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  Managing Archeological Collections Today's Key Issues Distance Learning

Conservation and heritage interests

There are several key issues dealing with the conservation of archeological material remains and associated records that are gaining attention, especially among the culture groups with heritage interests in existing collections.

One issue involves the identification, documentation, and risk management of chemical pesticides and preservatives once used on objects and records, and which now remain as hazardous residues. In particular, arsenic and mercury salts were used decades ago to halt or prevent damage by a variety of pests to organic items, such as baskets and other fibers, cloth, wood, or paper. Unfortunately, non-organic items may have been treated as well. More unfortunately, most repositories did not record pesticide and preservative treatments of individual objects, which would help in a program of detoxification today.

As efforts increase to make collections more accessible to the public, researchers, and culturally affiliated groups, attention to the potentially harmful effects of these chemical residues is critical and is being pursued (Odegaard 2000). This need is highlighted in the NAGPRA regulations (43 CFR Part 10.10(e)) that state:

    The museum official or Federal agency official must inform the recipients of repatriation of any presently known treatment of human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony with pesticides, preservatives, or other substances that represent a potential hazard to the objects or to persons handling objects.

Conservators, therefore, are researching ways to detect contaminated objects, to identify the source and quantity of contamination, and to handle detoxification. They are beginning to work with tribal communities, in particular, to identify potential health risks as objects are returned for long-term care, restoration, and/or active use.

A related issue involves the need for greater communication between repository conservators and culturally affiliated groups over the care and conservation of objects that may still have an active function in the culture. Conservators are learning to reach the best compromise between the most appropriate conservation solutions and special cultural requirements, such as appropriate positioning of objects, appropriate support materials, use of housings that do not seal fully, or the need to conduct periodic rituals that may introduce new contaminants.

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