Altered states: Improving the care of excavated collection

Nancy Davis


The holdings of the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC) include over two million archaeological artifacts from North America, predominantly from Prehistoric and Historic Native American sites in the Northeast. Over the past five years, the museum staff have worked cooperatively to address the long-term preservation needs of the materials. Including curators, registrars, archaeologists, administrators, and the conservators, each having a unique perspective on the use of the collections, throughout the planning and implementation stages has created a broad base of support for improved conservation and collections care.

The paper will discuss the comprehensive conservation program at the RMSC and will address the key to its success, namely the willingness of the museum staff to address the concerns of archaeologists and researchers. Elements of the collections care program that will be discussed are: 1) establishing standards for the care of the collections; 2) improving the security and environmental conditions in which the collections are housed; 3) addressing the need for back cataloguing and insuring that written documentation is completed for all material; 4) re-housing artifacts to provide better physical protection and to increase ease of retrieval; 5) educating staff on handling and examination techniques; 6) establishing a committee to review requests to borrow or research the material; and 7) microfilming and copying fragile original field notes.

Two recent re-storage projects are excellent examples of involving archaeologists in the museum goal of long-term preservation. Storage systems were developed with their three principle concerns, accessibility, visibility and retrievability, in mind. The Seneca Site Sequence, including over 700,000 artifacts from every known site the Seneca Iroquois inhabited from 1540 to 1820, was housed in shallow drawer units. Because the material is heavily researched, increasing visibility to reduce routine handling was considered a high priority. Most of the artifacts were housed in clear polystyrene boxes, cradled in depressions cut from inert foam.

Because of space constraints, materials from Prehistoric Native American sites are being stored in two locations based on frequency of research use. Artifacts in an off-site warehouse owned by the museum were boxed using a vertical system of polyethylene bags supported by acid-free card. These materials were selected by staff archaeologists and researchers as being less diagnostic and therefore less frequently studied. Large quantities of materials, such as carbonized corn, were also stored in the warehouse. Materials retained in the museum building were tagged as receiving more frequent study or were samples of large quantities of similar materials from one site, such as pot sherds.

Overall issues discussed by a Museum task force. Funding for the re-housing projects was received from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Implementation was completed by a small core of museum staff and collections assistants hired for the project. A better understanding of the issues important to archaeologists and researchers has been a direct outgrowth of the collections care projects. Reciprocally, archaeologists have integrated elements of the program into active field work and into their attitude towards the research and handling of artifacts.