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? 


Chris Webster said...

I know this isn't the answer for everyone yet, but, I think the long term solution to the curation problem is digital field recording. Digitally scan artifacts in the field and never collect them. As I said, this isn't quite possible, yet, but it's the direction we should be heading. As soon as there is a portable and affordable way to do it, I'll be pushing for it.

In the interim, I have no problem with private curation. I think a lot of people would be able and willing to take care of artifacts and display them. It would foster good will between museums and the public, and, would put a band-aid on the problem.

Thomas F King said...

I think digital field recording is a great partial solution, and would greatly improve documentation in general, but a lot of stuff necessarily has to be removed from the field, especially in salvage/rescue contexts, so it's not likely to be the whole solution.

Anonymous said...

Israel has an overabundance of artifacts and enthusiastic consumers for the antiquities. The Israeli Antiquities Authority provides permits for the purchase of artifacts, through antiquity dealers, that can be taken out of the country. The IAA had a record of the artifact and, for instance, an American had a prized object for their mantle. Your suggestion is assemblages but reading the studies (i.e., by Morag Kersel) on the implications for archaeology in Israel might dampen the enthusiasm for privatizing artifacts.

Thomas F King said...

OK, Annonymous, so let's say our enthusiasm is dampened. What's the alternative? Is the status quo OK?

No question that privatizing has its dangers, and those are things that ought to be discussed and dealt with, but unless we're prepared to accept the status quo, or someplace find a whole lot of money for storage facilities and staff, we're going to have to do SOMETHING.

Chuck Carrig said...

The museum world often de-accesstions excessive artifacts and while often frowned upon is perfectly legal, providing the artifacts to not fall under the NAGPRA umbrellia. I suspect teh real issue is the "old schoool" ideology and some federal regulations that more or less state that if it was important enough to collect it must be kept. So there are two approaches: stop collecting mundane artifacts and conduct in field analysis or de-accession.

Thomas F King said...

Not to put too fine a point on it, Chuck, I think your presentation of options is simplistic and narrowminded.

To begin with, who decides what's "mundane," and on what basis? Some awfully good research has been done on "mundane" artifacts (e.g. potsherds, stone debitage), sometimes long after they were collected, sometimes enabled by analytic tools not even dreamed of when they were collected.

Second, the "don't collect it" option in many if not most cases would mean consigning whatever "it" is to destruction; in the management contexts in which most archaeologists work today, it's not just a matter of leaving it for some future researcher.

Third, just "de-accessioning" stuff often means consigning it to the landfill. Which is essentially the same as destroying it (or at least changing its depositional context and leaving an interpretive riddle for someone who digs the landfill a thousand years hence).

And of course, what falls under the "NAGPRA umbrella" in this country, and under similar wetware elsewhere, is subject to a good deal of interpretation.

I could go on, but I hope you see my point. It seems to me that a range of management options is needed, and the one proposed by Stemm and Bederman is one that deserves careful consideration.

Anonymous said...

Odd that you didn't mention indigenous peoples and their claims to the materials found in shipwrecks.

Thomas F King said...

Why is it odd, Annonymous? I don't mention everything in every post.

Anonymous said...

It's odd because the curation crisis you speak of is a problem of too much material. It is the flip side of the coin when looking at the problem from the point of view of indigenous peoples who aren't often included in the distribution of the recovered materials. One hopeful sign -- in discussing the Black Swan case, you friend Mr. Stemm is quoted on Odyssey's website about his view of indigenous claims to the salvaged material, “We believe that Peru's filing raises a significant and timely question relating to whether a former colonial power or the colonized indigenous peoples should receive the cultural and financial benefit of underwater cultural heritage derived from the previously colonized nations. Odyssey would be pleased to involve Peru in the study and archaeological investigation of any property that is found to have originated in Peru, without regard for whether Peru has any legal rights to the property. We would also be pleased to extend the same courtesy to any other sovereign government, indigenous people, relatives or descendants who might have a legitimate claim or interest in property discovered on any of Odyssey's shipwrecks,” Mr. Stemm added. Not sure if any Indigenous Nations have taken Mr. Stemm up on his offer.

Anonymous said...

It is odd that you didn't mention indigenous peoples because had you included them in your discussion, you might have found a solution to the problem you have identified. Those who want to solve the curation problem should at the outset include all the parties who have historic and moral claims to the materials, that would in many cases include indigenous peoples. By not even considering them as parties to this discussion, well that might just result in their exclusion later. Your friend from Odyssey mentions that he is open to including indigenous peoples in these discussions. It is odd that you didn't mention indigenous peoples, usually you would.

Thomas F King said...

Well, as you may know, Annonymous, I'm rabidly biased against indigenous people -- try to close them out of discussions at every opportunity.

Seriously, I simply don't feel it necessary to beat every drum in every post, all the time. Of course indigenous people should have a seat at the table in deciding what happens to collections, and depending on the collection it often ought to be the dominant seat. With the kinds of collections Greg Stemm mostly deals with, though, from shipwrecks, the stuff to be managed is usually not obviously and unequivocally related to an indigenous group, or at least to a particular group. Sure, a gold ingot from a Spanish shipwreck in the Caribbean probably represents a melted-down and recast piece of the cultural patrimony of some Native American group, and maybe such material ought to be returned somehow or other to that group's descendants, or liquidated and given over to a fund to benefit such descendants, or something. That notion may be worth debating, but it's a different notion from that of private curatorship, and -- mea culpa! -- I didn't feel compelled to bring it up in my post. My bad, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Greg Stemm, the co-founder and current CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, and John C. Morris, the co-founder of Odyssey Marine Exploration, were both sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

It appears that Neptune Minerals is insolvent. Oceanica is extremely unlikely to get an environmental permit. Oceanica’s cofounding shareholder, DNA Ltd, Inc, is tied to a Panamanian entity whose principal members are connected to a number of alleged financial crimes – why did Odyssey Marine Exploration structure it this way?

Isn’t it weird that Odyssey Marine Exploration has been unable to address any of the serious questions posed by concerned shareholders? It’s concerning that John Morris, the founder of Odyssey Marine, is currently being sued by members of Seagrass Recovery. Odyssey Marine Exploration and Neptune Minerals have been tied to brokerage firms with many FINRA sanctions, this is very alarming – would you invest in this company? Buyer beware.

Odyssey Marine Exploration has disappointed 100% of the time on its estimated project recoveries, can you trust anything they say? Why does Odyssey Marine Exploration have opaque and unexplained offshore subsidiaries in the Bahamas and Panama? These are completely unnecessary for Odyssey’s operations.

Based on its current cash reserves and negative cash flow Odyssey Marine Exploration could very well go bankrupt in 2014. Odyssey Marine Exploration was held in contempt of court after it lost the Blackswan case. World-class phosphate mining companies have previously evaluated and passed on the Oceanica asset – Odyssey is the only company interested in this uneconomic asset.

Didn’t Odyssey’s chairman Brad Baker get exposed for signing on both sides of a deal? Why does Odyssey Marine Exploration use an auditor that has been sanctioned multiple times by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board? Based on accurate historical records, there was never any secret army gold aboard the SS Central America.

It’s alarming that Odyssey Marine Exploration started as a shell purchased by Timothy Brasel, who was later cited by an SEC civil action for stock manipulation. It’s shocking that the predecessor of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Seahawk, went bankrupt – but it’s even more shocking that every other reverse merger treasure hunting company (six in total!) have also gone bankrupt.

It’s alarming that Odyssey Marine Exploration has lost nearly $200,000,000 of shareholder capital while insiders have personally made millions – how much longer can this continue?

Isn’t it ironic that Odyssey Marine Exploration has posted enormous financial losses but CEO Greg Stemm makes enough money to afford five houses for himself and his family? That doesn’t seem fair at all. Why does Odyssey host closed conference calls in which only their investment bankers get to ask questions? Why won’t Odyssey answer questions from other shareholders? Are they hiding something?

Thomas F King said...

Luckily I've never had enough money to invest in anything, so I can't begin to speak to Odyssey's merits and failures as an investment opportunity or even as a business. I'm just impressed by the quality of their archaeology and the good sense that Greg Stemm brings to discussions of archaeological ethics, in stark contrast to the irrational junk that most archaeologists smugly spout.