Curation in Crisis: Knowing the Unknown through Potential Solutions

By Sedonna Goeman-Shulsky and Wendy Teeter


Wendy Teeter, Chair of the SCA Curation Committee, and Fowler Museum Archaeology staff Stevy Hernandez and Xochitl Aguinaga created and distributed an online survey to assess cultural heritage curation needs within the state of California in 2017 and 2018. The survey collected data to reflect the locations, demographics, and needs of curation facilities statewide. The results of each survey were shared with attendees of the 2018 and 2019 SCA annual meetings along with a panel discussion led by CRM, tribal, museum, and agency representatives. The ultimate goal of the multi-year project was to address topics and problem identified in the Office of Historic Preservation Archaeological Resources Commission White papers on Curation and how to address the critical needs of California cultural heritage and their continued care. This provides a brief summary of the 2019 session and its results. The full report and samples of the new Curated Archaeology Collections Form can be found online here and a blank template for download and use here.

From discussion at the meetings and survey responses, there were clear problems common to everyone involved. Primarily that development projects create new collections that need to be curated in facilities in perpetuity, however very few resources are allocated to this continued care. Many facilities have only one or two staff members and/or a few volunteers to maintain and care for this irreplaceable California cultural heritage. Additionally, the vast majority of staff and volunteers dedicate a collective 16 hours or less per week to this care. This is not an adequate amount of time to address the needs of collections in a timely manner, such as digitization of collection inventories, which only 38% of respondents indicated that they had completed. There are broader issues such as not knowing which facilities curate which sites or collections that cause researchers to either miss their existence or spend hours to locate them. The solution of making such information publicly available online has not even been started by 64% of the respondents, while think it’s worthwhile. Finally, many facilities don’t meet 36 CFR 79 basic federal curation standards– 64% of the respondents. Panel and discussion participants added that budget constraints may account for the majority of these issues, as well as an ever increasing lack of space to house new collections. Several counties have no curation facilities that are able to take in new collections!

There were proposed solutions such as no collection field work of archaeological materials unless absolutely necessary. This has many drawbacks including that it would require large amounts of pre-field preparation and lots of in-field documentation. For the existing collections (especially ones that have no trinomial assigned), it was discussed that the state and counties need to dedicate more resources to the care of our collective cultural heritage, particularly as new and ongoing development projects continue unabated. In order to understand where collections are, the Fowler Museum archaeology staff created a draft DPR 523 Museum page. In session discussion guided the final product and acceptance of a Curated Archaeology Collection “Continuation Sheet” (DPR 523L) for use in California Historic Resources Information Centers, which will help integrate and track existing site collections and what associated documentation is available. This sheet is quick and simple to complete. The final report includes samples, definitions, and blank forms for people to download.We are incredibly grateful to all the session panelists and attendees that took the ball and ran for such a collaborative and positive result. We hope next year to discuss how the forms are working and to develop further potential solutions to these critical issues. Questions or helpful suggestions should be sent to Wendy Teeter: