Saturday, January 14, 2017

Archivist at Naval Aviation Museum is history keeper

Archivist Marc Levitt


From records of a tiny squirrel monkey's journey to space to original Disney artwork from World War II to a dinner program signed by three aviation pioneers, the archives of the National Naval Aviation Museum help tell the story of Americans in flight and at war.

But it's a file folder containing critiques from flight instructors that is the favorite of Marc Levitt, the first full-time archivist hired to maintain the massive and growing collection of rare letters, artwork, maps and other documents now stored in the archives of the museum at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

The worn, brown file folder contains notes on Neil Armstrong, a young midshipman trying to earn his wings in 1950 under the critical eyes of Pensacola NAS instructors who kept detailed records on his progress.

"It is great when our historian shows it to our flight students today," Levitt said. "The first thing they want to do is to see what grades he got."

Like most flight students, the famed astronaut's marks improved throughout his training from "average" with the occasional "below average" to "average" with an occasional "above average."

"Nice hop, improved greatly," one instructor wrote in an Aug. 3, 1950, assessment of the man who, 19 years later, would become the first human to walk on the moon.



Levitt was hired two years ago as the museum's first professional archivist. He is overseeing work to scan many of the collection's 2.5 million historic records so that they can be viewed online.

In years past, the museum's Emil Buehler Library, which opened in 1992, managed its collection with the help of volunteers who worked under the direction of Hill Goodspeed, the museum's historian.

The museum's directors decided to bring on a full-time archivist to get a better handle on the growing number of personal letters, photographs and other historical documents donated to the library.

"Our collection has grown exponentially since the library opened. We needed someone with the skills required to maintain such a unique collection," Goodspeed said. "Someone who understood how to best preserve the items and organize them in the most user-friendly way."

Levitt is also going through a backlog of items that have yet to be inspected and officially added to the collection. 

Unlike librarians, archivists handle mostly one-of-a-kind and original documents.

"You can find the same books in a lot of different libraries, that isn't the case with archives," said Levitt, who previously worked in the archives of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and for the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education.

Levitt said one of the hardest parts of his job is not having the time to spend with all of the cool things he comes across as he categorizes, organizes and decides how to best preserve them for use by historians and other researchers.

Personal letters are often the most interesting items in the collection.

"People might not think anyone would want some old letters that their parents exchanged years ago, but the letters can be some of the most relevant items in terms of social and cultural history," he said.

The museum's collection includes the handwritten letters of Henry C. Mustin, the Naval aviation pioneer who established an air training base at Pensacola.

In a Jan. 21, 1914 letter to his wife, Mustin describes the conditions at the Pensacola base.

"The whole place is in a scandalous condition and I surely have a job on my hands. It looks as if it had been abandoned 50 years ago and since then had been used as a dump," he wrote. 

Later in the letter, he detailed his plans for flight training.

"It will take two weeks hard work before we can start the flying school for we have to build runways and do a lot of grading; I have 200 blue jackets on that kind of work and they seem to enjoy it."

Goodspeed said his favorite items in the archives are the letters.

"Personal letters offer a window into time that is unique to that person and there are a host of those letters in the archives collection," said Goodspeed, who especially likes a letter written by a Marine who was in Paris when World War I ended Nov. 11, 1918. The letter includes descriptions of the massive celebration marking the end of long years of war.

"It brings the history to life."

Not all of the archived materials are written.

The archives include an original cassette recording of radio communications from the 1968 Vietnam rescue mission by Medal of Honor recipient Clyde Lassen, a Navy pilot who flew into North Vietnam to rescue two pilots who had been shot down.

"You can hear the gunfire and the talking back and forth. It's pretty amazing," said Levitt, who is in the process of converting the recording so that it can be accessed online.

Another prized item in the archives is a 1931 dinner program signed by aviation pioneers Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh and Adm. Richard E. Byrd. The program is from a meeting of the Trans-Atlantic Flyers' organization honoring meteorologist James Kimball.

Among the quirkier items in the archives is a collection of photographs and local news stories about a squirrel monkey named Miss Baker, who was sent into space in 1959 and cared for by researchers at NAS Pensacola. The tiny monkey, who was launched into space inside a thermos-like container with a tiny opening for her face, was one of the first two monkeys successfully sent to space and recovered by U.S. scientists. News stories chronicled the famous monkey's return to earth and her subsequent marriages to two other squirrel monkeys. Miss Baker survived her fist husband.

The museum's archives is built mostly from the private donations from naval aviators and their families.

The family of famed World War II Naval aviator Joseph C. Clifton, known as "Jumping Joe," donated many of his personal items. Clifton, who died in 1967, commanded the VF-12 "Peg Legs" squadron in World War II. Clifton's collection includes an original painting of Peg Leg Pete, the sword-wielding parrot, created by a Walt Disney Company cartoonist as a mascot for the squadron. Disney artists designed squadron logos and mascots as a way to boost morale during the war.

Levitt encourages families to go through the items of their deceased family members with an eye toward history. Families do not always know the historic significance of the things they inherit, he said.

While the Pensacola museum specializes in all things related to Naval aviation, the museum has close ties with other Navy and military museums and can help families find the right place for items of historical interest.

Levitt, who has a passion for the history of Reconnaissance Europe, said he has come to have deep appreciation for the history of Naval aviation and for the sacrifices made by generations of aviators.

"For me, it is meaningful to be able to preserve that history," he said.

Although Levitt deals with the past in his job as an archivist, he is worried about the future. He fears modern history could be lost in the internet age where Facebook posts have replaced handwritten letters and physical photographs. Archivists around the world are looking at ways to compile and preserve electronic information of historic importance.

"That is a big issue for us when we look at the future," he said.

National Naval Aviation Museum


For more information on the National Naval Aviation Museum and its archives, visit http://www.navalaviationmuseum.org/

How to access the National Naval Aviation Museum Archives

• The archives are located in the National Naval Aviation Museum's Emil Buehler Library at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

• The library is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

• Some archived information is available online at http://www.navalaviationmuseum.org/education/emil-buehler-library/.

• To request information from the archives, email library@navalaviationmuseum.org.

Story, video and photo gallery:  http://www.pnj.com

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