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MANAGING ARCHEOLOGICAL COLLECTIONS 10. THE FUTURE

The Future

This final section looks to the future of managing archeological collections. What are the primary issues that will either continue to affect the activities and decisions of archeologists, repository staff, cultural resources managers, culturally affiliated groups, and others or will arise as significant? How will rapid technological changes affect collections care? Has enough progress been made that there is hope for continuing the fight against the curation crisis?

(photo) Some repositories have been forced to store growing collections in such inappropriate facilities as this self-storage unit.
Some repositories have been forced to store growing collections in such inappropriate facilities as this self-storage unit. From the photograph collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.

Long-term care issues

Funding and Collections Growth: It has been and will continue to be difficult to find funding for the care of archeological collections. Funding for collections management at many repositories has been declining or staying steady in recent years. At the same time, collections continue to grow, especially from CRM work. The result is that a lot less money is available for a lot more material remains and associated records. Due to this disproportionate relationship, justifying and accounting for the management and care of collections is becoming an issue. Justification is especially significant when mismanagement in the past seriously affects archeological collections care now and in the future.

Justifying long-term collections care involves recognizing and clearly stating the importance of collections as valuable, non-renewable resources for a variety of purposes. It also involves repositories, archeologists, and collections owners (e.g., federal, tribal, state, and local agencies) taking responsibility for their collections and being held accountable for their long-term care. The lack of funding and the need for proper care has led to more repositories charging fees for the care of collections (see Sections IV and V.) The lack of institutional funding also has meant that many repositories and archeologists have to explore alternative funding sources, particularly through granting agencies and private foundations. The former include the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Institute of Conservation, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services for both objects and records. The National Historic Preservation and Records Commission provides support for documentation only. Among the large number of private foundations across the U.S., those that may support collections care and management are the Boettcher Foundation (Colorado), the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the Edward John Noble Foundation, and the L.J. Skaggs and Mary Skaggs Foundation. Unfortunately, these funding sources usually are not available for the care and management of federal collections.

The juxtaposition of funding needs and collections growth will not go away soon. Fortunately, some state, tribal, and federal agencies have completed or are building their own repositories to the standards of 36 CFR 79. These actions relieve some of the burden of collections care on the non-federal repositories that have managed federal and state collections for years. Furthermore, with greater public understanding of the educational, research, interpretive, and heritage values of archeological collections, other funding opportunities might develop.

[photo] Box collapsing from dampness, 
              damaging the artifacts inside.
Box collapsing from dampness, damaging the artifacts inside. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Archaeology, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

Rehabilitation of Existing Collections: Over the last decade, NAGPRA and 36 CFR 79 have forced attention on the inventory of collections across the U.S.--exactly what do repositories hold? Both the inventory process and new requirements for accountability of federal- and state-owned resources have helped reveal the poor condition of many collections. In turn, archeologists are increasingly realizing that there are treasures of information to be had in deteriorating collections. It is likely, therefore, that a significant future issue will be the need to assess the condition of existing collections and rehabilitate many of them. This will involve significant funding, which must be justified based on the educational, research, and heritage values of the collections. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archeological Collections (MCX-CMAC) has taken the lead in this activity by conducting numerous collections-needs assessments and several rehabilitation projects for the Department of Defense.

Certification of repositories managing archeological collections: Current laws and regulations identify responsibility for the long-term care and management of collections resulting from archeological activities on federal and tribal lands and, in many cases, state and local lands. Repositories that hold these collections are also required to meet specific standards for collections care. Unfortunately, the laws and regulations do not provide a way for owners of new collections to determine if a repository meets those standards. Nor is there a means to enforce those standards.

Federal government agencies and CRM companies are increasingly interested in having a way to determine if a repository meets the standards in 36 CFR 79. The Curation Options Project recently completed by the MCX-CMAC of the Army Corps of Engineers assessed many repositories across the U.S. to determine their degree of compliance with 36 CFR 79. The results of their study is currently available (see Links page) and provides one possible guide for new collection owners.

A system similar to or appended to the accreditation program of the American Association of Museums (AAM) is another possible mechanism to alleviate the problem of insufficient information about repository capabilities. The biggest hurdle to aligning such a program with that of the AAM is the latter's emphasis on public outreach and education. This is because public programming is not in the mission statement of all repositories that manage archeological collections. Notably, the Council of Texas Archaeologists (CTA) Accreditation and Review Council (ARC) has recently developed a system to accredit repositories in the state of Texas that hold archeological collections and meet standards set forth by the Council. Its successes and difficulties will be closely watched by many professionals across the U.S. over the next few years and may provide a model to address this issue at a national level.

Deaccessioning: The rapid expansion of archeological collections is forcing serious consideration of the need to be able to deaccession particular parts of collections, especially bulky and redundant material remains. There are currently no federal standards or guidelines regarding deaccessioning of archeological collections. Some states, such as Texas, are in the process of creating policies and standards for this activity. Many private museums, academic repositories, and historical societies have deaccessioning policies that they use with care.

Provisions for deaccessioning federal collections were never finalized in 36 CFR 79 because of disagreements over the issue. Although this regulation has not been revised and promulgated to date, there is some movement to develop profession-wide standards in the near future. These standards must be the result of a collaborative effort between all interested parties, including professional archeological societies, repositories, agencies, and interested culture groups. With deaccessioning standards in place, it will be easier to justify long-term care for existing and new collections as wholly valid and valuable resources.

Changes in Research Methodology: The fields of archeology and museology are dynamic professions. Changes in recent decades have been significant, both in the field and the repository, and more are sure to develop. The increased use of scientific analysis on archeological objects is an important change in the profession that will continue to be influential. The increasing numbers of new analytical techniques, such as DNA testing, means that new types of information are yielded, new types of material remains are being analyzed, and some common artifact types must now be cleaned and handled differently. An example of the latter involves caring for and handling potsherds with encrusted materials that can now be studied by residue analysis. These changes in research techniques have affected and will continue to affect how archeological collections are valued and managed, including decisions on what is collected in the field, what is kept in the lab and repository, how it is processed, and how it is accessed and used. Archeological collections, both the material remains and associated records, are an investment for the future and must be periodically assessed in regards to changes and opportunities in professional practice.

New technologies for access

The future of archeological collections management also includes dealing with and taking advantage of new technologies. This includes the use of the Internet, computerized databases, CD-ROM, and digitized records, all of which are rapidly changing. In order to use the information and resources made available by these technologies, repository staff, archeologists, CRM managers, and others must spend time, expertise, and funds to keep them up-to-date. This is done by moving them to newer hardware and software as standards change.

In-house Databases: Computerized technologies are becoming widely used by repositories for in-house collections databases, which allow for relatively "quick" cataloging and inventorying of large collections through a standardized set of data fields and terminology. They also promote quick and efficient storage, sorting, and retrieval of data. This is especially useful for researchers, as well as for repository staff, who need to find particular items and conduct inventories. More readily available information about the collections also allows for better accountability and budgeting for their care and management. However, many repositories have sizeable cataloging backlogs that will take time and money to eliminate as they also work to keep up with demands to catalog new collections.

Unfortunately, the development and use of in-house databases for objects has not been accomplished in any systematic way. Many repositories have used several types of cataloging systems through the years. Sometimes, the data collected is changed by adding new data fields and/or expanding or contracting the list of authorized terms. With each change, data may have to be reentered, which is a serious duplication of effort and may lead to errors in data entry. It may also mean that the cataloging or inventory information gathered differs within a collection or between the collections held by a repository. Furthermore, databases require long-term maintenance of software and hardware. With computerized technology changing as rapidly as it does, this need to keep updated can put a large strain on a repository's resources.

Archival description databases, on the other hand, have been systematized--they are collecting the same information in the same ways. Archives across the U.S. are now using system, terminology, and syntax or style standards, finding aid standards, and content and mark-up standards. The long-term implication of this coordinated practice is that, as archives make these databases available on the World Wide Web (see below), researchers and other users can search for materials housed in different archives using the same search terms. This has already begun through the use of national bibliographic utilities, which permit searching across the holdings of many archives, libraries, and other repositories via the Internet. For example, the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, provided by the Library of Congress, is a searchable database of descriptions of archival manuscript collections housed across the U.S.

CD-ROM Technology: Archeologists, CRM contractors, repositories, and other organizations are also taking advantage of CD-ROM technology to provide a compilation of information and data, often on project results or repository holdings, that cannot be economically presented in the print medium. The ability to link between CD-ROM publications, which cannot be easily changed or updated, and those on the Web, which can be easily updated, is an additional plus of this medium.

CD-ROM is also becoming widely used to archive digital information, including data, photographs, and text. Whereas the life expectancy of the file formats and software used to collect these data is usually shorter, recent research into the life expectancy of CD-ROM indicates that it should not be relied upon for long-term storage. This is both due to the costs of regularly scheduled migrations of the information to new hardware and software and to the environmental effects on the life expectancy of CD-ROMs.

(photo) Image of Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology's online archeological collections Web interface.
Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology's online presentation of its archeological collections.

Collections Online: Many repositories are turning to the Internet, especially the Web, to take advantage of new ways to provide information about themselves and their collections. Some of these ways include:

There are advantages and disadvantages associated with using the Web as a major information resource. Positive features include accessibility to a wide audience from the user's home, work, local library, or school. This means that the user can get useful and exciting information via a virtual visit to a repository, which may be very significant to researchers located far away. Another advantage is that multimedia capabilities allow the integration of text, 2-D and 3-D images, video, and audio components. Web sites can also be updated quickly and relatively easily if information becomes stale or needs to be changed or expanded.

Some potential disadvantages have to be weighed before a repository embarks on a major Web endeavor, however. The first is that engaging, informative websites are not cheap to develop and require serious maintenance. Consultation with a Web designer is important to help decide on the site's audience(s), content, and navigation. Also, since the Internet is still not available to everyone, it cannot be the primary vehicle to provide public outreach and education. Another problem is that the digital information conveyed on the Web can never truly replicate the original item. Looking at digitized pictures of artifacts and documents, often in low resolution, is not the same as looking at the items themselves. Finally, since the average Web site across the world lasts a mere seventy days, the durability and ongoing usefulness of Web-based information is a serious issue. Print publications, on the other hand, can usually be found in a library many decades later.

Collections databases are another important tool that is increasingly being offered and used on the Web. These are valuable for researchers. Their public availability can raise several issues concerning what kinds of information can be freely provided, however. Some collections information is sensitive or legally restricted, such as the appraisal value of an item, its past owners, its donor(s), and the specific location of the archeological site from where the item came. There is also the question of what to do with non-standard information, such as handwritten notes, that appear in older catalogs. Some of this information may be valuable when researching a collection or item, but it may not be systematically included in Web-based databases, except in a notes or remarks field that is not easily searchable. Furthermore, repositories have to figure out the best way to link different types of information together to maximize access and use. This includes linking basic catalog information of an item with its image(s) and associated documentation, including final project reports.

Another problem for researchers and other users is that it is difficult to determine relationships between object collections housed at different repositories. For example, it is virtually impossible to find all the collections created during a particular WPA project that are housed across the U.S. using one set of search terms. This is mainly because repositories do not use standardized data fields and terminology for cataloging object collections. This is not true for archival collections as mentioned above.

Finally, online databases can increase requests from researchers, educators, interpreters, students, and many others for access and information about the collections. While accessing and using the collections is important, publicizing collections on the Web creates a greater workload for repository staff who may already be stretched to the limit.

Collections are also being visited on the Web through online exhibits, which can either be used to increase awareness about an existing exhibit at a repository or can be unique to the Web. They are a distinctly different way of presenting archeological materials and information than 3-D, in-house exhibits, and have their own advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that an online exhibit can reach a much broader audience than an in-house exhibit, which is limited to visitors who can travel to the repository. Online exhibits also pose little or no harm to the featured items, once a digital photo of the object or document is taken. Disadvantages to online exhibits include the inability of the user to get a true feel for the item itself, although improvements in 3-D imaging is quickly minimizing this problem. Another is that online exhibits can take almost as much time and money to create as a museum exhibit. Many repositories can only invest in one type of exhibit.

(photo) Web interface of the NADB-Reports module.
The NADB-Reports module is a searchable database of bibliographic information on reports of archeological investigations in the U.S.

Digitizing Records: Another important use of computer technologies is to digitize archeological records, reports, and/or their finding aids. This is important because of the relative lack of scholarly attention to this significant documentation in the past. It is also important as a means to increase access to the information these records contain. Having records available in digitized formats eliminates some of the accessibility problems that are usually associated with the archeological gray literature.

The decision to digitize records and associated documentation involves making some of the same decisions needed for collections databases. These include:

Some of these decisions are easier to make than others. For example, there are existing bibliographic standards to use, such as the Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC) standards of librarians or the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) standards of archivists. The choices on how to make the reports and bibliographic information available is fairly limited to in-house databases, the Web, and CD-ROM.

There are currently several efforts related to improving access to the archeological gray literature, dissertations, theses, and other works. The Digital Imprint project at the University of California, Los Angeles, is working on making archeological theses and reports available on the Web. A fundamental component of that project is to develop standards for digitizing large documents with images, figures, and other representations that can be used by all professional archeologists into the future.

Another effort is the National Archeological Database, Reports module (NADB-Reports), a searchable database with approximately 250,000 bibliographic citations of reports and documents related to archeological investigations across the U.S. It has been available on the Web for over six years as an important first step to improving access to poorly accessible archeological reports. An early consideration of digitizing the reports cited in the NADB-Reports database was abandoned due to the exorbitant costs involved and the lack of a facility to do the digitization work. Thousands and thousands of archeological reports and articles exist from before the Computer Age. As technological change continues at its rapid pace, prices for digitization continue to drop, and most archeological reports are being produced electronically, however, this early hindrance is going away and access to the archeological "gray" literature may become easier and easier.

Conclusions

(photo) Ceramics stored appropriately in an enamaled metal cabinet.
Ceramic storage at Colonial National Historical Park. Photo courtesy of Museum Management Program, National Park Service.

Improvements in and increasing attention to archeological collections management holds considerable promise for the proper and long-term care of our archeological heritage. Significant strides have been made in the last decade, but more are needed still. Good management of archeological collections is essential to maintain their value for scholarship, interpretation, and heritage. You learned here how these resources need to be managed and preserved in order to make them accessible for use. Also, you learned about your responsibilities to these resources, as well as how you can access and use them.

The proper management of archeological collections necessitates cooperative and collaborative relationships between a wide variety of interested parties that should be commonplace and part of everyday work. Good relationships between repository staff (e.g., curators, conservators, collections managers, and archivists) and the principal investigator of an archeological project before, during, and after a project are critical to the long-term care of and access to the resulting collection. It is also important that project staff and repository staff have good relationships with the culture groups whose heritage is tied to archeological remains. This helps ensure that the collections are managed to the benefit of all interested groups. Cooperation and collaboration also has to occur between the government agencies that own a large portion of the archeological resources in the U.S. and the repositories that curate them. Efforts need to be made to ensure that compliance with 36 CFR 79 and related state or local laws benefits the collections, repositories, and agencies.

Both collections management and archeology will continue to change. The opportunities provided by computerized technologies will continue to grow and provide opportunities for viable collections management tools. New scientific methods, techniques, and theoretical paradigms will continue to influence the way archeology and collections management is done. A significant challenge for the future is to keep educating a wide variety of groups about the value of archeological collections, including their associated records, and the need for their long-term preservation. Once damaged or lost, these non-renewable resources are never again available for research, interpretation, or heritage uses. Without this invaluable legacy, why was the archeological work done in the first place?

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