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(photo) Collections technologist processing artifacts.
Artifact processing at the Archeological Collections Stabilization Laboratory, Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District's Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archeological Collections. From the photograph collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.

The costs related to the long-term care of archeological collections are not insignificant. Unfortunately, little money has been budgeted for collections management and care during project planning over decades of archeological work. The lack of line item budgeting for curation was especially problematic after the late '70s when CRM legislation resulted in enormous numbers of new collections. Although 36 CFR 79 placed the responsibility of paying for the care of federal collections on the federal agency that owns the collection, adequate financial support has not been regularly forthcoming since 1990. In the meantime, many repositories have instigated fees for the long-term care of federal, tribal, state, and local collections they do not own.

As curation fees proliferate across the U.S., it is difficult for agency cultural resources managers, CRM company managers and principal investigators, and others who handle the budgets for archeological projects and resources management to understand the costs of curation. This is because of the great variety of fees charged, how the fees are determined, and the variety of services offered for a fee, such as initial processing and long-term care of a new collection, and inspection, rehabilitation, and conservation of an existing collection. Furthermore, it is difficult to determine if the services provided meet the standards set forth in 36 CFR 79 or similar state and local regulations and policies.

Fortunately, we are beginning to identify the variation of costs, which may eventually lead to some standardization of how fees are set and increased across the U.S. For example, some state and federal repositories do not charge curation fees, especially for their own collections; yet some do. Some repositories charge fees by the cubic foot for material remains and by the linear foot for records, while other charge by a variety of box sizes or by drawer space. A few repositories charge by the number of staff hours involved in processing the collection. Some charge fees for processing and long-term care for "in perpetuity", while others are beginning to charge annual fees. Costs can vary by geographic region, the number of available repositories in an area, or other criteria.

The various factors by which repositories devise their fee structure include:

  • conditions of a typical curation agreement;
  • a comparison of the fees charged by nearby repositories;
  • a comprehensive evaluation of the actual costs to process collections over the long term, including all overhead costs (the correct way to do it);
  • a focus on the materials used by the repository, including storage housing; and,
  • consideration of a reasonable fee amount in order to discourage collection owners from using another repository.

When a comprehensive review of all the costs is undertaken, the fees charged invariably do not cover the actual costs of the initial processing and long-term care of a collection "in-perpetuity". That amount is too high for virtually all archeological project budgets. Furthermore, the real costs of professional conservation and archival work on archeological collections are just beginning to be fully understood and appreciated by both archeologists and repository staff. For example, conservation work on submerged archeological resources can be enormous when full consideration is given to the professional expertise, necessary equipment, and space required. Also, archeologists' widespread use of short-lived media, such as color photographs, low quality paper, and digital data, for field and lab records is now posing significant challenges for archivists and conservators. Reproduction of deteriorating photos, videos or audio tapes, rehousing of records in appropriate storage containers and environments, developing an infrastructure for managing and migrating digital data, and creating finding aids to facilitate access to the records all have significant costs.

Furthermore, the costs of curation and the adoption of curation fees by many repositories seem to have affected, both positively and negatively, archeological field practices. A 1997-98 informal survey by the National Park Service yielded information on at least two types of effects (Childs 1998). One is the condition of the collections at the time of receipt by a repository, including:

  • Improved packaging, as well as labeling and cataloging of artifacts and records, to minimize costs of initial processing;
  • Non-cultural items are better culled;
  • Collection owners are taking the time to learn about repository facilities, curation agreements, and long-term collections care; and,
  • Storage boxes are occasionally overpacked to minimize the number of boxes and their associated costs.

The informal survey also detected some effects on field practices, including:

  • Considerably more sampling and culling in the field. Unfortunately, these actions are not always well documented;
  • Some permitting and owner agencies are changing policies to not require that everything is collected during a project (see Section III);
  • Objects are not picked up during surface surveys, but instead are mapped and photographed in place;
  • More flotation is done in the field rather than bringing samples back to the laboratory or repository;

All of this information makes it clear that better control over and predictability of the costs of collections management is critical in the future. This can be facilitated by developing methods and practices to standardize how curation fees are determined. Recently, some effort has focused on the advantages of adopting standardized storage box sizes by repositories (Kodack 1998). It is also critical to develop a standardized set of activities, materials, and professional expertise by which a repository calculates its different fees for initial collection processing, conservation, archiving, rehabilitation, etc. Efforts such as these will help contractors, CRM managers, and professional archeologists to reasonably predict curation costs, budget them into their projects, and compare curation costs at different repositories.

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