Saturday, December 28, 2013

Private Curatorship: An Answer to "The Curation Crisis?

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 --
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, 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 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? 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Mark Trail (Not Territory)

I can't help myself.  I'm a dedicated daily reader, over my morning coffee, of the Washington Post comic pages.  And not just the hip strips like "Doonsbury,"  or the ones like "Pickles" that speak to me personally, but even the likes of -- well, "Mark Trail."
"Mark Trail" is a -- umm -- well, it's pretty much straight out of the fifties.  Its eponymous protagonist, Trail (not Territory) is supposedly a nature journalist; he lives on some sort of private wildlife refuge with his wife -- Cherry! -- and.... well, never mind.  He has adventures contending with poachers and other such environmental evil-doers, though only rarely with, say, land developers and big government agencies.
Anyhow, right now he's fallen in with a really nice old man who lives in a cabin in the woods and has a fabulous collection of -- you guessed it, folks, Indian artifacts.  Which some bad guys are trying to steal.  Actually, they've stolen them and are trying to pin the theft on Trail (not Territory), but we can be sure that Mark will foil them in the end and all will be made right. 
"Right," of course, being that the nice old collector will get his collection back.  Which is what makes the strip worth more than a yawn over coffee.  There's not a hint, not a glimmer of a notion anywhere in this stretch of Trail (not Territory) that there could be anything wrong with the old man's collecting artifacts.
Now, nothing's been said or shown about how he collects them -- whether he digs or is just a surface collector -- and there've been no close-ups of the collection; my impression is that it's mostly projectile points (spear and arrowheads to you non-specialists), but I can't really say.  No obvious human bones.  But be this as it may, the point (sic) is that all the sound and fury that echoes around the hallowed halls of archaeology and in parts of Indian Country over the legality and propriety of private artifact ownership seems to have gone right past the composers of Mark Trail (not Territory).  It simply hasn't registered, isn't on their radar screens.
I am not posting this to encourage people to go beat up on the cartoonists, like folks are berating National Geographic for its "Diggers" show.  Quite the contrary; I post it to suggest that we archaeologists are way, way, way out of touch with the American (and worldwide) mainstream when we indiscriminately slap labels like "looter" on everybody who ever picks up an artifact and doesn't turn it in to a museum.  The public is never going to buy the notion that a nice old guy in the woods who collects artifacts is in the same league with, say, somebody who digs up graves or pecks rock art off the walls of caves.  And I daresay a thoughtful public might even hesitate to castigate someone who does those latter things if, say, the graves are about to be bulldozed for a wind-generator array or the cave's about to be blown up for a mine.  I've said it before and always been ignored, but I'll say it again; we ought to take a more nuanced view of artifact collection and ownership, so as to build alliances with, rather than alienating, nice old men in the woods and their nature-writer chums.  When we insist that nobody should own artifacts except the fine academic institutions for which we happen to work, then rightly or wrongly we look a lot like we're just marking territory (not trail).

Monday, December 16, 2013

GAO and CRS Say: "Down with Public Participation"(?)

Leslie Barras has continued her string of thought-provoking reports for the National Trust for Historic Preservation with Honoring Our Nation's Veterans: Saving Their Places of Health Care and Healing (  The report is critical of how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) manages its substantial inventory of historic buildings and districts, though (speaking as a veteran and a contractor to VA) I find it refreshingly even-handed and sympathetic toward both VA's mission and the pressures exerted on it by Congress and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

One thing that Barras reveals -- which I guess doesn't surprise me because it supports my growing belief that everyone in Congress and the Obama administration has had their brains fed to zombies -- is this, on page 91.  After discussing a 1990s VA initiative to set up stakeholder advisory committees on medical facility closures, which she identifies as an example of the "Dialogue, Decide and Deliver" (DDD) model espoused by environmental justice groups, she reports that the Government Accountability (sic) Office (GAO) --

...criticized the VA’s inclusionary approach as inviting “protracted conflict” and “piecemeal” decision making because of the involvement of special-interest groups who would tend to “avoid difficult choices by focusing only on marginal changes to the status quo . . .”  The GAO then recommended an “independent” planning approach, which would consist of using VA planners or outside consultants to develop and analyze data upon which the VA would make ... decisions, followed by providing “sufficient information” to external stakeholders to “understand and support” decisions already made.  As opposed to the inclusive “DDD” public process, the GAO’s proposal is rooted in an antiquated and exclusionary public relations process called “DAD” (“Decide, Announce, and Defend”).  From the perspectives of several interviewees involved in past and current deliberations about possible realignments and closures of VHA facilities, ...  it appears that the GAO’s “DAD” approach has been followed by the VA.

Similarly, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) has identified “stakeholder conflict” as complicating federal agency disposal efforts, noting that there is no “government-wide real property guidance for addressing stakeholder conflicts”. Several bills have been filed in Congress that purport to “reform” public involvement in federal real property management. One example is the Civilian Property Realignment Act (CPRA) of 2012, which would shorten the statute of limitations for citizen suits brought for violations of NEPA during disposal of federal property from six years to 60 days (CPRA of 2012, § 18(a)(2)).

If Barras is to be believed – and I’ve always found her reports to be pretty much on-target – we have not only the perennial jokesters in the House of Representatives, but the ostensibly knowledgeable and objective GAO and CRS proposing to turn the clock back to the 1950s, when government decided what was best for its citizens (Dam those rivers!  Demolish those slums!) and hired PR flacks to persuade the flaccid public that it was the Right Thing To Do – instead of (horrors!) actually consulting with the unwashed multitudes.  Unfortunately – as detailed in the book that Claudia Nissley and I are publishing next year via Left Coast Press (, there’s every evidence that she’s right.

Barras comments:

The importance of public involvement in decisions regarding assets that are ultimately public assets, and public heritage, may not be a priority for auditors concerned with the numerical accounting required to prepare balance sheets and federal financial statements. However, the apparent resistance to public involvement noted in the examples above seems antithetical to basic concepts of fairness, rights to expression, and transparency in a democracy, not to mention current federal law.

I, for one, couldn’t agree more.