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Types of repositories

There is a wide range of repositories that curate archeological collections, both material remains and associated records. While each repository is unique in its size, staff, funding, organization, and collections, there are general types of repositories with similar characteristics. The broad categories of repositories that curate archeological collections outlined below are not mutually exclusive. Many repositories fit into more than one of these categories.

(photo) The Anasazi Heritage Center.
The Anasazi Heritage Center. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.


Museums are probably the most common type of repository. A museum can be defined as "a permanent, nonprofit organization, essentially educational and often aesthetic in purpose, which, utilizing professional staff, acquires tangible objects, interprets them, cares for them, and exhibits them to the public on a regular basis" (Malaro 1994:81). Museums are managed using public and/or private funding. Private museums usually are formed based on one person's collections or interests. Public museums are founded by federal, state, or local legislative action.

Museums that house archeological collections range in size from large museums like the National Museum of Natural History, a part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, with millions of objects and archives to local museums with just a few objects and records. The thematic nature of museums that house archeological collections is just as varied, including natural history, history, anthropology, and art museums.

The common thread that sets museums apart from other types of repositories is their concentration on an educational mission usually through exhibits, public programming, and research. The mission statement, goals, and collections of a museum should reflect these foci. The emphasis on education and exhibition also means that most museums have a diversified staff with different areas of expertise. Exhibition research, design, and public programming require different training and education than collections management.

Museums obtain their collections through a variety of methods. These can include: gift, bequest, purchase, field collection, and transfer from another institution. A museum's mission may not involve any active collecting after it is established, although this is rare. Use of collections can be quite varied, although it is often concentrated on exhibition and research. Other uses are educational and public programs.

Academic Repositories

Academic repositories occur at a wide range of educational institutions (e.g., colleges, universities, secondary schools) and may fit into several repository types. Some are museums that are open to the public; others are primarily research institutions. The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography at Harvard University, for example, is an academic repository with an archives that is also a public museum. The Office of Archaeological Services at the University of Alabama is an example of an academic repository that is used primarily for research. Access to the collections is provided to staff or students of the university and researchers from other institutions who go through established access procedures (see Section IX). The repository has no in-house exhibition or public spaces, although collections are made available for teaching and exhibition through a loan program.

Academic repositories may obtain their collections from several sources. In some cases, the collections are primarily the result of field research by the institution's staff and students. At other repositories, the collections result from both research by university staff and compliance work by university staff, archeological consultants, and contractors. In these cases, then, many housed collections are owned by federal or state agencies and are under the contracted care of the academic repository.

Because of their association with institutions of learning, a primary focus of an academic repository is education. Access and use of collections is therefore an important part of its mission and goals. Collections are often used in conjunction with classes or for faculty and student research. The associated records, key to understanding the context of recovered objects and for background research, may be held in a separate archival facility in the museum. Effective accessibility requires up-to-date collections management. This includes regular inventory, adequate research space, and adequate physical plant capabilities. Unfortunately, many academic repositories do not have adequate funds or staff for up-to-date collections management and care. Many academic archeologists who work in academic repositories do not have training in collections management and the museum personnel may not have adequate training in archeology.

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

Tribal Museums and Cultural Centers

Tribal museums and cultural centers are institutions that are usually run by Native American tribes or organizations. These institutions have increased in number in recent years due, in part, to tribal concerns associated with repatriation and addressed in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. There also has been a significant increase in tribal activity related to heritage programs, which are taking advantage of tribal archives.

Tribal museums and cultural centers are unique in that they provide heritage education for tribes and employ Native Americans in presenting and caring for their own culture history. Tribal museums obtain their collections from a variety of sources, including some objects and collections repatriated under NAGPRA. These repositories have a wide variety of goals and programs, but all allow tribes to determine how they would like to use the objects, documents, and oral histories from the recent and distant past to present their culture history now and into the future.

Historical Societies

Historical societies generally range from the local to the state level, such as the Ohio Historical Society. The associated repositories usually manage and exhibit a wide variety of objects and archival holdings in their collections, which are not specifically geared to archeology or anthropology. These collections usually contain a variety of objects collected from the society's local, state, or regional geographic area.

Historical societies also range widely in their organization and the variety of programs offered. Many are small-scale institutions that rely heavily on the work of volunteers and members. Some at the state level are large and now house the State Historic Preservation Officer, such as in Kansas. Historic societies may or may not have exhibit space, but usually have some form of public programming. The collections management capabilities of historical societies vary widely based on their size, staffing, and funding.

Government Repositories

A number of repositories in this country are run by state or federal government agencies. A few exist at a more local, city level, such as the small but well run repository of Alexandria Archeology in Virginia. Government agencies have increasingly become owners of archeological collections as a result of the fieldwork necessary to comply with historic preservation laws. A number of government repositories have been built strictly to care for collections resulting from this legislation. Recent data reveals that the federal government alone owns well over 60 million archeological objects and many thousands of linear feet of associated records (there are an estimated 16,000 sheets of paper in a linear foot). As noted before, many government owned collections are housed in non-government repositories.

As with academic repositories, there are two main types of government repositories. One is a public museum, usually including an archives and sometimes a conservation lab with an educational and public programming emphasis. These include repositories like the Arizona State Museum, Illinois State Museum, and the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory at the state level. At the federal level, a good example is the Anasazi Heritage Center of the Bureau of Land Management. This type of government repository often has the same type of staff as other museums and/or archives, including personnel who research, build exhibits, and conduct public programming. They also have good collections management programs, and space for research and collections use. Because the government owns the land on which many archeological or historic sites lie, there are also many small government museums and repositories that exist on site. This is particularly true for the National Park Service with over 300 repositories in the parks. The NPS, however, also has regional repositories that curate collections from nearby parks for fiscal efficiency, such as the Museum Resource Center, Western Archeological and Curation Center, the Midwest Archeological Center, and the Southeast Archeological Center.

The other type of government repository is one without public outreach or exhibition activities. Repository staff and functions tend to be less diversified and deal almost exclusively with collections management, conservation, and researcher and culturally affiliated group access and use. In some of these repositories, access and use may be limited or require advanced planning because items are placed in dead storage or low maintenance storage areas.

(photo) Compact shelving holding associated records at the Anasazi Heritage Center.
Compact shelving holding associated records at the Anasazi Heritage Center. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.


Archives also care for archeological materials. Although an archive may house small collections of archeological objects, its primary foci are records and manuscripts. The latter may be the records associated with an archeological project, including field notes, maps, drawings, standardized forms, photographs, artifact catalogs, audio tapes, a variety of digital data, reports, and contract and other administrative material. An archives may also manage the personal papers of an archeologist, such as letters, diaries, photos, drawings, email, and draft publications. The latter often contain important historical information not found in project field records.

Most often, an archives is the repository of the records of permanent value to an organization, such as all repository types presented above, and are held by that organization. However, archives also obtain collections through gift, bequest, institutional transfer, and field collection. Archeologists may or may not deposit their papers at the same repository as the collections of material remains they created, despite the important reasons to do so.

The largest anthropological archives may be the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution. It houses over 400,000 photographs, 20,000 works of native art, and numerous audio and video recordings, along with many thousands of linear feet of documents. The typical use of an archives such as this one is for research to find evidence and information contained in the records. Some archives also have exhibit spaces and/or public programs.

Archives are facing new challenges. Archeological records now often arrive as digitized photos, GIS maps, email correspondence, and sets of digital data in relational databases in a number of formats. Note that ten-twenty years ago, these records were punch cards, magcards, optical disks, 5 1/4" diskettes, and large tape reels. Archivists must deal with both preserving the information the digital data contains and making that data accessible through constant and rapid technological change. Not only do digital and magnetic records cost much more to manage than paper or film records, but their life expectancy is significantly less. Therefore, the management of digital records over time requires a significant electronic infrastructure. This includes ever changing hardware and software and a trained staff to conduct periodic digital migration, to write or update metadata, and to inspect the results. It also requires a large budget. In fact, it is currently estimated that digital files of images are approximately 10-16 times more expensive to maintain and make accessible than paper records (Puglia 1999).

Archeologists add another challenge to archives by frequently producing digital data that was born digital and cannot be completely preserved over the long term on archival paper or microform. For example, a Computer-Assisted Design (CAD) model of an ancient site cannot be preserved on paper, although its many drawings can be, due to the complex relationships of its many components. Another case is a relational database for which the tables of information can be printed on paper, but the functionality of the database is lost. Finally, the tables and maps used to create GIS maps can be preserved on paper or microfilm, but the functionality of the GIS system is lost.

Currently, almost no archives in the U.S. are funded at a level that allows them to effectively manage digital data over time. As a result, most repositories lose their digital data within the first thirty years of its life, particularly due to software and hardware changes and obsolescence. However, a few professional organizations are providing a digital repository to house archeological digital data and records. The Center for the Study of Architecture at Bryn Mawr College began the Archaeological Data Archive Project (ADAP) in 1993. Its primary goal is to archive digital materials from archeological projects in common formats in order to make them accessible for scholarly use over the long term. In the United Kingdom, a section of the Arts and Humanities Data Service is the Archeological Data Service, which is providing similar services. It is also publishing best practices related to digital archiving archeological materials.

Collections policies

Regardless of repository type, there are several types of collections management policies that every repository should have. These policies cover acquisition, accession, loans, deaccession, and access and use. The basis for all of these policies should be the repository's mission statement, goals, and scope of collections. Archeologists need to be aware of a repository's policies prior to signing a curation agreement. Policies and procedures on loans and access to and use of collections are detailed in Section IX.

(photo) Porcelain doll pieces, dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, recovered  in the Washington D.C. area.
Porcelain doll pieces, dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, recovered near the Washington Monument in downtown Washington D.C., Rock Creek Park, and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Courtesy of The National Capital Region Regional Archeology Program.


Acquisition is a term used to refer to the process of obtaining custody of an object, document, or collection. It involves the physical transfer of an item or collection to a repository as a result of a donation, exchange, field collection, or purchase. A deed of gift is generally signed by all appropriate parties as the transfer of title is finalized. Establishing legal title to an item or collection is very important in order to offset legal concerns of ownership, including those sometimes tied to the illicit trade of antiquities. Items illegally looted from archeological sites and items that are illegally transported out of their state or country of origin may be offered to museums and repositories for purchase. Therefore, a repository should never acquire an item for which its provenance is not well documented and history of ownership well established.

An acquisition policy should include: a scope of collections, collecting plan, and acquisition authority. The scope of collections should detail what the repository has in its collections -- what is already in the collection and what should be collected in the future. A collecting plan details what the repository wants to collect in order to fulfill its scope of collections. The collecting plan should address any "gaps" that exist in the collections.

Approval for acquisitions is usually made by an acquisitions or collections committee, a curator, and, sometimes, the repository's governing body. Staff members, often the curator or registrar, usually make recommendations for acquisition. Recommendations should address how the object(s) fits into the repository's mission and policies; how it will be used; and the time, space, and funds needed to conserve and care for it. A repository should never acquire anything without having the proper resources and facilities to take care of it. Once an item or collection has been approved for acquisition, the repository should obtain title for it (if not already done), complete a condition report for the object, document, or collection, and obtain any associated copyright and privacy permissions.


Accessioning is the process of formally documenting an incoming transaction, such as a gift, field collection, exchange, transfer, purchase, or loan. Accessioning follows acquisition, although acquisition and accessioning is sometimes regarded as a continuous process. Also, not every acquired item is necessarily accessioned. Objects or documents acquired to become part of the repository's educational or hands-on collection or a loan may not be accessioned into the permanent "museum" collection.

Repositories that care for government collections do not have ownership of those items, only custody. In these cases, the transaction involved may be a loan through a cooperative agreement or similar instrument. The repository still usually goes through the acquisition and accession process in order to optimize long-term care through appropriate documentation.

When an object or group of records (records are not accessioned individually) is given an accession number, an accession file is created. Information in the file generally includes all documentation from the acquisition and accession process, including the title, condition report, and type of transaction (e.g., gift, field collection, exchange, transfer, purchase, or loan.) When applicable, it should also include field collector and date collected. Any other associated documentation or information about the item that is determined during its lifetime at the repository also is placed in its accession file.

All accessions are recorded in an accessions register. This register holds information on all items that are, or have been, part of a repository's collection. Information in the register usually includes the accession number, description, and date of accession. Accession records in the register can also include more detailed information on object or record group condition, loan or exhibit history, copyright transfers, licenses, and permissions, photographs, cataloging information, or location information on the relevant accession file.

The accession number given to an object or record group serves as the link in a repository's record management system to all other information on the item. The recommended method to assign numbers is to give one number to an entire collection. For objects, it is then possible to assign each item within a collection its own suffix number (i.e., 14345-1, 14345-2, 14345-3). Many repositories also use the year of accession in their numbering system. Thus, an object may be numbered 1999-10-56, meaning the collection was accessioned in 1999, it was the 10th collection accessioned that year, and it is object #56. The accession number is often what is marked on the object or object tag. When the accession number identifies each individual object it can be used as the object's catalog number (see Section VIII).


Deaccessioning is the process of permanently removing an object or document from a repository's collection, thereby signifying a change in ownership and custody through a change in title.

Deaccessioning archeological objects and documents (and most other museum property) is complex and contentious. Legislation, such as NAGPRA, has made it necessary for many repositories to face the issue and develop policies on deaccessioning. The only archeological objects from federal collections that can be legally deaccessioned at this time are those specified under NAGPRA, since the draft regulation on deaccessioning in 36 CFR Part 79 has not been promulgated.

Deaccessioning should be the last resort in a repository's set of actions regarding its collection. In fact, if it has a good accessioning policy, there should be little need to deaccession. When deaccessioning does occur, the process is generally lengthy and complex. Each decision needs to be carefully made. The final decision is so important that it is usually the job of the board of directors or other type of repository governing body.

A repository's deaccessioning policy should cover the specific types of deaccessions that are permitted for objects and/or documents. These types may vary between repositories based on the kinds of collections they house (or have housed), their mission statement, and their scope of collections. The following types of deaccessions may be found in a repository's deaccessioning policy:

Another type of deaccession relating to archeological materials that might be found in some deaccessioning policies of private or non-government museums is nonexistent or limited research potential of bulky, highly redundant, and non-diagnostic items. The materials that might be the focus of this deaccession type are shell, fire-cracked rock, lithic debris, or undecorated body sherds, which take up considerable storage room and are rarely, if ever, used by the repository curator(s) or visiting scholars, interpreters, or culturally affiliated group members. For associated records of an archeological project, however, some archival weeding of duplicate records and sampling of low value items may be undertaken by a professional archivist as part of normal professional practice without undergoing deaccessioning procedures. Again, at this time, no type of formal deaccession may be applied to federal archeological collections, except repatriation under NAGPRA, until the deaccessioning regulation in 36 CFR Part 79 is promulgated.

The set of rigorous steps that need to be taken in the deaccessioning process can also vary, but should be clearly outlined in a repository's policies and practices. The first step usually involves filling out a deaccession form that identifies the deaccession type, how the item(s) will be disposed of, and a list of the relevant item(s). The form usually identifies related documents that are compiled during the process, such as the justification for the deaccession in relation to the repository's mission, collection plan, scope of collections, and related laws, as well as any required appraisals, copies of catalog records, photographs of the item(s), consultation documents, copies of any donor restrictions, and the legal disposition document(s).

Additional important steps involve internal and, sometimes, external review of a possible deaccession. This can include review and recommendations by appropriate staff or committee members, such as recommendations by a conservator on the object's condition and the best method of disposal. Comments and recommendations may also be solicited in the process from community members, interested parties, Native American tribes, and donors.

Once the decision to deaccession has been completed by the party designated in the deaccessioning policy, there are several methods available for the disposal of an item. Each disposal must be recorded in a legal disposition document that formally conveys control (title and possession) of the item(s). Determined on a case-by-case basis, the typical methods of disposal are:

Since many, many archeological collections are the result of systematic archeological investigations, which should never be split up for effective long-term research, interpretation, and use, the preferred methods of disposal are donation, transfer to, or exchange of a whole collection with another repository. The decision to sell archeological objects has to be done with great care and is rarely, if ever, done, especially by government agencies or institutions.


Collections care and management have become more professionalized since the early days of museums. This has led to higher education levels, more training, and greater specialization of repository staff. However, staff at a repository may vary with its size, mission, and funding. Since larger institutions tend to have more diverse collections and programs, they tend to have larger, more diversified staffs. Staff in small repositories tend to have responsibilities that cover more than one of the job titles below.

(photo) Conservator works to repair and stabilize a paper document.
Document conservation at the Stabilization Laboratory of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District's Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections. From the photograph collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.

Archivist: An archivist manages, preserves, and makes accessible manuscripts and records of permanent value to an organization or project, including photographs, oversized materials, and audiovideo recordings. This is done through a process of appraisal, accessioning, cataloging, conducting a condition survey, appropriate rehousing, arranging and describing the collection, exhibition, providing access and use to researchers, and managing the intellectual property rights of an archival collection. Increasingly, archivists handle digitized materials, including electronic text, data, and photos. They enhance access and use of a collection by creating finding aids, descriptive guides that assist locating and using the collections. Archivists often have a M.A. in Library Science (hopefully with an emphasis in archives or manuscripts) or a discipline like history or anthropology. Not enough archivists working with archeological records have a M.A. in Archival Science.

Collections Manager: A collections manager usually holds an M.A. and has experience in the discipline of the collection(s) with which s/he works. A collections manager who works with archeological collections often also has archeological field experience. Collections managers are typically focused on the day-to-day care of the collections, including cataloging, and are not involved in research for exhibits or public programming.

Conservator: A conservator is concerned with the physical care and viability of objects or documents over the long term. His or her duties can include recommending and implementing proper object or document housing and storage, the reconstruction or restoration of objects or documents, and research on appropriate conservation treatments. Many repositories do not have in-house conservators, often because of the high costs of conservation itself. Conservators should have an M.A. or Ph.D. They often specialize in the care and conservation of a specific material or material class. Knowledge of other disciplines, like chemistry and art, is also essential.

Curator: The job of curator varies greatly depending on the size and organization of the repository. In large institutions, curators are generally involved in research, administration, and/or exhibit work, and do not deal with the practical issues of collections care. In these cases, curators have a Ph.D. in the discipline of the collection they curate. Curators in large institutions may also be in charge of shaping the collection by recommending acquisitions and deaccessions. At smaller institutions curators often have duties that are a combination of collections manager, registrar, and curator.

Registrar: A registrar is most often in charge of the records, logistics, policy/procedure, and legal matters associated with collections. The job often involves coordinating loans, accessions, and deaccessions. A registrar also may deal with the administration and inventory of collections. S/he often has a M.A. in museum studies.

Support Staff: Curatorial support staff often have different titles, such as technician. This staff is involved with most of the hands-on work of collections care, including cleaning, packing, repacking, and cataloging. Education and training is usually at the B.A. level. Staff who work with archeological collections often also have archeological fieldwork or laboratory experience. Support staff may be full-time or part-time, or may be hired on a temporary basis to do work on a specific collection. Again, the level of work depends heavily on the size and funding of the repository. At academic repositories, students or interns often do this type of work.

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.

Collections Management

(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.

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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