Christy Kincaid, Keeper of the Air Zoo Artifacts

By Scott Spangler on October 18th, 2021

Illuminating the spectrum of science, technology, and engineering opportunities embodies for people of all ages is one of the premeditated objectives of the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Experience in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Its many hands-on youth and adult education programs are the foundation of this effort. Built on it are volunteer and internship opportunities that reveal previously unknown professions such as the archivist who preserves and keeps track of a collection’s artifacts.

“I’ve been at the Zoo almost 14 years,” said Christy Kincaid. “I started as a high schooler and never left.” Education was one of the majors she worked her way through in college, she said, but she found the structure imposed on classroom teachers stifling. “It really takes the creativity out of being a teacher. I wanted to teach in a more informal setting, and that’s how I ended up as a museum person.”

Teachers are students who share what they’ve learned with others. An archivist since 2003, Kincaid interned at the Air Zoo and moved through a variety of roles. “Last February, before the pandemic hit, I was promoted to manager. It’s been a fun and interesting time. The majority of an archivist’s skills are learned on the job. I’m always learning, reaching out to my colleagues and different museums about the best ways to take care of something. My job is always fun—never boring. I’ve always got a project going on.”

One of them is guiding a team of colleagues and volunteers who are building a new computer database that keeps track of the Zoo’s menagerie. “We have about 100,000 objects and archival materials in our collection,” she said. “Everything will get a picture and tag and its own number. Only about 40,000 items in the collection are in the new database, so we have a lot of work ahead of us. One of my volunteers doing a high-level index said it’s taken her a month to work her way through one file drawer [of Guadalcanal contents] because she keeps going down an interesting rabbit hole.”

Beyond the aircraft on display, the collection “deals with everything from the weaponry pilots carry when they are flying and the everyday items a paratrooper has in his pack to the recognition cards Coca Cola created [during World War II] for citizens so they would feel more connected to the war and their loved ones in the service. We even have a happy birthday letter Hitler wrote to a member of his staff. The Guadalcanal collection is one of our pride and joys, and we rotate the items on display to help preserve them.”

Not quite as vast as the storeroom in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s still a good walk from the door to the back wall. Almost everything is organized by category, Kincaid said. Weaponry, machine guns to pistols. Everyday items services members carried—Bibles, playing cards, matches, cameras, glasses. Turning down another aisle between towering shelving units, “we have four aisles of pints and patches, and we’re reorganizing them; here are our NASA patches.” Not far away is the space collection. “We got it from the Jackson Space & Science Center in 2007, 2008. Most of our space collections is Skylab based, and it’s another collection we hope to ramp up and be able to tell a more present story.”

A couple of aisles down is the Zoo’s textile collections, a supersized closet organized by service—Marine, Navy, Coast Guard, Army, Air Corps, and Air Force—and conflict, World War I, World War II, Korea, and so on. Flags and banners are one of Kincaid’s favorite projects. “They were stored in tubes. After visiting other collections and learning more about how to preserve them, we took them out of the tubes, photographed them, researched them,” layered them in acid-free archival gauze, and wrapped them loosely around an acid-free cardboard tube. Pointing to the tag with a photo of the protected artifact, she said, “This is a Nazi banner that was draped outside a building.”

A few aisles back, the shelves are open-faced hangars for intricate, detailed model aircraft standing alone or in the center of a diorama that depicts a past moment in time. Beyond that is the odds and ends aisle. In addition to “toys, commercial aviation items, the trench art collection, if anything comes off one of our airplanes, like the panel removed from the Corsair so guests could see the machine guns in the wings, those things come here so we can keep them nice and safe.”

Preserving artifacts and keeping them safe is a multifaceted challenge that is often expensive. Sometimes it’s a matter of deciding how to organize the artifacts, like all of the artwork, posters, and other graphics in the long lines of flat files recently donated by Western Michigan University. Pointing to a letter-sized acid-free archival document box on a shelf, Kincaid said it cost $15. “To have one made for oversized items can run more than $300. Two years ago, I attended a workshop to learn how to make boxes. Figuring out how to make a box for a big artifact has been a tremendous challenge, but making them exactly how I need them has saved us a ton of money.”

Most of the artifacts on the shelves and on display were donated by individuals and families who gave the Air Zoo a piece of their personal history. “We have a lot of treasures here,” said Kincaid.

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