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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.

Mechanisms for Effecting Collections Management by Museums

In order to correct gaps in the curated data bank such as those observed in the collections of the NYSM, there must be coordination between archeological research, cultural resource management, and collections management. Even if an ideal goal of having comprehensive, well-considered plans for data collection and curation is reached, such plans must be compatible with museum policies or there is no guarantee that repositories will curate the resulting collections. Coordination with museums at the "front end" of decisions concerning management of archeological resources--those decisions concerning what to collect--would help ensure that repositories will accept the resulting collections and that these materials are appropriate for building regional data banks (Marquardt et al. 1982:413). When collections involve the cultural heritage of Native American tribes these groups also should be involved in the decision making process.

A requirement of Federal Antiquities Act 6 and Archeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA)7 permits, and agency equivalents, is that prior arrangements must have been made with a repository to accept and curate resulting collections. In practice, since curation usually is regarded as a storage problem, decisions concerning project design already have been made by the time repositories are contacted. The logical links between project design, collecting strategy, long-term research value, and curation are either overlooked or unrecognized by those involved in making such decisions. Thus the critical parameters that control the kind of collections that will be made already are set without input from the repositories. In some cases repositories are contacted after collections are made. When either of these scenarios happens, repositories are placed in the unflattering role of critics rather than partners in resource management.

Museum collections management policies are instruments that can effectively coordinate involvement of repositories in archeological resource management, as well as shape the curated archeological resource sample. Collections management policies incorporate sets of policies for all activities a museum undertakes in regard to collections, including acquisitions, loans, research, exhibition, and deaccession. A major goal of these policies is to insure that activities related to collections are in accord with a museum's mission (Malaro 1979; Pearce 1990:67-68; National Park Service 1990). Museum boards of trustees, or similar administrative bodies, set the general parameters of a museum's collecting activities by setting the museum's mission. Generally, the mission statement embodies considerations of geographic area, subject matter, and time period, and how the collections will be used, e.g. education, research, exhibition. Museum staff must then take these general parameters and translate them into more specific plans for building the collections. These plans are articulated in collections management policies. Thus, individual institutions exercise a considerable degree of control over what they acquire, and the policies of individual institutions differ.

The scope of collections and acquisitions portions of such policies are of special concern if collections are to become appropriate for long-term research needs. These policies guide decisions concerning the kinds of materials an individual museum will accept and the circumstances under which they will be accepted (Pearce 1990:70-74). Codes of ethics, such as the previously cited codes of the International Council of Museums (1987) and the New York State Association of Museums (1974), guide formulation of such policies. Two ethics in particular have direct bearing on what an individual museum will collect. The most encompassing is that a museum should accept only those collections related to its mission. A second important ethic is that a museum should be able to curate properly those materials it accepts.

An active rather than passive approach is inherent in a good museum acquisition policy (Burcaw 1975:50). With an active approach, a repository makes conscious decisions as to how its collections will grow, based on long term goals, and seeks to obtain those materials that meet these goals. In contrast, passive collecting means that a museum merely decides what will be in its collections based on what it is offered. Collections management policies based on an active approach can thus shape the overall character of a repository's collections and even provide quality control over what is curated. Such policies can be specific, for example, as to the kinds of artifacts or specimens a museum will accept, the level of documentation required, or the kind of sites or projects from which collections can or should be accepted.

Development of such active collections policies is one response museums have made to pressures to become more accountable to the public for their activities. The recent controversy concerning the curation of Native American remains and funerary objects and controversies over art exhibitions, such as the Maplethorpe photographs, are two highly publicized examples of pressures being placed on museums to justify their activities. Explicit formalization of collections management policies is a very positive development, because it helps upgrade the level of professionalism of museums in general. Development of these policies by individual institutions is becoming standard museum practice. For example, in New York State existence of a collections management policy is required before a museum can be chartered by the State Board of Regents, and NPS requires its park units with museum collections to have such a written policy (National Park Service 1990).

Archeologists and other public officials employed in regulatory agencies should become familiar with collections management policies and the role of repositories, through these policies, to assist in managing archeological resources. If collections management policies are to be used effectively and positively, archeologists must become actively involved in policy formulation. The potential exists for these policies to be detrimental to future research efforts if the needs of archeological research are not considerations in policy formulation. Archeologists can neither afford to "leave off" when it comes to managing collections nor to invest often costly and scarce curation resources unwisely.

Steps Toward Coordinated Regional Planning

Regional variation in the archeological record suggests that the most logical arena for developing plans for collections growth is at the regional level. As discussed previously, State plans for managing cultural resources, which are required by Federal regulation,8 historically have not incorporated curated collections as elements of these comprehensive management plans. As has been argued here, the accumulating data bank in the form of curated collections should be considered explicitly in such planning efforts. Developing plans to manage better what is curated will require coordination between those Federal and State agencies charged with making decisions about which sites are to be excavated, the archeologists who make and use the collections, the public and private repositories that ultimately curate the collected materials, and Native American tribes whose cultural heritage may be represented in the collections.

The best coordination of regional planning efforts may be initiated by statewide, archeological professional organizations working in conjunction with State Historic Preservation Offices. Task forces that bring together the repositories and archeologists having long-term research and collecting interests in specific regions would be one means of accomplishing this synthesis. The repositories should solicit Native American involvement. Many museums now have or are in the process of forming Native American advisory groups. Representatives of Federal programs having major influence in the regions also should be included. For example, if the Forest Service, NPS, or Bureau of Land Management have major land holdings in a region, input from these agencies is necessary for coordination with their cultural resource management master plans. Such regional task forces may prove of benefit to collections policies in general, as a wider constituency becomes aware of and involved with collections issues.

A major goal of such regional task forces would be to work with the repositories to draft collections management policies that could be used to shape the sample of the archeological record that will come to be contained in curated collections. In some cases, inter-institutional agreements may have to be made where there is overlap in the geographic areas covered by two or more museums. Such plans would neither require nor preclude designation of regional repositories (Marquardt 1977) as it is the plans that would be regional in nature, not necessarily the repositories. Periodic review and revision of the plans and museum policies would also be necessary as collections grow, and as archeological knowledge expands and evolves.

A preliminary step in the planning process is to know what already is contained in curated collections. Repositories must inventory and assess their collections. Regional task forces potentially could assist with these inventories and assessments. The current repatriation concern may well prove to be a benefit to these steps, as repositories begin to form cooperatives with wider constituencies and to conduct required inventories and assessments of the collections in their custody. Once the strengths, weaknesses, gaps, and biases of existing information are known, particular kinds of collections that are needed can be identified.

In the interim, repositories must continue to make decisions about what to curate without benefit of such comprehensive plans. Since this is the case, it is in the best interest of both the museum and archeological professions for repositories to take an active approach to acquisitions. They must become critical collectors and seek actively those materials for curation that result from well-conceived and systematically conducted and documented projects. Repositories that do not have archeologists in positions of responsibility for managing collections should seek advice from archeologists about acquisitions. Archeologists should respond to such requests both with sensitivity to the problems of managing collections and thoughtful justifications for curating specific collections.

The following general guidelines for research collections acquisition are proposed for consideration:

  1. Define the geographic area(s) that is encompassed by the repository's mission and accept materials only from that area;
  2. Assess the present coverage of the area in terms of space, time, kind, and quality;
  3. Define priorities for acquisition based on the present character of the collection, the institutional mission, and gaps perceived in the database;
  4. Question whether potential new collections contribute to the information base being developed;
  5. Refuse to accept collections that have severe spatial sampling, materials recovery, or documentation problems;
  6. Develop standards and guidelines for collections preparation that must be followed by archeologists planning to have the repository curate collections; and
  7. Stay informed as to projects being done in the defined collecting area while actively seeking those collections that fit identified priorities.

Developing plans to guide growth and content of curated archeological collections can be a complex process, but the lack of such plans will perpetuate the curation crisis. Some collections will be preserved to the detriment of others without regard to research needs and information potential. If there is to be a future for the past, research collections must be built with adequate and appropriate consideration of long-term information needs.


An earlier version of this paper was read at the 1990 annual meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Mobile, AL. Veletta Canouts provided the encouragement to discuss these issues in a national forum. She also served as chief critic and editor. Francis P. McManamon, Michael K. Trimble, and seven anonymous reviewers read earlier drafts and made many helpful suggestions. Lisa Anderson, of the New York State Museum's Anthropological Survey, prepared Figures 1 and 3. The support of the National Science Foundation for the inventory of the New York State Museum's archeological collections under Grants BNS-8709135 and BNS-8907268 also is gratefully acknowledged.

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