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(photo) Pottery vessels arranged by type and stored on sturdy steel shelving.
Whole vessel storage at the Anasazi Heritage Center. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.

There are a wide range of owners of archeological collections in the U.S. These include federal and state agencies, museums and repositories, archives, tribes, universities, and private land owners. Unfortunately, there is a significant number of collections that have no available information on exactly who owns them and, therefore, who is responsible for their long-term care. Many repositories have catalogs and/or inventories that contain useful information on the research value of the collections they house, but no information on ownership (Ferguson and Giesen 1999).

Ownership responsibility for land-managing federal agencies is identified in the uniform regulations implementing ARPA and, for all federal agencies and federally recognized tribes, in 36 CFR 79. Many states have laws that identify state ownership of collections recovered from state lands. University museums and other types of repositories become owners of archeological collections by conducting field research through a process that clearly assigns ownership or through the acquisition of collections upon transfer of title (see Section VII). When archeological research is conducted on private land, the land owner has first rights to the collections unless a signed agreement transfers ownership to a responsible party, preferably a repository that meets the standards of 36 CFR Part 79.

Although ownership of research collections recovered by university-based archeologists and their students may seem to go to the researcher(s), due to the length of time the collection is in their possession, this is rarely the case. If the project was conducted on federal, state, tribal or community land through a permitting process, the collection usually belongs to the agency or organization that owns or administers the land. If the project was conducted on private land, the land owner has first rights to the recovered collections unless a signed agreement transfers ownership to the researcher or to a repository set up by the researcher.

CRM companies do not own collections generated from contracted projects. Instead, the organization that contracted the project, such as a federal, state, tribal or community agency or a private land owner (including developers), owns the resulting collections. The contract agreement should clearly state who owns the resulting collections and has copyright and other intellectual property rights to the associated records.

A primary responsibility of ownership involves handling long-term care, which involves providing and paying for curatorial and archival services. For many years non-federal repositories housed federal collections at little or no cost to the owner. It is likely that similar relationships between state agencies and non-state repositories were set up for collections made on state land. In return, the repository had unhindered access to those collections for research, interpretation, educational programming, and exhibits. The ever increasing costs of long-term care, stagnant or decreasing budgets of many repositories, and responsibilities related to NAGPRA have forced repositories to try to identify the collection owners and urge them to pay for the significant collections management services provided.

Ownership is complicated, however, when multiple agencies at the federal, state, tribal, community level or any combination thereof cooperate on a project. Because of the high costs of management and care, the group may dispute over who owns the collection. Eventually ownership may be determined by which organization owned the largest portion of land or which one had primary responsibility for financing the project. If ownership of a project collection is divided up between several entities, which is definitely not desirable, the different parts may be curated in more than one repository. If the different parts are curated together, however, the care-taking repository may have to comply with different collections management standards for each owner.

Furthermore, ownership of museum property may change when the ownership of the land changes on which a collection was recovered. If the repository that cares for the collection is not notified of an official transfer of owner, determination of a collection's current ownership may be difficult as time passes.

Other issues over ownership have come about with the passage and implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Indian tribes now have rights to some objects from federal collections as defined in the Act. Determining which tribe may have rightful ownership due to its cultural affiliation with Native American human remains or other cultural items covered by NAGPRA has been a challenge for many repositories.

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