Of the over 10 million artifacts, objects, and specimens held at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH), over 6 million of those are in the archaeology department, the largest in the museum. When processing collections, difficult projects are sometimes laid aside to facilitate the processing of a greater number of collections. Other times, a project is simply forgotten about after a staff member leaves. These collections and materials left out and unprocessed are called legacy collections. Legacy collections are problematic because important finds can remain undiscovered, collections needing special preservation can deteriorate as they wait to be processed, and materials that should be returned to native tribes are easy to lose track of in the confusion. With large and numerous collections, and new materials being acquired through donations and field collections, it can be extremely difficult for museums to keep from getting behind. Many museums across the country face this same problem. The growing amount of legacy collections is one of the major contributors to the archaeological curation crisis.
In Fall, 2017, I interned in the archaeology department at the SNOMNH and worked on creating an inventory of the materials in the legacy collections, in addition to completing shelving processes for a few of the collections left unfinished by previous interns. I went through the shelves stacked with boxes and bags of artifacts, recording information about what the collections contained, where they were located, and important identifying information for the museum’s database, such as the site numbers (where they were originally found). Many times, I had to search the databases using the site numbers attached to artifacts in order to find the collection to which they belonged. One of my favorite collections had been held in a copy paper box on my desk, and was full of artifacts in plastic sandwich bags. The collection contained some really cool artifacts, including an 11 inch knife whose wooden handle had rotted away, a small metal bell with it’s clapper, several bags of different kinds of bullets and shells, animal jawbones with teeth still attached, and some very pretty stone tool flakes.
The next issue was that the legacy collections at the SNOMNH needed to be organized. Replica cast material was mixed with other educational and research collections, making it difficult to prioritize and overwhelming to manage. There wasn’t control over what was in the legacy collections, and no one knew the entirety of what they contained. Important research material could be available if only people knew where to find it.
In addition to that, there is great concern of finding material subject to NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) within the legacy collections, such as human bone and associated funerary objects. These materials must be prepared for return to native tribes, as part of the museums grants dictate. This is such a concern that a large part of the archeology department is dedicated to dealing with NAGPRA and the processes of repatriating the materials. The interns of Spring 2017 found and had to correctly manage two different NAGPRA materials from two different collections.
The inventory and protocols I created will to be used by the museum to keep track of both existing collections and new arrivals. I assigned section numbers to the shelves so the materials in the inventory can be efficiently located. I divided the collections by collection type (Research, Teaching, or Cast (replicas)), and I also gathered the all the NAGPRA materials and placed them together in their own area on the shelves so they can be addressed first.
Overall, it has been a rewarding experience, and I am happy to have made some contribution to clearing up the issue of the legacy collections at the SNOMNH.
Author: Wynne Clark