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The Curation Crisis
Winter/Spring 1995, vol. 7(4)

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*  A Crumbling House of Knowledge

(photo) Mouse eating through basket.

"Imagine you hear about an archeology project . . . that could lead to a breakthrough in your research. Except that now, less than a decade after [the material] was excavated, the federal agency that sponsored the project has no idea where any of it went, nor the time or resources to look."

S. Terry Childs

by Francis P. McManamon

Too few archeologists spend enough time and effort considering the long-term preservation and use of collections, records, and reports—which is all that remains of the archeological record after a site has been excavated. For sites that have been destroyed, whether by modern development, natural erosion, or scientific excavation, they are all the heritage that's left for future generations. Compounding the problem is the fact that the percentage of the archeological record in collections, rather than in situ, is growing daily.

These materials are in desperate need of attention. In many cases, they have been cast adrift, abandoned in museums, public agencies, and university basements, where—unnoticed and uncared for—they slowly, steadily deteriorate. These conditions persist even though they have never been acceptable for federal collections. Since 1990, government-wide regulations (36 CFR 79) have made it very clear that high standards of care are expected for federally owned and administered archeological collections.

Implementing the standards called for by statute and regulation represents a big challenge. Federal agencies are responsible for the curation of vast numbers of artifacts, other remains, and records of investigations from sites on land they manage or that their activities have disturbed. Artifacts removed from public lands are considered the property, and therefore the responsibility, of the agency administering the land. Other agencies are likewise charged with taking care of the artifacts and records resulting from the thousands of public undertakings they oversee on non-federal land. Millions of dollars have been used not only to collect this material, but also to analyze and interpret the context that yielded it.

With proper study, this enormous bank of information can provide important clues about the past. However, future research will be successful only if artifacts and associated records stay together, and both can be found in usable condition. Adequate curation is essential for these conditions to be met.

Nearly a decade ago, the General Accounting Office reported that federal agencies were not doing a good job in caring for their archeological collections. At the eight agency offices inspected, GAO investigators found no adequate systems to account for the location or composition of collections from agency lands. Even beyond that, the agencies had no guidelines for judging the adequacy of facilities nor did they systematically inspect them before or after depositing collections.

The National Park Service, which has the most detailed picture of the collections problem, estimates that it will take decades and millions of dollars to overcome it. Other agencies have begun their own assessments, but much remains to be done. In the Department of the Interior, a department-wide effort is underway to improve the management and care of all museum objects, with archeological artifacts making up a large part of them.

Archeologists and others responsible for collections, records, and reports must rise to the challenge of preserving these resources for future use. Long-range plans and programs are needed. Although immediate steps may be necessary to avoid disaster in specific cases, a quick fix will not meet the general need. Agencies must work with museums and vice versa to promote the use of these collections, reports, and records in research, interpretation, and public outreach.

Recently, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt acknowledged the need for more attention to the problem. In a March 6 policy memorandum to senior department officials, Secretary Babbitt wrote that "these collections and the reports of the archeological studies that generated them are among the few means left to future generations from which they can learn about prehistory and certain poorly recorded aspects of history in North America." Secretary Babbitt urged DOI personnel to join forces with other agencies to work cooperatively on the problem.

A task force from the Society for American Archaeology has affirmed the substantial challenge that exists if the archeological record in collections is to be preserved for use in the future. Later in this issue the conclusions of that task force are described in detail. In order to improve the situation, all members of the archeological profession—indeed, everyone who cares about America's past—must rise to meet the challenge.