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  Managing Archeological Collections Curation Prior to the Field Distance Learning

Project design

(photo) Pair of archeologists carefully clean and conserve a kiva mural.
In-field conservation of a kiva mural. From the photograph collection of the Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center, Dolores, Colorado.

The curation process begins at the start of planning for any archeological field project, long before the resulting collection makes it to the repository. Before fieldwork begins, it is the professional responsibility of the principal investigator, whether for compliance or research, to ensure that proper arrangements have been made for the long-term care and management of the resulting material remains and associated records, including digital data and reports.

The first step in the process is to address curation needs in the project or research design and/or in the scope of work for an archeological project contract. Key items to be included are:

  • identification of a repository to curate the collections;
  • appropriate budgeting for short-term handling and long-term care of the collection; and,
  • a well considered collecting strategy.
Selecting a repository

ARPA and 36 CFR 79 require the identification of a repository to house collections prior to issuing a permit for fieldwork on federal land, as well as a signed agreement between the agency owners and the repository. Many states have similar requirements for work on state lands. Some agencies (state, tribal, local, or federal) have designated repositories for their collections. No decision on a repository is needed in these cases, but consultation with the repository prior to fieldwork is still essential, especially on repository requirements for submission of a collection. For other projects there may be a choice of appropriate repositories for the collection and, with choice, well-informed decision-making is critical.

There are several issues to consider when selecting a repository that meets the basic standards of 36 CFR 79. The first is the location of the repository. Preferably it should be in the same region and/or state as the site and should curate similar types of collections. This helps ensure that the repository already has the experience, knowledge, and facilities to care for the collection. It also helps to maximize the research potential of new and existing collections by having the material remains and associated records representing the same cultures and time periods in one place.

The second issue is ensuring that it has good collections management and use policies. A good repository should have a formalized mission statement, scope of collections, collecting plan, and long-range goals. It should also have a policy that facilitates access and use of its collections for researchers, educators, culturally-associated groups, and the interested public. It is important to be assured that archeological collections are explicitly covered by these policies.

(photo) Properly packaged and labeled boxes line spacious, sturdy open shelving units.
Proper open shelf storage. Photo courtesy of Alexandria Archaeology, City of Alexandria, Virginia.

Another consideration in choosing a repository is its ability to care for and manage the collection. Does the repository's system(s) to accession, catalog, and inventory objects and records meet professional standards? Does the repository have a backlog of collections to process and catalog? If so, when will they process your collection? Is the catalog and inventory information well organized and are the collections easy to find and use? Does the repository develop useful finding aids for the associated records? Ask to see them. Does the repository staff know how to care for digital data and other magnetic-based records? What access restrictions apply to the collections under their care? What is the repository's position on copyright protected materials, sensitive data, and donor restrictions? Does the repository have to make information available via the Freedom of Information Act or state sunshine laws (see Section IX)?

It is also important to know about the repository's physical plant and their efforts to minimize risks to the collections. Do they include an appropriate storage system and controls for temperature, humidity, and light that are appropriate for the classes of material remains that will be collected and records that will be produced? Do they have a formal risk management plan that addresses issues of security, fire protection, pest management, and disaster preparedness?

The last issue to consider is the financial status of the institution. Does it have the necessary financial resources for long-term care of its collections, as well as its institutional sustainability? It is not wise to put a collection in a repository that has an uncertain future without open discussion with the staff about what would happen to the collection if the repository closed. Does the repository charge a curation fee, and, if so, what services does that fee cover? For example, does it have adequate funds for object conservation or for migrating and reformatting digital data? The budget provided in a project design should cover the costs of both initial preparation of the materials remains and associated records and their long-term management. Budgeting for collections management and access is covered in detail in the next section.

Once all of these issues have been weighed and a repository has been chosen, a curation agreement should be signed by the collection owner and the repository. This agreement should state:

  • Expected condition of the collection upon arrival at the repository. This can include specifics on cataloging (e.g., numbering system, labeling procedures), storage and packing requirements, and expected accompanying documentation/data.
  • Details as to what, if any, final preparations for long-term curation are to be done at the repository, including conservation and archival processing and description.
  • Costs for any final preparations for long-term care.
  • Responsibilities of the repository for collections care.
  • Details on ownership, accessibility, and any intellectual property rights issues.
  • Details on how deaccessioning is handled (who has authority to make decisions; expected disposition of any deaccessioned objects, etc.).

Most repositories have a standardized curation agreement form and a standard set of requirements for receipt of a collection. The principal investigator should be aware of all requirements and take the necessary steps to comply. One thing to remember is that not only can archeologists choose repositories, but repositories can (and should) choose their collections. Many repositories now have detailed scopes of collections that state what types of collections they will and will not accept. It is important that the archeologist, agency/owner, and repository work together for the best possible care of a collection at the earliest point possible in project planning and budgeting.

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