the time that we have, and really go throughout the collection, go throughout the rooms to examine historic objects, examine the architecture and refresh everything we need to."

The renovations are entirely financed through donations from the public. In 2011, the State Department was able raise a $20.1 million endowment from citizens and foundations through its Patrons of Diplomacy effort.

"They understood the power of what these rooms could communicate and I think wanted to be a part, and continue to be a very generous part, of the work of our nation," Craighill said.

She described the periodic renovations as a team effort.

"It's a top-notch collection, really, one of the best furniture collections in the country," said Sean Fisher, who, with fellow Conservator Scholar Thom Gentle, has helped to maintain the Diplomatic Reception Rooms for nearly 30 years. "Considering it's also a collection in use, it's not just a static collection. This is the furniture that's used for all of the diplomatic ceremonies and receptions. It serves a purpose. It's not just behind the velvet rope. And it's important to ensure that it stays in tip-top shape and is able to be used and serve the purposes that it's used for."

Where past and present history meet

The Secretary of State is ultimately responsible for maintaining the condition of the collection, which is also for his or her use in entertaining or other diplomatic work.

Some pieces of furniture have glass tops to protect them, and ropes are also used to partition off delicate pieces from the public. There's also a limit to the use of red wine within certain areas, as well as food and drinks in some rooms. During events, the public can't be any closer to objects than 3 feet.

"We manage it as a collection that is in use, but with the idea that we can prevent damage," Craighill said.

Barring conflicts caused by State Department events, the Diplomatic Reception Rooms are open to three public tours a day, at 9:30 a.m.; 10:30 a.m.; and 2:45 p.m. Each tour is limited to about 25 people and members of the public need to call ahead to reserve a place on a tour and to check tour availability.

This year's renovation is almost complete. Rooms will reopen to the public on Monday, Sept. 9. For more information, visit the State Department's website.