National Park Service


Date of this Version



Studies in Archeology & Ethnography, published by National Park Service (2003).



Over two decades ago, it was argued that "…there is a critical need for the acceptance of responsibility, the development of guidelines, and the realistic assessment of costs for adequate curation of archaeological collections in the United States." (Marquardt et al. 1982:409). A curation crisis was developing at that time due to a sharp increase in federal- and state-mandated archeological projects. The collections and associated documentation which resulted often received inadequate care, storage, documentation, and accessibility for a variety of reasons (see also Ford 1977; Lindsay et al. 1979, 1980; Marquardt 1977). Notably, however, archeological collections and records are included within the legal definition of "archeological resources" in the United States and have been a matter of public interest and concern since the mid-19th century (McManamon 1996).

The question now becomes in 2003: have constructive steps been taken to tackle this "curation crisis" or has it continued to grow? Evidence shows that some steps are being taken to improve the care of archeological collections and associated documentation for the long-term, while the constant influx of new collections continues (Childs 1996; Sullivan and Childs 2003). Although there still are some education issues related to broad acceptance of responsibility by archeologists, the promulgation in 1990 of the federal regulations entitled "Curation of Federally-Owned and Administered Archeological Collections" (36 CFR Part 79) has helped considerably. These regulations provide important standards, procedures, and guidelines for the effective curation of collections generated by public projects. Many states have adopted similar standards and guidelines for collections resulting from state-mandated projects.

Another significant step has been the adoption of fee structures at many repositories across the U.S. in order to fund high-quality care and management of incoming archeological collections that meet professional and federal standards. In fact, the significant increase in the standards of professional museum practice, as well as those in 36 CFR 79, may be a contributing factor to the introduction and need for curation fees in recent years.

For years, many repositories provided various free services, including storage and cataloging, to government and state agencies. These services were often offered in an informal exchange for access to and use of the collections for museum and university exhibit, research, and public education programs. Government agencies, on the other hand, own and are responsible for archeological collections recovered from federal lands, yet often do not have repositories and/or staff to provide for their long-term care. Sometimes, these agencies approach a repository to curate collections that do not fit within its scope of collections and, therefore, would not contribute to its research and interpretation programs. In other cases, a collection may be offered that fits an institution's mission statement and scope of collection, but requires a prohibitive monetary investment to process, catalog, and care for it over the long term. Many university museums, state museums, historical societies, and local museums are finding that they can no longer afford to provide the most basic curatorial services for free, yet struggle with how to develop an appropriate fee structure for collections they do not own.

Another factor in the curation crisis relates to the fact that archeologists and project managers often have not adequately budgeted for two key stages in the long-term care of the collections they create (Childs and Corcoran 2000). First, they have not adequately budgeted for archival quality bags, boxes, and labels to be used once a collection is analyzed and cataloged. Second, they have not budgeted for long-term care by a repository designated in the scope of work, project statement, permit, and/or grant proposal. Some remedies, fortunately, have been put in place to tackle this problem. Many repositories now have a collections acceptance policy, which identifies the supplies needed to properly package a submitted collection, both the artifacts and associated documents. With this information, it is much easier for the project manager to budget for the first phase of collections care. We hope that this study on curation fees also provides archeologists and project managers with both a greater appreciation of the costs involved in long-term curation and comparative information from which a budget can be derived.

This report provides data and trends from two informal, yet systematic surveys on the adoption and use of curation fees across the United States. The first was conducted in 1997 and partially updated in 1998. The second occurred in the fall of 2002. The original goal was to better understand the introduction of curation fees nationwide, the variations in fee structure, and the criteria used to generate a fee structure. This goal did not change in 2002, but a second goal was added—to gather data, usually from the same repositories that responded in 1997/98, that would elucidate trends in the costs of curation across the United States. Certainly this study is not exhaustive, but it does examine the most comprehensive sample of data compiled to date on this topic.