Collections Management

Collections Management

The three subdisciplines of anthropology (archaeology, ethnology, and biological anthropology) are represented by 530,000 catalog entries in the Division of Anthropology. Of those catalog entries, 330,000 represent archaeological objects, 177,000 refer to ethnological objects, and 23,000 represent biological anthropology specimens. Collections management personnel preserve these objects by providing them with stable environments, and by building computerized databases of the information associated with the objects.

Collections Management

There are actually many more than 530,000 objects in the Division's collections, because many catalog numbers refer to assemblages. In the archaeology collection, for example, one catalog number may refer to hundreds of projectile points or ceramic sherds. One costume in the ethnology collection may include a hat, a shirt, pants, shoes, and numerous pieces of jewelry. In the biological anthropology collection, the museum's plaster cast of Australopithecus afarensis ("Lucy") is made up of 74 distinct parts.

At the American Museum of Natural History, approximately 10% of the anthropology collection is on view in public exhibition galleries. The other 90% is housed in modern preservation facilities. Like books in a library, every object has a story to tell. In just the past decade, scholars from institutions in 54 countries, representing every continent except Antarctica, have learned from the objects in the anthropology collections. Many of them have published the results of their research in academic and popular publications, and many of their museums have borrowed objects for public exhibitions.

The Nature of Collections

From a collections management perspective, the ethnology collection is the most difficult to preserve because it is 99% organic. Humans use every conceivable natural and artificial material to make their clothing, acquire food, decorate their bodies, make toys for their children, build shelter, and to fashion artworks. Ethnologists, because they live and work amongst contemporary or modern cultures, are able to collect objects made not only of stone and ceramic, but also of fur, hide, bone, horn, antler, ivory, wood, bark, plant fiber, paper, plastic, metal, and more.

Conversely, the archaeology collection is 99% inorganic, because it consists of artifacts extracted from the earth. The vast majority of prehistoric artifacts are made of stone and ceramic, inorganic materials that do not decompose as do organic materials. This does not mean that prehistoric peoples only used stone and ceramic to make things; rather it means that the organic materials they used did not, for the most part, escape the vicissitudes of time.

Preserving Anthropology Collections

Collections Management
Compact Storage
Collections Management
Inside the Storage

Since the early 1980's, the Anthropology Division has been building new preservation facilities for the ethnology collections, which were, in their previous storerooms, very susceptible to decomposition from insects, molds, and temperature and humidity fluctuations. Climate control, cabinetry, integrated pest management, and a computerized database are four important components of any collections management program. Much of this has been done with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

  • The new facilities, up to 10,000 square feet in area, are climate-controlled to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 45% relative humidity. This stable environment limits expansion and contraction in organic materials and is a large factor in the long-term preservation of ethnological objects.
  • Every object needs its own space. If ethnological objects are piled atop one another, they are crushed and their parts catch and break off. To provide each object with its own space, different cabinet types are used. The ethnology storage facilities are equipped with compact storage systems that greatly increase the amount of usable floor area, because one aisle can provide access to up to nine rows of cabinets on tracked wheels. Within these rows of cabinets are trays and shelves accommodating the wide variety of object sizes in the ethnology collection. In one aisle, there can be baskets and pottery both large and small, clothing, agricultural implements, hunting weapons, furniture, toys, and works of art.

    All objects except textiles are stored together by cultural affiliation and by object type. For example, all objects from Korea are stored together, and within the Korea collection, all masks are kept together.

    Stationary cabinets are still used for archaeology collections and for object types that have special storage requirements. The prehistoric artifacts in the archaeology collections are in over 15,000 trays, behind the doors of over 1,300 cabinets. The largest stationary cabinets in the Division are 6' wide, 10' long, and 8' high, and are filled with seventy horizontal 6' x 10' sliding screens. On each screen are especially delicate textiles, up to 2,000 years old, that need to be flat, not folded or rolled.

    Oversize racks (24' in length, 3' wide, and 8' high) are used for the storage of large items such as canoes, kayaks, sleds, large sculptures, and architectural elements such as teepee poles or house panels.

  • The most difficult collections management challenge is protecting against the ravages of insects. Harmful insects, mostly dermestid beetles, that were once rampant in the collections have now been almost completely eliminated through integrated pest management, an approach resting on three principles:
    • Good housekeeping: Storage areas are tightly constructed and kept very clean so that the organic matter upon which insects feed does not accumulate. Stationary cabinets rest on 5" high metal legs so the floor underneath can be cleaned. Otherwise, organic debris would build up under the cabinets and harmful insects would thrive.
    • Monitoring: The collections undergo periodic visual inspections, and sticky traps are positioned throughout storage to monitor insect activity.
    • Non-Chemical Treatments: When an object is found to be infested, it is wrapped in two layers of polyethylene plastic and frozen to 40 degrees below zero for 48 hours. This kills the eggs, larvae, pupae, and adult forms of the insects.

Computerizing Collections Management

To properly manage more than 500,000 catalog entries, it is essential to computerize the associated data. For every object, the following is the minimal amount of information entered into the database: catalog number, accession number, nature of accession (e.g.: expedition, gift, purchase), collector, provenience, object name, materials, dimensions, condition, and storage location. In a matter of minutes, it can be determined how many baskets in the collection are from, for example, the Lozi tribe of Zambia. This capability is very beneficial to the numerous scholars who make use of the Anthropology Division's collections.