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

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*  The Curation Crisis

(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 S. Terry Childs

Picture your dilemma as a researcher.

Armed with new state-of-the-art tools, you want to re-examine some artifacts you saw a few years ago. The problem is, the storage facility seems to have misplaced them.

Or, you find what you need, only to discover it's been feeding a platoon of hungry rats, termites, and various other friends of archeology.

Here's another scenario: Imagine you hear about an archeology project rich with soil samples, site records, photographs, and lab reports—not to mention artifacts—that could lead to a major breakthrough in your research. Except that now, less than a decade after the stuff was excavated, the federal agency that sponsored the project has no idea where any of it went, nor the time or resources to look. Never mind the millions of dollars it took to excavate, collect, and catalog it33.

Despite recent inroads, such situations remain common, jeopardizing the future of archeology and its obligations to the public it serves. We'll examine current initiatives later in this article, which together with the best of the federal facilities offer a range of alternatives for dealing with the situation. But first let's look at how things got this way.

The Roots of the Crisis

The problems stretch from the earliest planning for excavations all the way up to the highest reaches of federal policymaking.

Some archeologists have no idea where they are going to put the artifacts they plan to excavate, something that should be decided long before projects get underway. Too often, excavation is seen as a more worthy aspect of the profession than what must inevitably come afterward. True, excavating a pot can be an exciting process of discovery. Cleaning, analyzing, inventorying, and boxing that pot, however, is frequently viewed as drudge work to be relegated to people who cannot "make it" in the field. All too often, this means women, whose status may mirror the lower pay of indoor assignments.

Sometimes—when it comes to curation—no one is even assigned to do the job at all. To the untrained eyes of many decision makers, non-museum-quality objects such as sherds and soil samples do not seem to rate the time, staff, and financial resources they deserve.

The reality is that, once a site is excavated, these materials are often the only remaining evidence of a past culture. Not surprisingly, they are proving increasingly valuable for thesis, dissertation, and other research projects. Mary L. Powell, director and curator of the University of Kentucky's Webb Museum of Anthropology, notes a marked rise in visits to the archeological collections, as well as more loan requests. The trend parallels the passing of federal laws for improving the protection of archeological resources, which means more artifacts and associated records flowing into facilities like the Webb.

The legislation, paradoxically, compounded the problem. Legislators wanted to ensure that agencies assume responsibility for the long-term care of collections generated on their lands. However, many agencies are ill-fit to monitor what they own. They either have no staff, don't think it's important, or both.

The numbers show the enormity of the situation. Agencies in the Department of Interior, which monitors better than most, must manage an estimated 57 million objects, from bags of quartz flakes to an exotic copper breastplate.

Michael Wiant, curator of anthropology at the Illinois State Museum, says that despite their shortcomings the new laws "draw attention to problems that have a very long history."

For decades, many agencies relied on agreements with non-federal repositories to care for their collections. The Forest Service, for example, estimates that 90 percent of its collections are housed under such arrangements. In many cases, the agencies have provided little or no compensation or aid to these facilities. So when artifacts start arriving from federal construction projects—the building of pipelines, highways, dams, etc.—inadequate funding, staff, and storage become evident.

A 1986 GAO report, Cultural Resources—Problems Protecting and Preserving Federal Archeological Resources, gathered the results of a questionnaire responded to by 30 non-federal repositories housing the collections of the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and National Park Service. Local agency officials were also interviewed in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, the archeologically rich states that were the focus of the study. The report revealed some shocking insights:

Twenty-four percent of the respondents had no inventory of their collections; thirty percent had never inspected them for conservation needs.

Most records of excavations on Forest Service and BLM lands prior to 1975 and 1968, respectively, had been lost or destroyed.

No formal or binding criteria existed to guide agencies in evaluating repositories.

Agencies often did not know when (or what) objects came into or left repositories, nor did they conduct systematic inspections.

Although the Park Service curated most of its own artifacts and records, there was an estimated cataloging backlog of 15.5 million objects requiring $19.7 million to rectify. (Revised 1992 figures show that the Park Service owns 24.6 million archeological artifacts of which 16.8 million need to be catalogued. This will require $46.9 million through the year 2000, or 20 years at current funding levels.)

The Park Service estimated that it would cost $28.5 million, over 70 years at 1986 funding levels, to remedy thousands of physical deficiencies in its curation facilities. (Revised 1992 figures show that $59.8 million is now needed plus $158 million for new construction. At current funding levels, this will take 20 years.)

Thirty percent of non-federal facilities have already run out of room to store or exhibit archeological objects.

At about the time the GAO report came out, draft regulations were circulating on curating federal collections. In October 1990, "Curation of Federally-Owned and Administered Archeological Collections" was issued in the Code of Federal Regulations, 36 CFR Part 79.

A month later, the enactment of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act largely upstaged compliance with the new regulations. NAGPRA, with its specific deadlines, focused agencies and museums on complying with its rules. One benefit of NAGPRA, however, is that it pushed agencies to determine what they own and where it is.

Still, progress has been slow, as demonstrated by an evaluation of Defense Department storage facilities conducted by the Corps of Engineers Mandatory Center for the Curation and Management of Archeological Collections, which found that less than 3 percent of 119 facilities evaluated were complying with the regulations.

Sparks of Progress

In tandem with the recent rush to comply with NAGPRA, several important initiatives have been undertaken or successfully implemented by agencies since the publication of the GAO report.

The Bureau of Land Management, in conjunction with the Bureau of Reclamation, built Colorado's Anasazi Heritage Center to preserve and manage the archeological remains of the Northern San Juan Anasazi. The center's doors opened in 1988, initiating a broader mission to interpret the collections and educate the public. Pots, woven goods, ornaments, and other items were put on display, while other objects, such as arrowheads and sherds, have been used in a variety of hands-on educational programs.

The Park Service curatorial services division has taken a proactive stand on collections management problems, which it began to document in 1983. In 1987, the division implemented an electronic version of the Automated National Catalog System to tackle the terrific cataloging backlog.

Unfortunately, the backlog grew faster than the surge in cataloging capability due to increased archeological activity on park lands and the incorporation of new parks into the system. After the Park Service issued directives and attached a museum collections management plan to the 1988 budget request, Congress allocated new money to NPS for six years. This support has brought about substantial progress in alleviating the cataloging backlog. The Park Service also published a handbook with curation guidelines for all parks (available through the Government Printing Office).

Several projects to evaluate federal collections were also started. In response to a 1990 Department of Interior audit, a museum property program was initiated to, among other things, account for the Department's collections. A 1991 survey revealed that 753 Interior units are responsible for some 69 million objects (82 percent archeological) and 12,000 linear feet of documents.

In 1992 an interagency federal collections working group, presently comprising 36 agencies, was formed to help the museum property program better account for the total size and scope of federal collections. In early 1994, the group contacted 12,072 non-federal museums and academic departments to request information on federally associated collections. The project will provide the most inclusive data to date on agency collections in non-federal repositories.

For Department of Defense collections, the St. Louis-based Corps of Engineers Mandatory Center for the Curation and Management of Archeological Collections, led by Michael Trimble, has made important contributions to understanding and combating some of the curation problems. Through phone calls and site visits, center staff have contacted 657 facilities that house Defense collections to date, spread over 23 states.

Many of the findings are dismaying. A significant number of facilities are poorly maintained, have inadequate security and fire protection, and lack curatorial staff. The good news is that the center is vigorously identifying and attacking the problems.

The center is providing some telling insights into the magnitude of the situation. Figure 1 shows how scattered the Defense collections are. Clearly, the public perception that universities and museums curate most of the collections is not true, and many more contracting firms than expected are doing curation.

Figure 2 vividly shows the tremendous quantity of Defense objects and records in diverse types of repositories. Perhaps more startling is that military installations are keeping a vast majority of the records and giving the objects (not the museum-quality ones though!) to other facilities—such as universities—to curate. This means that objects and records are split up, a practice that seriously impedes research, education, and interpretation.

Despite the breadth of the problem, the center is producing some important information. An exhaustive search and evaluation of Defense collections in the St. Louis District, encompassing projects in both Illinois and Missouri, disclosed that collections were scattered in 10 facilities. A cooperative agreement with the Illinois State Museum, signed in 1990, consolidated the state's collections. Now more accessible, the rehabilitated St. Louis District collections at the Illinois State Museum have been used for over 10 projects, says curator Michael Wiant, ranging from public exhibits and lectures to dissertation research.

A Plan of Action

Several professional groups, recognizing the seriousness of the crisis, are providing critical input into the cleanup.

In 1991, the Society for American Archaeology launched a task force led by R. Bruce McMillan, director of the Illinois State Museum. After two meetings, the task force submitted Urgent Preservation Needs for the Nation's Archaeological Collections, Records, and Reports to the SAA's executive committee in January 1993. The report underscored the need for "a national plan and program for curating collections-associated records and reports, including adequate funding for the program."

In September of last year, a task force subcommittee met with representatives from several federal agencies with curation responsibilities, the new SAA manager of governmental affairs and counsel, and the SAA chair of the government affairs committee. They discussed how agencies and archeologists could work together to implement the report's recommendations. A number of public relations actions were proposed to focus attention on the problem.

A resulting action plan noted that "tribal, state, and private repositories have been overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the collections they are attempting to curate and cannot continue to be effective partners without expanded federal assistance." The plan recommended that "the SAA urge the President and Congress to provide financial assistance to agencies, repositories, and other institutions involved in federal collections curation making good faith efforts to bring curatorial practices and facilities into compliance with 36 CFR 79."

A week later, this recommendation, along with other supporting actions, was endorsed by the SAA executive committee at a meeting in Breckenridge, Colorado. A full-fledged effort to secure funding in the form of a grants program will begin this fiscal year.

The current crisis in archeological curation can only be downgraded to a "problem" and then redirected to a "fix" through concerted efforts in a number of areas. A grants program for non-federal repositories, in concert with increased training in curation for archeologists, full accountability of federal collections, good access to collections for the public, and new construction or renovation of facilities for long-term collections care, are vital to a successful outcome. Progress has been made. The momentum must be sustained.

For information on the DOI museum property program or the survey by the interagency federal collections working group, contact Ron Wilson at (202) 523-0268. For information on the COE Curation and Collections Management Branch, contact Michael Trimble at (314) 331-8466. For information on the SAA Task Force, contact Bruce McMillan at (217) 782-7386. For information on the care of federal archeological collections and associated records, contact Terry Childs at (202) 343-4101.