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common ground

Industrial Archeology
Summer 1994, vol. 7(2)

Online Archive

*  A Time for Seamless Cooperation

(photo) Mill worker filling a shuttle, ca. 1917.

"Standing in the cold, numbing rain, I was surrounded by a sea of brick rubble [and] rusting car bodies. It was a challenging place to do archeology. The site was both foreboding as a focus of study and contaminated with cadmium."

Joel W. Grossman

by Francis P. McManamon

As the government streamlines its operations under the National Performance Review, federal bureaus face many challenges. One of the most important is improving the management of archeological collections, reports, and records from public lands and projects.

Archeological collections make up more than half of the museum property administered by the government. Preliminary surveys indicate that over 700 museums have collections from at least one agency; many from two or more. Often agencies legally responsible for these collections do not know where they are (the same goes for records associated with archeological projects, which are themselves invaluable capsules of information). Many collections have been found neglected and decaying in poorly designed storage areas, threatening the existence of artifacts and information that took millions of taxpayer dollars to collect and organize.

These collections are an irreplaceable part of our national heritage, which is why laws were passed to collect and protect them. But funding shortfalls, lack of strong and consistent national pressure, and the sheer magnitude of the problem have conspired to hinder compliance with the law.

Given this backdrop, the time is ripe for cooperative efforts, which can husband limited funding and staff to fill a common purpose. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, with its pressing demands on collections across the nation, underscores the need.

Meeting the challenge requires close coordination among museum officials, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. Often these individuals and groups do not distinguish between federal agencies and departments. Cooperative projects demonstrate to them--and the public--that agencies can join together effectively as a seamless, integrated workforce focused on meeting a common goal.

Efforts to locate and inventory collections to comply with NAGPRA have already fostered a spirit of cooperation among professionals of different agencies and disciplines. Federal archeologists, curators, physical anthropologists, ethnographers, and others are working together with increased efficiency, reduced redundancy, and lower cost. There is potential for cooperation at the project, district, state, division, and national office levels.

The activities necessary to comply with NAGPRA offer ample opportunities to work together: contacting museums that hold collections for multiple agencies; carrying out inventories of Native American human remains and funerary objects at museums; undertaking cultural affiliation studies; meeting and consulting with Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.

Such cooperative efforts could, perhaps should, become the means by which federal agencies identify all of their archeological collections, reports, and records, as well as evaluate their condition and provide for appropriate management. This is certainly the way the task could be done most effectively.

Meeting the curation, care, and management requirements for archeological collections, reports, and records may require that agency managers redirect or acquire additional funds and staff. The bottom line is that either agency personnel needs to be assigned to the necessary curation and management tasks or agencies must enter into long-term agreements with organizations or institutions that provide these kinds of services.

Senior officials should support these efforts is they review and approve agencies' policies, budget proposals, and plans (the same sorts of cooperative goals can apply to other kinds of museum objects, such is natural history collections). Property management and cultural preservation programs at all bureaus should cooperate on developing the means to achieve this objective.

In the long run, all of our efforts must consider, but not necessarily be limited to: (1) assisting repositories in meeting curatorial and information management standards; (2) designating and maintaining regional centers for collections management, public education, and information dissemination; (3) increasing the uses of collections for storage, display, and education; (4) continuing the implementation of the National Archeological Database; (5) identifying the best method and technology for retrieving, storing, and disseminating digital data, such as report texts; and, (6) working in partnership with other agencies.

These times of change present both challenges and opportunities. Working together, we can make sure America's rich archeological heritage gets the attention it deserves.

MJB/EJL