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Collections and Curation
Summer 1996, vol. 1(2)

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*  Collections and Curation Into the 21st Century

(photo) Archeologist measuring an artifact.

"The public perception of archeology derives more from Indiana Jones than from the realities of everyday practice. Recent changes in the discipline have shifted the emphasis . . . now the name of the game is curation."

Margaret C. Nelson and Brenda Shears

by S. Terry Childs

Ninety years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, decreeing that archeological sites and objects on federal land are valuable and should be preserved for the public good. And none too soon. Site looters were rampant in the Southwest; museums, in the interest of research and education, were filling their storerooms with artifacts from excavations and Indian villages. After all, they thought, what better way to document extinct and disappearing cultures than through their material goods?

In 1974, the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act carried on in Roosevelt's footsteps, mandating systematic, well-planned archeological projects at endangered sites on federal lands or on properties affected by federal projects. But the act introduced a legislative paradox.

Federal agencies now took on a collecting role. Contracts to excavate poured in, thousands of sites were evaluated, and objects by the millions were analyzed, bagged, boxed, and put somewhere. But where and under what conditions? The act provided virtually no guidance for the long-term management and care of collections, which—with the increasing sophistication of archeological study—now included not just museum-quality pieces but soil samples, project records, and sundry other material as well. Repositories became understaffed, overstuffed, and inadequate to growing needs. Federal agencies often did not know who owned what nor where it was. Access to many collections was a problem and, when they could be found, they were often in such decay that they could not be used for research, exhibit, or interpretation.

Six years ago, legislative help was finally put in place for collections. Federal regulations were issued (36 CFR 79) and NAGPRA was passed. In many ways, NAGPRA has had more positive impact than the regulations. The act demands that every federally funded museum know the contents of its collections and deal with questions of ownership, both in terms of the lands on which they were found and the Indian groups who might have been the original owners. The hard reality is that museums have had to meet compliance deadlines or be subject to penalties; federal agencies have had to comply or be subject to close public scrutiny.

So where are we now? The following articles explore this situation. We visit two repositories, one federal and one non-federal, to see how they are coping with burgeoning shelves and legislative mandates. We listen to a Narragansett/Niantic woman's perspectives, her joys and her sorrows, about Native American objects and their future. We take a look at the thorny issues of deaccessioning, the formal process of removing materials from a collection. We hear about the significance of anthropological project records. Finally, we see the power of archeological collections once they are accessible to researchers.

Underlying all of these articles is the notion of change. Repositories improving accountability as well as access. Museums scrambling to meet the growing number of researchers, particularly doctoral students. Partners reaching across disciplines for the good of collections in which they all have a vested interest. Archeologists perhaps slowly shifting from a bias for fieldwork to a more balanced consideration of existing collections, due to funding constraints and new sensibilities arising from NAGPRA. More professors teaching about the complexities of curation and its relationships to decision-making in the field and lab. Native Americans increasingly consulted about the history and use of ancient and recent objects. Scholars learning about collections from their Native American colleagues.

So what lies in the future? Change, but we can now anticipate it in more informed and constructive ways.