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MANAGING ARCHEOLOGICAL COLLECTIONS 5. CURATION PRIOR TO THE FIELD

Project design

(photo) Pair of archeologists carefully clean and conserve a kiva mural.
In-field conservation of a kiva mural. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.

The curation process begins at the start of planning for any archeological field project, long before the resulting collection makes it to the repository. Before fieldwork begins, it is the professional responsibility of the principal investigator, whether for compliance or research, to ensure that proper arrangements have been made for the long-term care and management of the resulting material remains and associated records, including digital data and reports.

The first step in the process is to address curation needs in the project or research design and/or in the scope of work for an archeological project contract. Key items to be included are:

Selecting a repository

ARPA and 36 CFR 79 require the identification of a repository to house collections prior to issuing a permit for fieldwork on federal land, as well as a signed agreement between the agency owners and the repository. Many states have similar requirements for work on state lands. Some agencies (state, tribal, local, or federal) have designated repositories for their collections. No decision on a repository is needed in these cases, but consultation with the repository prior to fieldwork is still essential, especially on repository requirements for submission of a collection. For other projects there may be a choice of appropriate repositories for the collection and, with choice, well-informed decision-making is critical.

There are several issues to consider when selecting a repository that meets the basic standards of 36 CFR 79. The first is the location of the repository. Preferably it should be in the same region and/or state as the site and should curate similar types of collections. This helps ensure that the repository already has the experience, knowledge, and facilities to care for the collection. It also helps to maximize the research potential of new and existing collections by having the material remains and associated records representing the same cultures and time periods in one place.

The second issue is ensuring that it has good collections management and use policies. A good repository should have a formalized mission statement, scope of collections, collecting plan, and long-range goals. It should also have a policy that facilitates access and use of its collections for researchers, educators, culturally-associated groups, and the interested public. It is important to be assured that archeological collections are explicitly covered by these policies.

(photo) Properly packaged and labeled boxes line spacious, sturdy open shelving units.
Proper open shelf storage. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Archaeology, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

Another consideration in choosing a repository is its ability to care for and manage the collection. Does the repository's system(s) to accession, catalog, and inventory objects and records meet professional standards? Does the repository have a backlog of collections to process and catalog? If so, when will they process your collection? Is the catalog and inventory information well organized and are the collections easy to find and use? Does the repository develop useful finding aids for the associated records? Ask to see them. Does the repository staff know how to care for digital data and other magnetic-based records? What access restrictions apply to the collections under their care? What is the repository's position on copyright protected materials, sensitive data, and donor restrictions? Does the repository have to make information available via the Freedom of Information Act or state sunshine laws (see Section IX)?

It is also important to know about the repository's physical plant and their efforts to minimize risks to the collections. Do they include an appropriate storage system and controls for temperature, humidity, and light that are appropriate for the classes of material remains that will be collected and records that will be produced? Do they have a formal risk management plan that addresses issues of security, fire protection, pest management, and disaster preparedness?

The last issue to consider is the financial status of the institution. Does it have the necessary financial resources for long-term care of its collections, as well as its institutional sustainability? It is not wise to put a collection in a repository that has an uncertain future without open discussion with the staff about what would happen to the collection if the repository closed. Does the repository charge a curation fee, and, if so, what services does that fee cover? For example, does it have adequate funds for object conservation or for migrating and reformatting digital data? The budget provided in a project design should cover the costs of both initial preparation of the materials remains and associated records and their long-term management. Budgeting for collections management and access is covered in detail in the next section.

Once all of these issues have been weighed and a repository has been chosen, a curation agreement should be signed by the collection owner and the repository. This agreement should state:

(photo) Large, movable compactor shelving helps to increase the storage capacity at Alexandria Archaeology.
Compactor shelving at Alexandria Archaeology. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Archaeology, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

Most repositories have a standardized curation agreement form and a standard set of requirements for receipt of a collection. The principal investigator should be aware of all requirements and take the necessary steps to comply. One thing to remember is that not only can archeologists choose repositories, but repositories can (and should) choose their collections. Many repositories now have detailed scopes of collections that state what types of collections they will and will not accept. It is important that the archeologist, agency/owner, and repository work together for the best possible care of a collection at the earliest point possible in project planning and budgeting.

Budgeting for curation

A well-planned budget is an essential part of a project design. The budget of a field project that will recover material remains should include funds for preparation and long-term care of the objects and their associated records. If there is little likelihood of recovering material remains, the associated records still need to be cared for and managed. Notably, the creation of digital data is 10-16X more expensive to manage over the long term than paper or microform, including microfilm (Puglia 1999).

Different collection owners or responsible agencies may face some different curation costs determined, in part, by the designated repository. A budget line item for the long-term management of a collection may not be necessary for a project by an agency that has its own repository. However, a budget line item for initial processing of the material remains and associated records is almost always necessary, as well as any anticipated conservation costs.

The curation budget for a project generally depends on three factors:

Due to the nature of the work, the principal investigator can never know exactly what will be found in the field. Good estimations, however, can be based on what has been recovered at similar sites in the area and on the project's collecting strategy. Therefore, it is very useful to research the nature of similar existing collections in the project design phase. Examination of existing collections may also help to anticipate any unusual conservation needs requiring special budgeting.

As noted in Section IV, repositories across the U.S. charge vastly different amounts for long-term management of collections. These differences exist for a variety of reasons. One is how the repository is principally funded. Many private, non-profit repositories have to seek funds from outside sources, including grants. Grants are often not available for federal or state collections, which the repository does not own. Many repositories now cover some of their costs by charging curation fees.

The results of an informal survey of repository curation fees by the National Park Service showcases some of the differences in how and why repositories charge for collections care. A total of 94 repositories responded to the survey in 1997, which was updated in 1998. A significant factor in the differences found involves the types of service fees that repositories charge. These include:

The majority (47 out of the 58 repositories that charged fees) use some form of one-time, "in perpetuity" fee, even though it is virtually impossible to charge a fee that covers all the costs over the lifetime of a container of material remains or documents. Increasingly, repositories are instituting annual fees or fees that cover 5, 10, or 50 years of care, usually for federal or state collections. This allows repositories to adjust fees for inflation, changes in standards, or other unanticipated factors. Annual fees may be workable if an agency has a line item in its annual budgeting cycle for the curation of its collections, but this is quite rare. It is also difficult for agencies to pay for the care of collections in advance of the work to be accomplished, so such fee structures may have to be very carefully constructed in a curatorial agreement, if at all.

Another variable in the diversity of fee structures is the units of storage by which fees are assessed. Some units identified by repositories are by the cubic foot, by the box (of varying sizes), by the drawer, and by artifact number or size. For associated records, it is usually by the linear foot or linear inch. The cubic foot, the "box", and the linear foot (for records) are the most common units of storage for fee determination. It is important to understand the size of a repository's unit of storage and how much material can be appropriately stored in that unit when a project budget is constructed.

NPS INFORMAL CURATION FEES SURVEY
(adapted from Childs 1998)
Region Surveyed Repositories Without Fees When Repository Instituted Fees Range of "In Perpetuity" Fees for Objects*
    70s 80s 90s Per Box** Per Cubic Foot
Northeast
(18 repositories, 12 states)
11 1 2 4 $38-150 $100-250
Southeast
(16 repositories, 11 states)
5 0 6 5 $75-227 $68-200
Midwest
(24 repositories, 13 states)
10 3 6 1 $35-400 $70-250
Inter-
Mountain
(14 repositories, 8 states)
2 2 7 3 $150-225 $21-300
West
(22 repositories, 7 states)
7 2 3 8 $65-1000 $250-1080
*The informal survey yielded little data on separate fees for associated records.
**The size of the "box" is not a consistent figure. Sizes (when defined by the repository) were stated as "standard", 12x10x10 inches, 1.3 cu. ft., 30 lbs., 1.04 cu. ft, 12x15x10 inches, and "small".

There is a wide variation in fees both within and between regions. Thirty-six surveyed repositories did not charge fees, yet at least ten of these were considering instituting some form of fee. The range of fees found in the survey is also not reflective of the "actual" cost of curation. Repositories have determined that the real cost of long-term curation is approximately $1000-1500 per cubic foot including the cost of utilities, materials, staff salaries, etc. Only repositories in the west charge anywhere near that amount. Most repositories have had to charge well below that to stay competitive. Many repositories base their fee structure on what nearby repositories charge, not on actual costs. Increasingly, repositories are placing collected fees in interest bearing endowment funds or accounts that will continue to provide funds over the long term and better cover the actual cost of collections care.

Regardless of repository fees, the total cost of managing a project collection is always going to reflect the volume of artifacts recovered and the associated records created during the project. In some cases, the cost can be lessened for the principal investigator (or owner, agency, developer, etc.) by using a well thought out collecting strategy that minimizes gross redundancies and non-cultural artifacts. Initial preparation of the collection by the principal investigator and staff can also cut costs at the repository. Cost controls can include bringing the collection up to the repository standards for packing, labeling, cataloging, cleaning, and documentation. In these days of rapid technological change, it can also involve careful selection of appropriate hardware, including digital cameras, software, and long-lived storage media when digital data is created.

Collecting strategy

(photo) Storage of oversize groundstone materials.
Storage of oversize groundstone materials. From the photograph collection of the Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.

A detailed collecting strategy is another essential element of a project design. It can affect a resulting collection's short-term care and preservation in the field and its long-term management and care in a repository, both the material remains and the associated records. The collecting strategy is different for every project, but should be based on the theoretical or compliance focus of the project and the phase of work to be completed (i.e., background research, survey, testing, excavation). Examination of existing collections from projects in the general area can be very helpful in understanding the range of material remains that might be found, as well as effective documentation. For compliance or contract work on federal, tribal, state, or local land, it should take into account any field collecting policies or guidelines for the planned phase of work (see Section III.) For either compliance or research, the collecting strategy should consider the long-term interests and concerns of culturally-affiliated groups and work to get them involved from the beginning of the project. Finally and if available, the collecting strategy should also consider the long-term research plan for the state or region in which the project will occur.

A well-planned collecting strategy makes the principal investigator's job in the field easier and ensures the physical, research, interpretive, and heritage values of the collected materials. Knowing the value of the collection is very important when justifying the costs of its long-term care.

Every collecting strategy should include the following:

Bibliography

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