Museum collections hit the roof

'Curation crisis' could stall construction projects on public lands

  • Artifacts stored properly are either boxed orshelved

    Bureau of Land Management, Anasazi Heritage Center

The back rooms of the University of Denver Museum of Archaeology are a packrat's dream. The old classroom building holds some 165,000 objects, among them spears from South America, ceramics from Africa and rolls of blankets woven by Southwestern tribes. Stacks of archival cardboard boxes store ancient baskets from around the world, and metal shelving groans under the weight of 300 stone metates.

The collection seems endless, but it's not. After 80 years of operation, the University of Denver museum has officially run out of space. Colorado archaeologists hoping to add their newest discoveries to this collection get a very polite no.

"We're very, very full. We're over capacity," sighs museum collections manager Jan Bernstein. Though the museum has increased its storage fees by tenfold in recent years, demand for its shrinking space has continued to grow. This winter, she says, "we were getting flooded with calls, and our tiny little staff just couldn't do it anymore."

The museum's decision, which followed similar closures at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, is part of a nationwide squeeze that archaeologists and museum professionals call a "curation crisis."

"There isn't really anywhere to put anything any more," says Mark Mitchell, a Forest Service archaeologist from eastern Colorado, "and there isn't money on the table to fix the problem."

Before archaeologists can clear the way for pipelines, road expansions and other construction projects on state and federal land, they're legally required to find a permanent home for the artifacts they collect. The scarcity of storage space is making it harder for archaeologists to get permits for their work, and it's already causing minor delays in construction projects. If archaeological resources continue to be pitted against development interests, there's little doubt of the outcome.

"We're going to lose our heritage resources," says Colorado State Archaeologist Susan Collins.

A slighted science Terry Childs, the director of the Park Service's National Center for Cultural Resources, spends most of her time thinking about what happens to artifacts after they come out of the ground. She also knows how to dig.

During 20 years of studying ancient metalwork at excavations in Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the 5'2" archaeologist was often shovel-to-shovel with her male colleagues.

"I had to keep up with these guys who were six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds," she says. "There was this real strong attitude that if you weren't out there being a macho jock, you should be cleaning up in the lab."

Childs believes that this dismissive attitude toward "cleaning up," a derisive term for curation, is one of the deepest roots of the curation crisis. "Archaeologists, and I'm a perfect example, do not have any education in the collections we're creating," she says. "That's the way we're brought up."

That bias isn't limited to archaeologists. Though the Antiquities Act of 1906 said federal agencies should provide for the long-term protection of artifacts collected on their lands, it took Congress 84 years to approve formal curation guidelines. Those regulations require agencies to pay for the meticulous, often tedious work of cleaning, recording, packaging and protecting collected artifacts. However, there are still no penalties for violating the rules.

These delays and oversights didn't cause many problems until the 1960s and '70s, when federal laws began to require archaeological surveys and excavations of construction sites on public lands. The rate of collection increased dramatically, and archaeology became a profitable business. Though curators' workloads ballooned, they got little sympathy, and less money, from archaeologists and the federal government. For decades, underpaid, predominantly female curators have raced to preserve the growing mountains of artifacts on their doorsteps.

"A lot of this stuff has never been taken care of," says Michael Trimble, a curation specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who has conducted a nationwide survey of museum collections. "Boxes have gotten wet and split open, and notes are getting so brittle that they're like the Dead Sea Scrolls. I'm a big supporter of museums, but I wouldn't put stuff in 60 to 70 percent of the museums in this country."

"Hell to pay"

The audible slamming of museum doors has finally brought attention, and some funding. The Utah Museum of Natural History has set aside 14 acres of land for future expansion. The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians in Southern California has used casino earnings to convert an Air Force film repository into a long-term storage center. And in Colorado, a group of archaeologists and museum staffers hope to secure state and federal money for a new repository in Denver.

Though these projects and others will ease the pressure on the University of Denver museum and other crowded institutions, critics say the federal government still hasn't fulfilled its promise to support curation: "Congress said that these things need to be taken care of, that they're part of our history," says the Army Corps' Trimble. "We need federal money to get to those standards. Taking care of collections is not a moneymaking proposition."

If the curation crisis continues, there may not be much money in archaeology, either. That's the fear of archaeologist Chris Zier, who makes a living surveying construction sites for state and federal agencies. When the Colorado Department of Transpor-tation wanted to straighten a dangerous curve on Highway 12 near Trinidad, for instance, it hired Zier's consulting company, Centennial Archaeology, to help it comply with state archaeological protection laws.

Problem was, there was nowhere to put the arrowheads, grinding stones and pottery chips that had to be collected, and Zier was looking at a delayed project and an unhappy client. After some panicked searching, he finagled a curation agreement with a nearby junior college, which made a one-time exception to its policies and accepted the artifacts.

"For us, the crisis has blown over, but it hasn't gone away," Zier says. He still wonders if the curation crisis will hurt his business * and the state and federal laws that protect the irreplaceable artifacts he collects. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the backbone of federal protection for archaeological resources, will be up for congressional reauthorization in 2006, and countless other laws are vulnerable to powerful lobbyists.

"The first time a pipeline project is delayed because an archaeologist can't get out there, there's going to be tremendous political pressure to change the regulations," says Zier. "There's going to be hell to pay."

Former HCN senior editor Michelle Nijhuis writes from Paonia, Colorado.

You can contact ...

  • Colorado Historical Society, Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, 303/866-3395 or;
  • The Colorado Council of Professional Archaeologists,
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