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  Managing Archeological Collections Repositories Distance Learning

Functions and programs

Of the various types of repositories, museums tend to have the greatest diversity of programs. These may include collections care and management, public education, exhibition, and providing access and use for research, interpretation, and heritage needs. Other types of repositories may only have one or two of these programs. Below is a brief overview of the principal types of programs that a repository might have.

(photo) Museum staff member enters collections information into the Anasazi Heritage Center database.
Cataloging collections into the Anasazi Heritage Center database. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.

Collections Management

Regardless of type, all repositories have a collections management program. This involves care for the physical well-being and safety of all the collections, including appropriate storage, cataloging, regular inventory, and conservation. Organization of the collections, including archival arrangement and description of documents, their accessibility for various uses, and their overall management in accordance with the repository's mission and goals are other important collection management concerns. Many of these are detailed in Sections VIII and IX.

Many repositories that manage archeological collections also manage and care for other types of objects and records. Natural history museums, for example, may curate archeological, ethnographic, paleontological, geological, and biological collections. When a repository has a broad range of collections, it needs to have staff, policies, procedures, and plans that adequately cover the long-term preservation and access needs of all the different collections.

Collections management may be the responsibility of a number of individuals. Exactly who is in charge of what activities depends on the size and organization of a repository. Staff who usually work on collections management include archivists, collections managers, curators, registrars, and support staff.

Educational and Public Programs

(photo) Ute beading demonstration at the Anasazi Heritage Center.
Ute beading demonstration at the Anasazi Heritage Center. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.

Many repositories, especially museums and archives, have some form of educational or public programming, which are directly related to the repository's mission, goals, and the subject matter of its collections. Such programs may include exhibits, lectures, demonstrations, videos, workshops, field trips, public television programming, and hands-on activities. A museum with a focus on the history and technology of metals will not have an exhibit and lecture series on Impressionist paintings. A storage repository without exhibit space generally will not host an exhibit, but may give tours of the facility to the public or create a travelling exhibit.

Educational and public programs allow repositories to highlight and share the educational, interpretive, and heritage values of their collections with a broad audience. Exhibits and public programs, however, may sometimes be detrimental to individual objects and/or documents, since the items may be put at risk through increased handling or by being placed in environmental conditions that are unfavorable to their preservation (see Section IX). Problems may also occur when public programs attain higher priority than collections management by repository directors. When museums have to obtain corporate or other sponsorship to fund educational programs, it is often easier to get funding for a "blockbuster" exhibit, where thousands of people will see the sponsor's name, than for more storage cabinets and conservation equipment and materials.

In all cases, a balance between access and preservation must be reached by those conducting educational programs and exhibits and those managing the collections. What is the point of caring for collections if they cannot be seen and used by the public, who often contribute in substantial ways for their long-term management and care either through taxes or donations?


(photo) Conservator reconstructs ceramics.
Reconstructing ceramics. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Archaeology, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

Research on collections may be conducted by repository staff, especially curators, or by visiting researchers, interpreters, or culturally affiliated group members. It may take several forms. Some research involves solving new methodological or theoretical problems by reanalysis of existing collections using the same method as previously applied or a new method. Or, those problems may involve researching previously unanalyzed material remains or documents.

Another type of research is examination of existing collections to learn critical background information prior to conducting a new field project. This is particularly important when writing a project research design and collecting strategy since it informs the principal investigator of what might be expected in the field based on the material remains and associated records from previous, related projects. Background research of existing collections is not always conducted as frequently as it should be.

Another type of research involves taking existing information and using it for a new product. This is often done by curators when preparing for an exhibit or educational program. Archivists conduct this sort of research in order to produce finding aids for archival collections.

Research also may be conducted outside a repository by one or more of its curators. This may involve field collection during a systematic archeological field project in order to fulfill certain research goals of the repository and to yield new collections for the institution. In other cases, a curator or archivist may be a visiting researcher at other repositories to research a collection(s) for various reasons.

As with public programs, the exact types of research conducted at a repository depends on its mission and goals. It also depends heavily on the types of collections it curates, as well as its size, funding, and the training level of its staff. Staff members whose sole job is research are now relatively rare. Given the vast amount of archeological collections coming into repositories from CRM and historic preservation work, there may be less need for many repositories to have their own staff members engaged in archeological fieldwork.

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