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

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*  Primal Fear: Deaccessioning Collections

(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 Robert C. Sonderman

A few months after beginning a new job as an archeologist with the National Park Service, my boss informed me that the regional director was coming to visit our storage facility. After several days of cleaning and preparing for his visit, I had my assistant and a small group of volunteers huddled around tables, sorting, counting, labeling, and cataloging a typical historic period archeological assemblage of nails, broken glass, ceramics, and bone. Everyone looked very studious and scientific, the way many folks view archeological lab work. In walks the director, who introduces himself, proceeds to look over someone's shoulder, and looks up at me and says, "Well, Bob, why do we keep all those chicken bones?"

The question that faces all of us responsible for the long-term care of archeological collections is how do we address this far-reaching and fundamental issue. Before launching into the subject, let's establish a definition. Taken from an article by Marie Malaro,1 an expert in the field, deaccessioning "is the permanent removal of an object that was once accessioned into a museum collection." This may seem rather restrictive for some archeologists. It has been my experience that most of them don't even know what an accession is, let alone how to remove something from it. But we do know how to collect archeological objects—millions and millions of them.

Most archeologists practicing in the United States have been trained in a tradition of keeping everything that we find. Everything gets washed, labeled, inventoried, and cataloged; nothing is discarded, and with few exceptions, it is all deemed precious.

Armed with that paradigm, it is no wonder that the archeological community has generated tens of millions of objects during the past 50 years. Both public and private collections have been kept in abysmal storage conditions with little regard to their long-term care or any acknowledgment of the ethical responsibility we as collection managers have towards them. The point has been well articulated by prominent voices such as Edward B. Jelks, Alexander Lindsay, and Michael Trimble,2-4 and underscored by a 1986 Government Accounting Office report.5 As a result, another question arises: "If these collections are so precious, why don't we take better care of them?" The next level of logic is, of course, "If we don't take care of them, why should we keep them?" This brings us back to the original question, "Why keep all those chicken bones?"

There are three standard responses. The first, which I refer to as the "flag waving response," is that these objects represent the tangible remains of our national heritage and we are obligated to preserve and protect them. The second is the "It's the law response." We all know there are numerous federal, state, and local statutes that obligate archeological collections managers to provide for long-term care. The third is the idea that new technologies and methods will allow archeologists in the future to look at these collections differently and may provide valuable insights into human behavior and, as a consequence, we must keep them.

Indeed many new discoveries have altered the way archeologists look at collections. In the Chesapeake region, archeologists working on prehistoric and historic sites may recover thousands of oyster shells, which until recently were viewed as another redundant artifact class. Recent research, however, has demonstrated that the shells can help determine the health of the oyster population, establish seasonal hunting patterns, and even help date archeological sites. These collections can also hold research value to other disciplines. Citing the oyster shell example again, marine biologists can gain valuable insights into climate, water quality, and bottom conditions of the Chesapeake Bay in the past and diagnose methods to improve the oyster population in the present.

A Sherd Is Not a Chair

Now let's examine some distinctions between "museum collections" and archeological collections. Despite protestations to the contrary, museum collections—commonly perceived as paintings, sculpture, historic furnishings, and the like—are not intrinsically the same as archeological collections. Both kinds of objects are certainly museum property but the manner in which they become part of the collection and how they are perceived once in it are quite different.

In the United States, most museums and federal repositories have clear collection acquisition policies and scope of collections statements. With these policies in hand, the collections manager, curator, or board of directors can restrict the type and flow of objects that enter the museum or repository. Conversely, archeological projects, the vast majority of which are federally funded, generate millions of objects annually with little or no restrictions on the type or volume to be recovered and ultimately accessioned.

Given the nature of how archeology is conducted in the States, it would be unethical for an archeologist armed with a clear research design and scope of work—for example, to study Native American settlement patterns in upstate New York—to encounter a French colonial site and not collect the French material because it doesn't specifically relate to the research design or the repository's scope of collections statement. The traditional approach in federally funded archeology is essentially a carte blanche: to recover all archeological material—prehistoric, historic, extraterrestrial—that might be affected as a result of a federal undertaking. The archeologist does not simply collect the material that is of research interest but rather, as a matter of ethics, recovers or samples everything. Federally generated archeological collections are exempted from standard narrowly defined scope of collections statements.

Archeological objects are not viewed as individual objects, such as tables and chairs might be, but rather, each flake or sherd is seen as part of the context from which it is recovered. It is not the individual object but the entire assemblage that is used to interpret the past. It is that paradigm that releases such an overwhelming sense of primal fear when the thought of deaccessioning archeological material is raised.

Making the Hard Decisions

In 1990, when the federal government issued its curation standards and guidelines in "Curation of Federally-Owned and Administered Archeological Collections," 36 CFR part 79, a proposed rule for deaccessioning archeological collections was floated for comment. It was met with some opposition and withdrawn for further study. No scholarly archeological organizations in the United States have expressed a willingness to tackle the issue. Passions pro and con on the subject run deep, but the climate may be changing.

Whether archeologists are cognizant of it or not, federal agencies for the past several years have embarked on a massive deaccessioning program. Driven by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, tens of thousands of archeological objects recovered from Native American sites on public lands have been repatriated to their rightful owners. Repatriation is de facto deaccessioning—the permanent removal of an object that was once accessioned into a museum collection. In most cases, this repatriation/deaccessioning process has no strings attached. The receiving group can do with the objects as they choose.

The IRS has its own form of deaccessioning archeological collections. Recently the IRS seized the collections of a museum for failure to pay taxes. Assuming that once in IRS hands it became federal property, the Archeology Program of the National Park Service suggested that the IRS treat the collection as federal property and as a consequence, the collection was subject to 36 CFR Part 79. The IRS ruled otherwise and sold portions of the collection at auction. The issue of whether forced sale constitutes adequate federal control to apply 36 CFR Part 79 and NAGPRA is currently under review by the IRS office of general counsel. It is against this backdrop that archeologists and collections managers must face the new climate of budget limitations, a downsized work force, restructuring, space limitations, and storage costs. Recognizing this reality, archeological collections managers must begin to make the hard decisions. And it must be the archeologists who take the lead in this decision process, for only archeologists can fully comprehend the nature, public education value, and research potential of these remnants of our nation's patrimony.

In the late 1920s, the director of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, an ornithologist facing a severe storage crisis, ordered the culling of collections. At the same time, in the Southwest, archeologists had just made the famous Folsom complex discoveries, which included a distinctive type of fluted projectile point dating to the end of the last Ice Age, nearly 10,000 years ago. Unbeknownst to the technicians at the Smithsonian who were culling the archeological collections, several of these same projectile points had been found around Washington, DC, and were held by the museum.

Later, scientists began to link the development of this culture complex with similar artifacts found in the East. Unfortunately, researchers at the Smithsonian discovered that some of the rare fluted points had been culled and destroyed. My point here is clear, archeologists must take the lead. It must be a thoughtful, intellectual decision-making process with clear justifications and must also include a clear understanding of what is the most appropriate method of disposal or dispersion of those objects, if we take that step.

Why Keep It?

Though deaccessioning may be a painful inevitability, a far better approach is to be more selective in what field projects retain and begin training archeologists while at the university in sound museum policies, collection management principles, and procedures.

Particularly in the early stages of preparing scopes of work or research designs, archeologists must start to think about sampling redundant artifact types, such as fire-cracked rock or brick fragments. Thinking about how many "chicken bones" need to be kept to conduct solid research may prevent the culling of accessioned collections while providing solid data for future analysis.

In the National Capital area of the Park Service, we have been experimenting with what we euphemistically refer to as "pre-accession deaccessioning." All material recovered in the field is returned to the lab, where it is processed and inventoried. It is at this time that the project archeologist makes the determination to keep or reject artifacts or groups of artifacts for permanent accessioning. Although we do not have a written policy at this moment, we know we should have one. At present it is admittedly subjective, but it is based on a sampling strategy of percents of redundant object classes, and the perceived research or public educational potential of the object.

We recognize however, that there are clear dangers in this approach. No one can know what questions will be asked in the future and no one can know what objects will be needed for scientific analysis.

In the National Capital area, the decision is made by the same individual or group of individuals. There is no discussion of discarding diagnostic or museum quality objects during this "gleaning" process. Contract archeological firms must consult with the area archeologist in concert with the archeological curator before any objects are considered for disposal prior to accessioning.

The state of Maryland is preparing to initiate a fee for collections storage as many states already have. One of the principal concerns of the local professional community is whether this fee will foster a trend of not recovering artifacts in an effort to avoid large storage fees. A clearly articulated recovery policy that allows for sampling certain redundant artifact categories may help avoid this sticky issue.

An alternative solution to permanent removal is placing objects selected for deaccession or of low research interest into inactive storage (in underground military bunkers, for example). The accessioned assemblage could undergo a triage system to identify the redundant artifact classes and those objects of little research potential. The selected objects could then be placed in lower cost, lower maintenance inactive storage, though in principle still accessible. The remaining portions of the assemblage would stay in active storage. This may be a viable solution for collections that require very little maintenance. The downside, however, is that portions of the collection will have limited accessibility which could invite the rejoinder—-Why keep it?

In a climate where space is equated with money, archeologists must face the hard reality that we simply can't keep everything. The professional community must take the lead on this issue or we face the possibility of having the decisions made for us. Our new paradigm should be that the best deaccession policy is a good accession policy.

For more information, contact Robert C. Sonderman, Senior Staff Archeologist, System Support Office, National Park Service, National Capital Field Area, 1100 Ohio Dr., SW, Washington, DC 20242, (301) 344-3523 or (202) 619-7280, email Bob_Sonderman@nps.gov.

Adapted from a paper presented at the Partnership Opportunities for Federally-Associated Collections Conference, Berkeley, CA, June 3-7, 1996.


1. Malaro, Marie C. "Deaccessioning: The American Perspective." Museum Management and Curatorship 10:273-279, 1991.

2. Jelks, Edward B. "Curation of Archeological Collections of the Southwestern Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers." Manuscript report on file. Normal, IL: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Southwestern Division, 1989.

3. Lindsay, Alexander J., Jr., Glenna Williams-Dean, and Johnathan Haas. The Curation and Management of Archeological Collections: A Pilot Study. Cultural Resource Management Series, #59. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service, 1980.

4. Trimble, Michael. Saving the Past for the Future: Archeological Curation in the St. Louis District. St. Louis, MO: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District, 1990.

5. Cultural Resources: Problems Protecting and Preserving Federal Archeology Resources. GAO/RCED-88-3. Washington, DC: U.S. General Accounting Office, 1987.