"We definitely welcome more exposure," said Marcee Craighill, director and de facto curator of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms who leads an office of four staff members responsible for preserving and protecting the collection.
"We have an unbelievable resource that's just lying here waiting to have its stories told."
In addition to the 50th anniversary gala, Craighill's
Fine Arts Office is hoping to broaden area educational partnerships and expand access to the Diplomatic Reception Rooms
via the Internet, digitizing the entire collection so that when you Google
"Benjamin Franklin," for instance, items from the rooms instantly pop up, with links to historical and artistic information.
"I'm trying more and more to tell the stories of the objects in all of the material that we produce to take it from an extraordinary decorative art collection to an extraordinary historical story," Craighill told The Washington Diplomat.
"So we've spent a lot of time in the last few years rebranding who we are, what we do that's different from other museums, and what our story is."
That story also epitomizes America's own arduous journey to statehood.
"In so many ways, the story of the development of this collection parallels the story of the development of our nation.
We really did have this early period where we were fumbling along and weren't quite sure of ourselves.
And then I think we hit our stride and really developed a cohesive, extraordinary collection that has such great purpose," said Craighill, a museum specialist who holds a master's in American decorative arts from the Parsons School for Design in New York.
"To have a museum-quality collection of priceless objects that serve the country, serve the purpose of diplomacy, is extraordinary," she
It's an intense, behind-the-scenes, 24-hour operation to keep the rooms running smoothly, as everyone from protocol officers to the kitchen staff must balance the daily stream of public viewings and private functions, which amount to three docent-led public tours every day and, Craighill
estimated, about 350 to 400 activities each year.
"Unlike a museum, these rooms are constantly being used," said Craighill, who has worked at the Office of Fine Arts for seven years.
"It's a museum collection with a great purpose," she
added, "fine art in the service of the country, of the art of diplomacy."
That service though translates into a lot of wear and tear - which in turn fuels another crucial aspect of the operation: fundraising.
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms
embody the face of American diplomacy for countless dignitaries, so they can't look haggard, but the restoration of priceless art can, of course, get pricey.
noted that to reupholster one gold-hued serpentine sofa, for instance, cost roughly $120,000.
Each piece of silverware and brass must be re-polished with special lacquers.
"The premise is that you do not cause any damage to historical objects.
Every aspect is preservation and low-impact - so that there's not another nail hole driven.
Every aspect of restoration is done in the way it would have been done in the 18th century," Craighill
Yet not a single taxpayer dime is spent for the upkeep, a fact the State Department prides itself on.
Instead, it looks to private - and patriotic - citizens to cover the costs.
Donors have contributed every single piece of art in the rooms and helped to raise funds each year for their conservation.
"It's rather remarkable that all of it has been given," Craighill
said, noting she
maintains "wonderful relationships" with donors in the U.S. art community.
Like any museum curator, Craighill also works with patrons to fill gaps in the collection.
currently on the lookout for more portraits of women of the period - "We'd love to have a Dolley Madison" - and early views of U.S. cities in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as any other museum-caliber objects "that tell the story of America."
Each year in August, the rooms are closed for inspection.
"Nothing is left to deteriorate.
And so everything is examined," Craighill
"Conservator scholars ... do an evaluation of the collection and we discuss what we can do within our budget, and lay out a plan for the next few years."
In the past though, it's been more of a piecemeal approach, with Craighill's
office charged with raising roughly between $300,000 to $500,000 a year for conservation, forcing it at times to choose one priority over another if the money came up short.
Craighill also praises the current secretary of state for finding time in her busy schedule (she's logged nearly 1 million miles as one of the country's most well-traveled diplomats in history) to refocus attention on the rooms.
"When I started this job just over two years ago, I was surprised to learn that there was no endowment to support the Diplomatic Rooms or this collection.
and her team were forced to make difficult decisions every year about which pieces would be conserved and which would not," Clinton said at a recent reception honoring "Patrons of Diplomacy" donors, explaining the impetus behind the endowment.
"It was just so serendipitous that Secretary Clinton arrived because we were ready to move forward," Craighill told us, "but we just needed help."
says, "everything has a purpose," and each piece is part of the larger American narrative.
"I hope it conveys the spirit of how fortunate we are in this country that citizens have stepped forward," Craighill
said of the rooms in general and the collection inside them.