Penn College graduate preserves history at the Smithsonian

October 04, 2019

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Standing 6-foot-5 and dressed in a dark blue lab coat accessorized by purple latex gloves and safety glasses, the Pennsylvania College of Technology graduate resembles a bookish superhero rather than a federal contractor.

Daniel J. Ravizza’s appearance is appropriate for his domain. All sorts of aircraft representing various eras of aviation history extend from the ceiling of the hangar-like facility. An old Eastern Airlines plane is stationed behind him. A short walk from his lab counter reveals the space shuttle Discovery in all its glory.

His duties reflect the unique environment. One day, Ravizza moves Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. The next, he examines clothing belonging to famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. Later, he handles unopened cans of space food, once belonging to cosmonauts.

Ravizza is an objects conservator at the Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, the annex of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The Honesdale native has combined the technical skills honed at Penn College and within industry with his lifelong love for history to preserve prized artifacts for future generations.

“I’ve always liked old stuff more than new stuff. I get to take care of old things and work with them all day, so I’m definitely happy,” Ravizza said.

The current “old thing” is a turbocharger that supplied extra air to the engine of an experimental German World War II high-altitude fighter. According to Ravizza’s research, only three such aircraft were built. He’s tasked with stemming the magnesium corrosion.

“Problem-solving is what I enjoy the most,” he said. “Something comes in, and we have to figure it out. It’s like, ‘What the heck is this?’ It’s incredibly fascinating to find out what it is and what its purpose was and deciding how we are going to fix it.”

A fancy ray gun-like device, officially known as an XRF spectrometer, often is employed to identify the metals in artifacts. Organic solvents are a common remedy for cleaning and combating corrosion like he’s discovered on the turbocharger.

“Most of my work is done in the conservation lab. We want to preserve it in the condition it was last used effectively, rather than bring it back to how it might have looked when new,” Ravizza said. “The preservation tasks I perform stabilize the object, so it does not get worse.”

As a child, Ravizza’s days often were consumed by tinkering and collecting. He accumulated old locks and keys to play with and loved to fix and build “stuff.” Three years of high school metal shop convinced him to study machining at a college close to home before finding his way to Penn College, where he earned associate degrees in toolmaking technology and automated manufacturing technology in 2007.

“I liked the instructors, the facilities, access to other programs, a wide spectrum of things,” he said. “I also liked how you could get an associate degree at Penn College and then go into the bachelor’s program. You could stop halfway if you wanted and return and painlessly fit back in.”

That’s what Ravizza did. He worked as a machinist and toolmaker for about four years to “master the trade” before returning to Penn College and obtaining a bachelor’s degree in manufacturing engineering technology in 2014.

“Dan is certainly one of our most memorable students,” said Keith H. English, instructor of automated manufacturing and machining. “Every task he did was completed to the best of his ability. The results were usually terrific. Dan was wise beyond his years. He had the ability to look at a situation and assess what needed done and would plan to achieve his goals.”

He followed that process when it came to his career. Ravizza wanted to combine craftsmanship with history, so he obtained a master’s degree in conservation studies from West Dean College of Arts and Conservation in Chichester, England.

“The program is unique. You actually learn how to make stuff, as well as repairing and conservation,” Ravizza said. “That was the appeal. Plus, with my interest in history, it was silly not to go to England, where everything is so much older.”

A part-time job at Plowden and Smith — a prestigious London firm specializing in art restoration services — and an internship at the Henry Ford Museum complemented his education. After graduate school, Ravizza worked at the Central Park Conservatory, where he was tasked with preserving sculptures and monuments in New York City’s 843-acre green haven. Contacts made at that job led to his hiring at the Smithsonian in October 2017.

Ravizza’s first assignment involved the unopened, swollen, distended cans of Russian space food.

“There was a can of cheese that was leaking. There were cans of tuna and other things. It was a disgusting mess. We had to come up with a way to preserve the cans,” he said.

The solution? Ravizza manufactured a bacteriological can opener to cut out the bottom of the cans and trash the contents. He removed the cans’ labels, cleaned the metal cans and reattached the labels. The artifacts were ready to be preserved.

“That was pretty interesting,” he said.

Like many of his completed projects, the cans of space food aren’t on display, and Ravizza is fine with that.

“Many museums have less than 10% of their collection displayed for the public,” he said. “A large part of the Smithsonian’s mission is to preserve our history for the future. It’s possible in the future that someone will want to research a given object, or it might be put on display.”

While his workplace doesn’t mimic the Penn College labs filled with computer numerical control machines and other manufacturing hardware, Ravizza consistently draws on his history at the school.

“I am grateful for the solid practical skills and knowledge I learned there,” he said. “I feel the knowledge and skills have been vital in my career to date, whether in industry or a museum setting.”

Ravizza expects to call his unique “museum setting” home for years to come.

“Sometimes, I have to pinch myself a little,” he said. “These are one-of-a-kind things we get to work on. If they could tell stories.”

Thanks to Ravizza, the objects will generate stories for future generations.

For information on Penn College’s variety of manufacturing-related degrees and other programs offered by the School of Industrial, Computing & Engineering Technologies, visit www.pct.edu/icet or call 570-327-4520.

Penn College is a national leader in applied technology education. Visit www.pct.edu, email admissions@pct.edu or call toll-free at 800-367-9222.

Last Updated October 10, 2019