Archaeologists are hoarders. We don’t mind conducting destructive analyses on artifacts if they’ll provide useful data, but we generally don’t want to throw away anything that could possibly provide data sometime in the future. Instead we try to preserve them as best as possible. We catalog them, label them, package them up, and enter them into an appropriate facility, where they will sit until archaeology’s greatest need.
Curated collections can be, and are, accessed for research projects. They fulfill their role in providing important data long after the initial analysis. If any of you are looking for a thesis project for school, I recommend using an extant collection somewhere. There is plenty of work that needs to be done.
There are a lot of discussions regarding a curation crisis, namely that it takes a lot of space and resources. If you consider how much material we’ve added to repositories over the past 50 years, it’s easy to realize how much material will be added over the next 100 years. It’s a lot.
Where will our hoarding habits lead? As federal agencies are dissolved or reorganized, how will the collections owned by those agencies be treated? If land passes from public ownership into private, what will happen to the related collections (hint: the government entity usually retains ownership)? What happens with collected charcoal samples when they reach 50,000 years in age? When the sun expands to envelope the Earth in 5 billion years, will we save these collections by launching them in to space? What will aliens make of all of these flakes of rock?
I once read that one of the most important elements in a business plan is an exit strategy (can’t remember where, sorry). When building a business, one needs to be aware of how they’ll be able to extract themselves from that business once it fails or they gets bored with it. Maybe archaeologists need something like this. In the same way that we should be considering the end of life for products we purchase, we should consider the end of life for our collections. As much as I enjoy responding “forever” whenever I’m asked what the period of performance for curation services should be, we cannot continue to build and maintain those collections for any great period of time.
We’re certainly not at the point when we should start tossing stuff out, but we must consider the time when we will and how we will go about doing it.