By Bert Ho

As archeologists, we are often the first filter for what objects may end up in a museum collection or not. When we do recover artifacts, we identify the context, map the artifact onto the site plan, carefully lift them, keep them wet or dry, and proudly deliver them to a conservation lab with an excited “look what we found” expression. Then, for some of us (or maybe it just happened to me), we are quickly met with disapproving eyes, exasperated expressions, and likely a few choice words from the museum staff!

Was it something we said?

While I wish it could be boiled down to something we said, it more than likely was because a lot was not said or discussed prior to going into the field and returning with artifacts or eventually accessioned collections. From decades if not centuries of opportune collecting, museums of all sorts that house artifacts and archives are bursting at the seams with often little information as to where or how some of their collections came into their possession.

Name boards from several west coast ships in the collection at SFMNM. Photo courtesy Bert Ho.

The question of why it is in their collection is often the most difficult to answer and admit. This lack of provenance has led to greater scrutiny over how museums acquire collections in the future, whether objects already in collections were properly acquired, and in many cases, what collections should be returned due to a variety of ethical concerns (like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has been mandating since 1990 for the return of Native American remains and funerary goods here in the United States). There are also widespread movements in the international museum community, particularly Western museums, to reexamine their scope of collections and audit their existing collections for the proper provenance, as well as returning stolen or improperly purchased museum objects.  

In the U.S. National Park Service (NPS), museum collections are rightfully receiving significant focus because of the importance of managing ALL park resources with shrinking or stagnant budgets. The NPS has recently clarified several museum policies that dictate exactly what museum personnel programs must have, what museum managing documents are required, and how parks acquire new museum objects.

For me here at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park (SAFR), I have seen firsthand how the work of early California State curators and archeologists (SAFR was a state park prior to joining the NPS) have created significant issues when objects were added to the collection that are either out of scope or lack provenance. We house the largest collection and archive in the NPS and entire Department of Interior at over 8.2 million individual objects, and yet we know there are still objects to add and we fully intend to do so. How do we manage that knowing our collection is already so large? Well, like all things in the government there is a process and forms!

Ship figureheads in the collection of the San Francisco National Maritime Museum including the NHL ship Balclutha . Photo courtesy Bert Ho, NPS.

In 2000, SAFR became the first NPS museum program to initiate a Museum Acquisitions Committee. This committee is interdisciplinary with voting and non-voting members that research and present potential museum acquisitions to the committee for debate over their significance, artistic merit (if its fine art), and practical aspects like the condition of the object and any care or cleaning it may need. We follow a similar process when we deaccession collections, with the added step of identifying a suitable new owner. This committee is now required for all NPS museum programs under policy, and I have no doubt this type of committee exist elsewhere at other museums and institutions worldwide, as it is and should be a crucial component for any museum.

So how does all this relate to archeologists beyond the basic understanding of recovering artifacts or samples only when necessary or curators will not be your friend?

Well, what I want to stress is for archeologists to take a larger role in museum collections management, be it on an acquisitions committee or some form of it, in whatever institution you work for or within. Learn how museum processes work, especially if anything I have mentioned above is new to you, like provenance (not provenience), accessioning or deaccessioning, or what is a museum registrar. Understand the scope of collections of your museum or institution. Think about the purpose of what you recover beyond your own research. Lastly, if you ever are in the position, or can raise the issue, examine the objects in your collections and ask the difficult, ethical questions of whether you should have that object or not. As archeologists working with our museum colleagues, you do have control of what comes into the museum collections, and perhaps more importantly, you can advise on what should leave your collection to be returned to its rightful owner(s), place of origin, and to the people most connected to its culture of origin.

So does it really “belong in a museum?” Yes, Dr. Jones it does…but not in this museum.

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