When one thinks of excavations taking place in the blazing summer sun, most people don’t realize how much discovery occurs in the cool, dark collections spaces that curators like Tamira Brennan, section head of curation at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) and her colleagues care for.
“I seldom find my job as an archaeologist boring because discovery is always right around the corner,” said Brennan.
Archaeologists often glean new insights from curated collections and according to Brennan, working with the oldest collections is exciting because it is equal parts history and mystery.
However, discovery in curation is not always pleasant. Mold, mice, misplaced items, or deteriorating bags, all threaten to eradicate this very carefully collected data. These unfortunate circumstances are a problem throughout archaeological and natural history collections worldwide otherwise known as the “curation crisis” which was first noted in the mid-20th century and has been brought about by various factors.
Some of these factors remain persistent obstacles, such as lack of funding, inadequate facilities, and ignorance of the planning required to ensure collections have a long life beyond excavation.
“The curation crisis is so prevalent and complex that I personally don’t hold out hope to see it downgraded to a mere “problem” within the span of my career,” said Brennan. “Too few archaeologists are aware of the crisis – let alone educated on how to resolve it – because curation is not a part of the standard archaeology curriculum.”
Brennan began directing a summer field school in curation through the Institute for Field Research in 2021, in collaboration with ISAS and other institutions. This hands-on summer course provides intensive training in collections work and is open to students from any school. It teaches the practical and ethical steps professional archaeologists must take to prevent contributing to the curation crisis through hands-on work with unfunded collections over a 4-6 week period.
“At the close of each field season, students have significantly improved at-risk collections, made them accessible for research and Tribal consultation, and gained a skill set that only a small percentage of archaeologists possess,” said Brennan.
According to Brennan, each student walks away from the program as an advocate for curation – an important part of the solution to the curation crisis.