I can’t now find the post, but someone this morning (28 December 2013) posted a link to an article in the Baton Rouge, Louisiana Advocate -- http://theadvocate.com/home/7777931-125/state-warehouse-seeks-funds-for
The article begins by describing the sorry situation at the Louisiana state facility charged with caring for the archaeological collection from El Nuevo Constante, a 1766 Spanish shipwreck excavated in 1979. There is supposedly a federal-state fund earmarked to support the facility (which I take from the article to be a general state curation facility), but money from it is being siphoned off by the state legislature to be applied to other purposes. The State Archaeologist is quoted as saying that he barely has money to pay a single staff member.
The article then segues an archaeological project being carried out in advance of state medical center construction, which is producing lots and lots of artifacts – far too many to be accommodated by the state’s storage facility. The conclusion, ascribed to the archaeologist in charge, is that “the collection will have to be culled.”
“Culled.” On the chicken ranch where I grew up, that meant chopping the heads off the chickens we couldn’t market and consigning them to the stewpot. As applied to archaeology, it means taking the artifacts and other material you can’t fit in your curatorial facility and –
Well, “and” what? Probably dumping it back into your excavations and burying it, or consigning it to a landfill. It almost certainly does not mean giving it away or – worse yet – selling it, because that would encourage private ownership of artifacts, and we all know – our professional organizations and professors beat it into our heads – that private ownership of artifacts is a sin.
The Advocate article describes a situation with which most archaeologists and archaeological curators are all too familiar -- it's been discussed from time to time in professional and government circles as "the curation crisis." In a nutshell: we just have too much stuff, and not enough space and money to take care of it all.
We complain about the curation crisis all the time; we wring our hands and bemoan the situation; we seek money for new and better and expanded curatorial facilities, and sometimes we get it. But increasingly we don’t; governments have other priorities.
So we adapt – by storing stuff under suboptimal conditions (in cardboard boxes under desks in offices, in musty attics and soggy basements), or by “culling” and dumping stuff, or by not collecting it in the first place, which raises questions about why those laws requiring attention to archaeological sites even exist.
Is there an alternative?
Whenever I see an article like the Advocate piece dealing with a shipwreck, I refer it to my friend Greg Stemm, CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration in Tampa, Florida – a firm that does (among other things) very good deep-ocean archaeology and very selectively markets some of what it recovers. After reading the Advocate article, Greg commented dryly that he suspected it was just the tip of the iceberg – that many, many collections are being “culled” or just left to deteriorate, but that nobody in the archaeological and museum communities want to talk about it. I think he’s right.
Greg also pointed out that he and International Law professor David Bederman of Emory University had published a paper in 2010 detailing the problem and proposing as a solution a program called “Private Curatorship.” It’s at http://www.shipwreck.net/pdf/OMEPapers14-PrivateCurators.pdf, and probably hasn’t gotten much attention. It was published by Odyssey, after all (which has also published a number of excellent reports on specific research projects), and it’s an article of faith among archaeologists that commercial salvage firms don’t publish their results, so when they do, they’re invariably ignored.
You probably won’t get cooties if you read it, though, and I’d really suggest that you take a look, trying to keep an open mind. Called “Virtual Collections & Private Curators: a Model for the Museum of the Future,” the paper documents the fact that collections all over the world are languishing in substandard facilities, and that there simply isn’t enough public money or political will to take care of them all. It goes on to propose a program under which a museum would “cull” its collections but not just dump them back in the ground or into a landfill; instead they would selectively sell the stuff with rigorous controls designed to ensure that the purchasers would care for what they purchased, keep it together, make it available for future research, and participate in creating a widely accessible web-based catalogue including extensive digital imagery. Collectors of artifacts would become the allies of museums and archaeologists, rather than our enemies.
Acknowledging that a range of international and regional standards discourage even thinking about such an option, Stemm and Bederman argue persuasively that it is not in fact illegal, and based on Odyssey’s practical experience they think it would work. Collections would be preserved, collectors and other members of the interested public would be engaged, and the museums would both free up space and gain some needed revenue. And – they don’t say this, but I do – museums and archaeologists would come to look a bit more like reasonable citizens and less like arrogant, self-congratulatory dogs in the manger.
I have to say that I’m less sanguine than Stemm and Bederman are about how many collectors might want to become “private curators” under the terms they propose, but I’d be delighted to be proved wrong. And Stemm's and Bederman's proposal is only an initial one -- there may be many variants on the theme that would be worth consideration. One thing that’s certain is that we won’t find out what's workable if nobody tries it.
So hey, you folks in Louisiana, or anyplace else that’s got a problem caring for all the stuff you’ve excavated or expect to excavate, take a look at http://www.shipwreck.net/pdf/OMEPapers14-PrivateCurators.pdf and consider how what Stemm and Bederman propose might apply to your situation.
I know, I know, you fear hellfire and damnation, or at least being hounded out of the profession if you consider -- oh the horror of even saying it! – selling an artifact. Better to avert your eyes, close your ears, and let your collections rot. But you know, I don’t think there’s much empirical evidence that selling artifacts puts you on the down-elevator to hell; is there nobody out there who’s willing to give this a try?