The Curation Crisis

One of the biggest problems museums are facing, both in the state of Oklahoma and across the country, is the lack of storage space for new collections. Designated repositories like the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History are encouraged to take in new material when archaeologists survey and excavate sites, but most museums and repositories are understaffed and have collections dating back many decades. Archaeological material in a state can only go to its designated state repositories and cannot go to storage outside of its respective state, which can be an issue if a state only has one or two repositories total. As stated in the National Park Service information on the curation crisis, archaeologists are required to find repositories for all of the artifacts and documents from their excavations to apply for state or federal permits. Organizing and cataloging collections can take weeks or months, and if someone leaves in the middle of cataloguing a collection, it means at best the next person to work on the collection will have to start from the beginning and take time away from other collections that need to be processed. At worst, the collection is put away and all knowledge of it is eventually lost. New collections come in every day, adding to the growing number of boxes in storage, and if there are only a few people working through them at a time, when some collections can take months to process, they will not be able to keep up with all of the new and legacy materials.

The solutions to lack of storage space are simple in theory, though executing them would likely be much more difficult. Archaeologists cannot simply stop excavating sites while collections are processed, so something like another repository or bringing in more people to work in collections would be more plausible. However, it would take significant funding and either state or federal approval to have a new museum repository or proper storage facility built. Bringing in interns or volunteers would require more outreach and generating interest in state history. This is the most likely solution, and though it would likely take years of work to start making visible progress, it can be done.

“NPS Archeology Program: Managing Archeological Collections.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/archeology/collections/intro_cur04.htm.

 

Processing Sites

IMG_3652Throughout my almost 9 months of working for SNOMNH, I have come in contact with many enlightening experiences in the field of museum and curation studies. I’ve learned how to properly house a pot, how to prevent chipping of stone tools, and even learned that glass essentially melts over time! However, learning how to process a site has been one of the most daunting anthropological journeys I’ve been on.

What is “processing” a site you ask, and what does is entail? Well, it is the process of accounting for a site’s entire collection of artifacts as well as its documents and ensuring all the work completed on a collection is fully documented, with the ultimate goal to ensure all notes and paperwork are properly documented before it is placed on its permanent location on the shelf. For many of the sites I worked on this semester include human remains and associated and unassocicated funerary objects. My work in properly processing projects ensures that all information, human remains, and cultural objects are identified within the museum so they can be properly and respectably returned to their affiliated Native Tribe. The end goal is to produce a collection ready for permanent shelving or repatriation.

My job this semester was to assist the Collections Manger in writing and standardizing the 32 steps to processing a site – 39 if the site involves NAGPRA items. Organized in a methodical checklist, these steps tediously review every part of the site and encapsulate all available knowledge of the collection. More specifically, they allow us to get a feel for the site we’re working with, its purpose, its provenance, and what information exists to support it. We use multiple databases of stored site information to do most of this work, on top of physically examining the site’s artifacts and/or remains – analyzing their conditions and revitalizing their storage when necessary.

Processing a site may seem very technical and difficult – and that’s because it is. However, it acts as a highly important step in the bigger picture. What is the bigger picture? Well I’m elated you asked. The bigger picture is to eventually give these sites a rest, either on our shelves or in the grounds of the tribes they belong to. Many of the sites that take top priority at SNOMNH are those affiliated with NAGPRA law, or the  . This law, if you aren’t familiar with it, defends and addresses the rights of Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations and lineal descendants of Native American remains and artifacts. It requires federal agencies and museums to account for any Native American remain or artifact they possess, communicate with the objects’ affiliated tribe(s) and inevitably repatriate it back to them. With this information, it makes sense as to why completing a site to its entirety plays a big part in the adherence to this law. By recognizing and prioritizing the Native American remains we do have, we are putting these tribes, who have historically been severely discriminated against and forgotten about, at our highest point of interest. By repatriating what we do have, we are able to form and build upon relationships with these tribes and, above all, reunite them with their ancestors and sacred objects that were taken from them.

Lastly, I wanted to touch on how learning to process sites has proved very valuable to my education and future career abilities. Throughout processing, I have become very familiar with the Archaeology Department’s physical and digital information organization (our digital database, made with FileMakerPro, I have come to know best). Making my way through hundreds of type-written letters, aged maps and old field notes, I have developed an eye for the important bits that give context to my mission. I’ve come to know my way around checklists and digital flow forms as well. The detail-oriented mindset that this process takes has also grown my administrative capabilities, challenging me to double-check and verify every detail of the site at hand; making sure its information is as accurate and thorough as we can possibly include, and overall ensuring that we are doing our best work here at SNOMNH.

In sum, processing a site may not be the most glamorous, eye-catching subject of the entire process, but it definitely deserves its own recognition. Its tedious nature has put me to the test, but out of it has grown parts of me that I needed to improve upon. In the end, it is getting one of the most important jobs done – giving a site comprehensive completion, and eventually providing closure to the tribes and peoples whom these site remains belong.

The Puzzle of Assessment Reports

There are a lot of steps that go into processing a collection. I would like to share my experience with one of them- assessments. Assessment is the process of evaluating the condition of the collection and the artifacts contained within. Assessing collections can be a tedious affair. At the best of times, it’s a smooth and formulaic process. You look at an artifact, pass silent judgments about whoever assembled the collection before you, circle a Y or a N in the entry for the stability of the artifact in the assessment inventory, initial, date, and move on to the next artifact. At the worst of times, assessing can make you tear your hair out. Boxes of random stones and pottery sherds, missing artifacts, charred materials hidden at the bottom of paper bags that just won’t come out no matter how much you try. It can drive you up the wall, yet, even with all the maddening problems, I still love assessing. I love the puzzle of it. When you assess, you’re presented with a chaotic box of the unknown. There’s just something so satisfying unraveling that box’s mystery. About following the clues left for you and slowly piecing together what artifact is what, and my what artifacts there are! For every box of stones, or pottery pieces, there are incredibly interesting artifacts as well. Each one with a story behind it, needing to be examined and processed. There’s a mystery in those artifacts as well, an unknown story that I only get to glance at briefly. Although, depending on the collection, that story can take a backseat to the problems at hand, especially when the collection itself presents some problems.

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You can encounter all kinds of strange things while assessing. For instance, I was recently assessing a new collection when I opened a box to find that, much to my surprise, the box just contained nothing but loose stones. Nothing in the box was bagged or organized in any way, just a bunch of rocks at the bottom of a box. Now usually this isn’t too bad of a thing to find. After all most artifacts are marked in some way to indicate which artifact is which, and as it would happen all these stones were marked! From there the next steps were to match each stone with its entry in the inventory. Only the thing is, when I went to match them, almost none of them corresponded with their entry in the inventory. Now usually this isn’t a problem, I could go in and enter all the stones as new database entries and move on. The problem is that there was the same amount of stones as there were entries for them. Which lead me to conclude that the stones were in the report, just not well-organized. So, I had to sort each stone into several possible candidates in the report and make a note of each one. What’s even worse is that when I had to do the exact same thing with hundreds of pottery sherds. The thing is though, I really enjoyed working through all those problems. The joy I got from figuring out that assessment is the same that I get from solving a good puzzle.

Assessing can be frustrating, it can be tedious, but it can also be an incredibly enjoyable activity. In my time at the museum, I have assessed quite a few collections and each time I discover something new. From interesting artifacts to better ways of processing collections, assessing always yields something interesting for me to uncover. So, I look forward to the next collection I get to process and assess. I know that it will have its own challenges and complications, but I also know that there will be another puzzle for me to solve and new interesting things for me to discover.

Gaining Valuable Experience

This spring as the NAGPRA intern at the Sam Noble Museum I had the wonderful opportunity to cover some new ground while still honing familiar skills. Since I’ve been interning here for several semesters now (see my previous blog posts here and here), I’ve had time to learn and get some experience with many aspects of museum collection management. However, this semester has given me the opportunity to take a deeper dive into NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and gain the practical knowledge and experience that has become essential for working in the modern museum world.
Working with NAGPRA has been a learning experience, and the opportunity to see and be involved in all the many little steps that come together to make the entire process of implementing this important law has greatly enhanced my understanding from both the assigned readings for my internship and from my classes. I’ve spent most of this semester focused on a few aspects of the larger picture, working to organize and assess three or four collections of artifacts. The NAGPRA internship has struck me as being a very detail oriented job, with a high responsibility on all of us to work diligently and get all the little steps right. A lot of my job this semester has been assessments, which is the process of going through collections, box by box, and matching up the artifacts in the box to what’s listed in the catalog, and reorganize as I go. Gradually through these steps we get a better picture of what’s present in the collection, where it is, and what needs further work, including moving along the steps toward repatriation under NAGPRA.
After my two semesters as a Legacy intern, dealing with not only older material but the general incoming collections, this internship was still a whole new learning opportunity, since I could dive into what is an absolutely vital aspect of museum work. Knowledge of NAGPRA and experience working on NAGPRA projects and collections is essential in the job market for museums, and this internship has grown my knowledge and skills immensely. It’s been very helpful for me that both of these internship opportunities have been available, so that I could branch out into a somewhat different area of knowledge while still building on my previous experience. I would recommend either of these great opportunities to anyone interested in museum studies or anthropology/archaeology, and to anyone interested in a deeper dive or a wider breadth of experience, I’d suggest both.

A World of Opportunity

This semester, as part of my internship at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, I got the chance to attend the Oklahoma Museum Association Conference in Edmond, Oklahoma during the second to last week of September. Since this was my second semester as legacy collections intern my boss, Susie Fishman-Armstrong, encouraged me to check out the Oklahoma Museum Association and their events, including their annual conference. I looked into it and found what sounded like a great chance to network and learn from others with more and varied experience in the museum world. At the conference I met museum professionals from all over the state and many different types of institutions, including science museums, children’s museums, art museums, historic homes, local historical societies, and one blues music museum. Through talking with others about the methods and especially the challenges of their museum I got to see a wider view than usual of the scope of a museum. The sessions were also interesting and varied, as I attended panels and discussions about topics falling under many subjects that I don’t normally interact with in my role as an intern in the collections, or “back of the house”, including museum education and programming. Workshops were also offered, which provided some hands-on learning and practical examples, and I had some time to meet vendors during the networking breaks, which was interesting and informative to see what sort of products and services are frequently needed by museum professionals, and to learn a bit more about conferences from the people who frequent them.
For a week or two before the conference I was a bit apprehensive, and worried whether I would be able to be engaged in discussions or really understand the sessions after only one semester at a museum. However, if anything this just went to show how thorough and diverse of training I’ve gotten from this internship, as after just over a semester I had pretty much all the bases covered for laws and standards, roles in the museum, collection processing, and physical care of artifacts. There is only so much I could have learned in a classroom or through my own research, and the chance to have gotten actual experience has been phenomenal. Additionally, this conference was just one of the many opportunities I’ve had through this internship to meet people actually working in museums and to learn from them, through tours of other collections within the Sam Noble, the volunteer Brown Bag Lunch talks, and events such as this. The learning opportunities have multiplied ten times over through getting involved here at the Sam Noble, and I highly encourage anyone to intern or volunteer who gets the chance. Even if you don’t jump right in and start with a large conference, there are so many experiences to learn from within our very own museum for both people who want to go on to make it a career as I do and for anyone with curiosity and the desire to learn.

-Ella Crenshaw

My Internship at the Museum and the History of NAGPRA

This fall semester of my junior year I was given the opportunity to work as an archaeology intern working on cultural material subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). As someone who used to be a socio-cultural anthropology major, my transition into archaeology has been an exciting learning experience. The ability to work as an intern at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History has been a large part of propelling me towards that goal. Working with NAGPRA especially was a great aid in expanding my archaeological knowledge and experience. NAGPRA is especially significant within archaeology because it shapes how archaeologists interact with Native American remains and sacred objects and their descendants. The act allows a process to take place for these remains and objects to be returned in a timely manner to ensure the tribes can return them to their rightful place.
Working with NAGPRA has been a very eye-opening experience for me. What I knew prior was limited to the single slide I saw in my Intro to Archaeology class last year. Since I began interning, I have learned far more about the profound impact NAGPRA has had on the Native American and Archaeology community and what needed to happen for NAGPRA to be enacted. In an interview between Suzan Shown Harjo and Robert Preucel “An Archaeology of NAGPRA: A Conversation with Suzan Shown Harjo” it details the planning and strategic steps that took place to ensure NAGPRA could happen. In this interview, Susan Harjo (a native Oklahoman) expounded on how she worked with the initiative that led to the creation of NAGPRA. What began as a horrifying experience at the Museum of the American Indian in 1965, generated a drive in Harjo to gather Native American groups to create a framework for the ethical treatment of Native American human remains and sacred material in museum collections and archaeological practice. With the help of the National Congress of the American Indians she was able to lobby for the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, National Museum of American Indian, and pave the way for NAGPRA. Those first steps that led to NAGPRA began a new era in archaeology within the U.S. that has caused much progress to take place. This interview emphasized the extreme importance of returning Native American individuals and associated items back to their descendants to repair the hurt that’s been caused and to foster new relationships between Native American groups, museums, and archaeologists. Being able to help in this process is something I am extremely proud of and fortunate to do.
Overall this internship has brought more insight to me than I could describe in one blog post. It has given me first-hand experience on museum protocol and a bigger picture of the national role museums play in archaeology. I recommend this internship for anyone with a thirst for knowledge and curiosity of the behind the scenes museum archaeology work.
-Helen Sanders

Rules. We don’t need no stinking rules.

Don’t you just hate being told what to do? And it’s surprising how many people tell me what to do all the time.  However, I operate under the premise that you can either tell me what to do or how to do it, but you can’t tell me both.  Unfortunately, no one abides by that simple precept and they generally tell me both what to do and how to do it.  But no more.  Now I am making the rules and this leads us into our subject of the day.  Rules, museums, and archaeology.  Lucky for you, I am here to guide you through what could be an Orwellian nightmare of unimaginable consequences.   But first, a little background.  I moved to Norman at the beginning of summer from Key West to attend the University of Oklahoma and earn a degree in Archaeology. At the beginning of my second semester here, there was an advertisement for an internship at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History. I’m old, I like old stuff, this seemed to be a perfect fit.  I applied for the position and after meeting with the collections manager, Susie Fishman-Armstrong, she accepted me anyway.  She explained that I would be working on the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) side of the house helping to repatriate NAGPRA related items to the Tribes that claimed them. I then received the standard welcome aboard speech and tour of the facilities.  The dystopic hell scape that is the dumpster fire of my mind began to notice the need, or more accurately the want to satisfy my mild OCD tendencies of organization.  The practically uncountable boxes that lay in row after row of cardboard uniformity, stacked on shelves upon shelves that thrust their metal fingers towards the ceiling, started sending those mild OCD tendencies into overdrive and turned them into almost manic compulsions. So, at this point, I know what you are thinking and let me just stop you right there.  To all of you single archaeologist women who are thinking wow.  I have to get me some of him, I am married.  Sorry.  Now we are getting to the point that is the meat of the story.  Glorious rules.  Before I could even start to fathom the beginning of this monumental task, I really needed to know everything from the most basic of actions such as where is my work station and how do I move a box from the shelving units to my work area to much more complex requirements such as how do I properly handle funerary objects and human remains with the dignity and respect that they deserve.  I now have reached a state of Nirvana.  Not only do I get to organize, but I get to develop rules about organization.  (slight body shiver as I think about this).  I have begun to write the hundreds if not thousands of rules that it will take to bring into line both the actual and the perceived chaos that may or may not exist.  Ok, thousands for me, maybe five or ten for a normal person.  On a slightly more serious note, this internship has afforded me the opportunity to get real world experience in a field that to me is quite exciting.  I am honored to be able to be involved in the process of repatriating NAGPRA items back to the Tribes that have claimed them and show them the dignity and respect that is their due.