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Technical Brief 13 Managing Archeological Resources from the Museum Perspective

Published by the DOI Departmental Consulting Archeologist/NPS Archeology Program, National Park Service, Washington, DC, April 1992.

Federal agencies are responsible for archeological collections acquired from Federal lands and through Federally sponsored or permitted projects. With the promulgation of 36 CFR Part 79, Curation of Federally-Owned and Administered Archeological Collections, Federal agencies now have formal guidance about how to meet their statutory obligations for collections management. Archeological collections must be managed effectively if they are to continue to function as important resources for science, heritage education, and the humanities. Archeologists will need to make thoughtful and explicit decisions about the composition and growth of collections. The problem is not simply one of securing adequate storage space. Difficult decisions have to be made in committing scarce and sometimes costly resources to maintain accessibility to collections, as well as to safeguard them from theft, loss, or deterioration.

One important management decision is the choice of an appropriate repository. Some Federal agencies have in-house facilities; others need to initiate contracts and agreements with repositories that house archeological collections. In this country, state and university museums have traditionally served as major repositories for Federal archeological research collections. The author, who is a curator of anthropology at one of these institutions, points out that archeologists, as resource managers, need to work in concert with repositories in planning for the long-term maintenance of research collections.


Archeologists are beginning to rely more and more on curated collections as sources of research data. This trend is inevitable as the number of intact archeological sites decreases. Yet, just as it is not possible to either preserve or investigate every archeological site, it is not feasible to preserve every artifact and sample in a museum1 in perpetuity. Informed decisions must be made about what to curate and these decisions will in effect determine the composition of archeology's future database. As a consequence, the nature of the sample of the archeological record represented by curated collections and the suitability of this sample for long-term research must become major considerations in the management of archeological resources. The significance of curated archeological materials to research, education, and cultural heritage, the diversity and magnitude of these materials, and the associated costs of curation in perpetuity, all provide strong arguments for conceiving plans and enacting policies to help guide decisions regarding the composition and growth of collections.

The primary purpose of this Technical Brief is to examine the reasons for curated archeological collections to grow by design rather than haphazardly, and to stimulate critical thinking about the nature of the database represented in curated collections, especially in relation to the range of future research that may be possible with these materials. A recent inventory and assessment of the New York State Museum's (NYSM) archeological collections was the impetus for raising these issues. The results of this project provide an example of the kinds of problems that future researchers may encounter in the extant sample of the archeological record, as represented in curated collections, if long-range planning and strategic thinking are not tied to curation decisions.

A second purpose of this Technical Brief is to encourage a dialogue between archeologists and museum professionals about the management of archeological collections. If the national curation crisis is to be resolved, both archeologists and museum staff must become active participants in making decisions about managing archeological collections. Dialogue is necessary because museum staff members who curate archeological research collections often are not archeologists and, conversely, not many archeologists are trained in collections management. Archeology has become a diversified field and few archeologists now work in museums as compared with the earlier days of the discipline. The museum profession, too, has changed. Especially in large research museums archeologists often have little or no direct involvement in managing collections, as collections management in itself has become a professional occupation.

The intent of this Technical Brief is neither to provide definitive answers about what or what not to curate nor to propose a uniform national approach for making such decisions. A collaborative effort on a regional basis among archeologists, repositories, government agencies, Native Americans, and other interested parties is suggested as the most reasonable forum for developing plans for managed growth of curated archeological collections.

Curation in the Context of Cultural Resource Management

More than a decade ago the provision of information relevant to long-term research needs and for management of archeological resources was defined as an important goal for cultural resource management (Lipe 1974; Schiffer and House 1977). Museums play an important role in providing information for long-term research needs via the care of a primary data source--curated collections. This critical link between museums and cultural resource management was identified by Christenson, who recognized that repositories "carry on the job of cultural resource management after the archeologist leaves off" (Christenson 1979:162).

At about the same time goals for cultural resource management were being defined, a crisis in curating archeological collections assumed national proportions for the archeological profession as the tremendous increase in the amount of material resulting from cultural resource management-related projects exceeded the curatorial capacities of many repositories (Ford 1977; Christenson 1979; U.S. General Accounting Office 1987; Lindsay et al. 1980; Marquardt et al. 1982). Resolution of this curation crisis is not yet in sight. The persistence of the problem obviously is due in part to the inevitable process of modern development and concomitant disturbance of archeological sites. The volume of curated collections is steadily increasing as the number of intact sites decreases. To quote Christenson (1979:161), "there are only two logical ways that cultural resources can be preserved for future generations: (1) they may be left undisturbed in or on the ground; or (2) they may be permanently housed in a museum or other storage facility."

The need to cope with the preservation problems posed by modem development was a driving force behind enactment of today's cultural resource management programs. While these programs have matured in their ability to manage problems posed by intact archeological sites (McManamon 1990:14-15), the same kinds of strategic thinking and planning generally have not been applied toward managing the collections. Thus Christenson's (1979:162) portrayal of the archeologist "leaving off" when it comes to curated collections is a telling characterization.

Curation as Resource Management

Because the focus of management and preservation efforts has been on intact sites, there is a tendency for archeologists, and other professionals charged with management decisions concerning archeological resources, to regard curation as a "storage" problem rather than as a "resource/data management" problem. This is not to say that storage is not an issue. Collections will continue to grow and collections care is an ongoing process. There is now an urgent need for more and better facilities and additional staff to curate archeological collections. It also is the case that there is a wide range of options for storing many archeological materials. Recognition of these facts has led the Federal Government to initiate several important programs to help resolve problems in quality of care and accessibility of collections. These efforts are both necessary and highly laudable.

Of particular note are the National Science Foundation's (NSF) granting program for Systematic Anthropological Collections that provides funding to rectify problems with extant collections. Equally important is the recent issuance of governmentwide regulations for the Curation of Federally-Owned and Administered Archeological Collections (36 CFR Part 79), which set standards for collections care and use by Federal agencies. Updated guidelines for management of collections held by National Park Service (NPS) units (1990), and recent assessment by the Southwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) of the curatorial conditions of collections resulting from COE water resources development projects (Jelks 1990) also are commendable. The work of the Eastern Archeological Field Laboratory of NPS to upgrade the collections from the Minuteman National Historical Park (Towle and MacMahon 1986) is particularly noteworthy, as is the effort by the St. Louis District of COE to develop a program that will comply with Federal curation regulations for collections administered by them. The report for the St. Louis District documents costs in excess of $1.25 million necessary for bringing these collections up to minimum standards. These funds are separate from annual maintenance ("in perpetuity") costs (Trimble and Meyers 1991).

Despite the critical need for these programs, Federal support and regulations for collections care do not fully resolve the curation crisis.2 Management of archeological collections has become a much broader problem than just that of making decisions concerning types of storage containers, climate control, and cataloging systems. Managing collections has become complex and costly, and for some portions of archeological collections, such as human remains and funerary objects, curation also has raised ethical and moral issues.3 The present situation is due in part to the increasing professionalization of museums, the diversification of the audiences they serve, and the increasingly demanding roles of museums in preservation efforts. Repositories can no longer afford to be passive recipients of the "results" of archeological fieldwork, i.e., collections. Repositories must justify what they curate. They must be accountable to the public they serve.

The curation problems now being faced concern decisions about what types of materials can and should be curated in perpetuity. Decisions about what to curate are made by many repositories on a nearly daily basis. Curated collections have not been incorporated as explicit elements in archeological resource management plans, so museums are finding themselves in the position of determining archeology's future database. Because the present situation of case-by-case reviews of individual collections is not tied to long-range planning efforts, curation decisions unfortunately are being made without an overall strategy to ensure preservation of information for long-term research needs.

Over the long term, a strategy of informed decision making, including a process of critical evaluation of the composition of the curated data bank, could lead to more productive collections-based research. Scholars certainly have made and are continuing to make valuable contributions to archeological research through studies of extant museum collections (Cantwell, Griffin, and Rothschild 1981), but such projects often face limitations because of the nature of the curated sample. To a certain extent, these problems are inevitable; new ideas may require different kinds of data for testing, or new techniques may make recovery of new information possible. In other cases, limitations are caused by nonmethodical or unsystematic collecting or poor curatorial practice with the result that critical provenience information is irretrievable (Brown 1981). As more and more of the archeological record takes the form of curated collections, these collections will need to contain the range of materials required for continued research.

Recent technological advances in information management of museum collections are for the first time making it possible to evaluate the range of data that is contained in curated collections—to identify gaps in the data, to assess curated materials in terms of their research potential, and to take steps to correct obvious biases. Implementation of a process of continuing assessment and reassessment of collections in relation to research needs is critical for ensuring that data collection is responsive to changing information requirements. The management of archeological collections must become as dynamic as the process of scientific inquiry. Responsive management of collections is urgently needed because there is little time to correct problems as site destruction continues. [Arrow Image]

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