The park’s museum collection includes both cultural and natural history collections.
The cultural collection includes: archeological materials systematically excavated from within the park’s boundaries including ammunition (cartridges and bullets), soldier’s equipment, horse bones, and horse-related equipment, while the majority of these objects were systematically collected, some are the result of opportunistic collecting by park staff and visitors; ethnology collection of textiles, personal effects and tools; and historic items of the Indian Wars era including military uniforms, personal accoutrements, and weapons.
This includes a large archival collection (160,745 items) of historic photographs, administrative records, oral histories, manuscripts, correspondence, artwork, maps, and resource management records.
A relatively small natural history collection includes a herbarium collected by Little Bighorn College students in 1996-97, fish collected from the Little Bighorn River in 2002 by the Montana State University, a small mammal collection and dendro core tree samples collected as part of a Riparian Demography project.
For a more in-depth understanding and insight of the management of the Museum Collections and archives read the park’s Scope of Collection Statement (SOCS). The SOCS is the basic curatorial planning document that serves to guide the present and future acquisition and preservation of museum objects, specimens, associated records, and archival and manuscript collections. Collections should contribute directly to the understanding and interpretation of the park’s purpose, themes and resources. Another purpose of this SOCS is to prevent arbitrary, unnecessary, and excessive growth of the museum collection. The development of the museum collection should proceed in close coordination with the park’s curatorial, resource management, and interpretive staff, and with the specialists in central offices, using the guidance of this and other planning documents.
In 2011 the museum collections and archives which were stored in the basement of the existing visitor center were temporarily moved to the Western Archeological Conservation Center in Tucson Arizona. The project included relocation of museum equipment and the purchase of additional equipment (shelves, cabinets, and racks) and supplies to properly store the collection at its destination
Collections storage conditions at the park did not meet neither the NPS Museum Collections Standards nor the best practices of the American Association of Museums. The park’s overcrowded, poorly stored collections needed significant storage upgrades and additional space to meet minimal preservation standards. The storage area lacked climate control (temperature, humidity) appropriate for museum collections. Potential water leaks from overhead pipes posed a threat to artifacts and archives. Visitors and researchers with disabilities could not gain physical access to the collection because it was stored in a basement without an elevator. There was no fire protection in the visitor center, and security for the facility is outdated. Under those storage conditions, the collection was at risk of being lost forever to researchers and visitors.
Since the move, the collections have been rehoused to eliminate overcrowding and further deterioration, a Complete Conservation Survey was completed in 2013. The conservation treatment on the metal artifacts have been completed. Current projects are in place to provide conservation treatment on select textiles and rare books. Other projects underway are digitizing the 20th Century photographs, and the Elizabeth Bacon Custer collection. The archival 7th cavalry collection of close to 4,000 items will be merged and reorganized into an archival module, producing a finding aid for access for researchers, and staff.
The park is diligently working to find additional funds to complete additional conservation and preservation treatment for collection items in preparation for rotating exhibits, updating core documents, appraisals, cataloging of new and backlog collection, and updating legacy data in the Interior Collection Museum System database.
All of the work is towards preparation to bringing the collection back to the park once a new visitor center and museum storage facility is constructed which meets museum standards.
Requests for museum collection archives or objects should be submitted with enough lead-time to allow for the evaluation of the request and the scheduling of curatorial staff to oversee the research. Information can also be found at the park’s White Swan Library page.