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Collections and Curation
Summer 1996, vol. 1(2)

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*  From the Field to the Files: Curation and the Future of Academic Archeology

(photo) Archeologist measuring an artifact.

"The public perception of archeology derives more from Indiana Jones than from the realities of everyday practice. Recent changes in the discipline have shifted the emphasis . . . now the name of the game is curation."

Margaret C. Nelson and Brenda Shears

by Margaret C. Nelson and Brenda Shears

Today, the public perception of archeology derives more from Indiana Jones than from the realities of everyday practice. Recent changes in the discipline have shifted the emphasis from individually focused, independent field research toward collaborative, sometimes collections-based, often public-funded projects. Now the name of the game is curation.

Given this reality, the preservation and accessibility of collections and records are central to the future of the discipline. This means that all of those with an investment in it—universities, museums, government agencies, and students—have an opportunity to work together for the benefit of archeology and the public good. Training, practice, and preservation can be part of every institution's programs, directed toward improving the utility of materials from past field research.

Current Directions: A Survey

Where is the discipline headed? This question was front and center at the spring 1995 meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, in a panel and open discussion called "Finding Creative Solutions for Restructuring American Archaeology," organized by Catherine Cameron and Roger Anyon.

We had designed a survey to evaluate whether graduate student research 1) was independent or collaborative (the Indiana Jones model), 2) was conducted as part of a resource management project or program, and 3) emphasized new excavations or the use of existing collections and documents.

We asked faculty in 29 departments of anthropology in the United States and Canada to provide information on recent PhD dissertations. A total of 224 dissertations completed since 1990 were included in the survey results. The table and figure present a picture of the findings.

We discovered, to the surprise of many, that only 20 percent of all the PhD research completed since 1990 was directed by a student acting independently, conducting fieldwork. Further, the number of students directing excavation and survey field projects has declined from 1990 to the present. By contrast, the use of museum data has increased. In the sample, 21 percent of the dissertations employed collections and documents as the primary source. This proportion has nearly doubled from 16 percent in the 1990 sample to 30 percent in the 1994 and the 1995 samples.

In short, the public myth of the lone male archeologist is just that: a myth, an image more in line with "Raiders of the Lost Ark" than with the contemporary realities of research.

We thought that some of the shift from independent, student-directed work may be because of increased use of public archeology projects for field and laboratory data. The proportion of dissertations that use public projects as a primary source, however, was disappointingly low, only 17 percent.

This number may be partly a product of the survey procedure. Many projects may have been in countries that emphasize public archeology less than the United States. However, we expect the trend toward increased use of collections to continue and for data from public projects to become a more common source for dissertations.

Several developments encourage the trend. Recent discussions with Native Americans have guided archeologists away from primarily excavating sites toward more considered, nondestructive approaches. In addition, we are all too aware of declining funds for research, including fieldwork. Museum collections are abundant and have rarely been analyzed in depth. They offer excellent sources of data for many research questions.

New Challenges, New Opportunities

This change creates new challenges for universities, museums, and federal agencies. There is now the potential for closer partnerships in research, education, and preservation that will enhance curation as well as improve access to collections. Critics can identify all too many cases of disregard for the materials removed from sites and disarray in fieldwork records. Too often researchers or educators cannot locate complete collections, which may be scattered among institutions or only partly housed in a museum or repository. Supporting documents such as field records, analysis forms, and photographs are often less accessible than artifacts because they have not been well cared for, are not cataloged or indexed, or were never submitted for curation with the collections.

Non-archeologists correctly ask why museums should hold collections if they cannot be cared for or made available for viewing. With the value of collections ever increasing as we move to less destructive research and greater attention to public education, curation must receive serious consideration as an essential element of any archeological program. All archeologists need to be aware that the professional responsibility for curation is not reserved for museums and repositories.

University archeologists must explicitly value collections and collections management. This can be accomplished by encouraging students to seek collections for research as well as help in finding them. In addition, there should be more instruction in curation. Currently, museum studies students are usually the only people who receive information about proper curation and the procedures necessary to accomplish it. If archeologists are to be conscientious about curation during their career, they need training as students about the care of collections, field records, and other associated documentation.

Museum and repository professionals must contribute by making information more accessible. With current trends in computerization and the careful inventories that have been implemented as a product of NAGPRA legislation, it is not inconceivable for anthropology departments to have on-line access to the contents of museum collections. We are not criticizing museums; as a former museum director and project manager, we know well the limitations of staffing, funding, and access to technology. Students of archeology can be excellent assistants in creating databases if a strong partnership exists between museums and universities.

Federal and state archeologists must insist on and find financial support for adequate curation. Far too many projects are conducted without specific curation plans, especially prior to the development of regulations on the curation of federally associated collections (36 CFR 79). Even with planning, collections may fall through the cracks as money runs out at the end of projects, and never be organized or stored in a way that they can be efficiently retrieved for research or other educational use. We believe that one of the major contributions federal professionals can make to archeological research is to insist that the curation of collections and records be documented before a project is considered complete. Unfortunately, if this responsibility resides at the local level, individuals may not have the support or feel they have the authority to insist on the proper and timely curation of collections, and they may not have access to adequate facilities. The representatives of funding agencies are in a unique position to provide timely followup on projects to ensure that professional curation procedures are in effect.

A partnership among government, museum, and university professionals that focuses specifically on the value of collections sends a strong message to the public and private sector of the value archeologists have for information about the past. Further, this kind of collaboration can help promote research and educational programs using existing collections, which is an important future step for archeology and preservation.

For more information, contact Margaret C. Nelson or Brenda Shears, Arizona State University, Department of Anthropology, Box 872402, Tempe, AZ 85287-2402, (602) 965-7181, fax (602) 965-7112