Preservation Of Ethnographic Field Collections
The Louisiana Folklife Commission has
adopted the following basic guidelines for small to mid-size museums to
use when collecting and caring for ethnographic field collections.
The American Folklife Center defines an ethnographic field collection
as: a multi-format, unpublished group of materials gathered and organized
by an anthropologist, folklorist, ethnomusicologist, or other cultural
researcher to document human life and traditions. It is a unique created
work brought together through the intentions and activities of the
collector. An ethnographic field collection may bring together materials
from a wide range of formats, including sound recordings, drawings,
photographs, fieldnotes, and correspondence. Although each item in an
ethnographic field collection may have individual value, it gains added
significance when viewed in the context of the other materials gathered by
the collector in interaction with the people and activities being
documented. The concept of unity imposed by the collector on a group of
materials is central to understanding what constitutes such a collection.
The following websites provide more information about this complex
subject: National Anthropological Archives http://www.nmnh.si.edu/naa/copar/bulletins.htm
What is an Ethnographic Field Collection?
Ethnographic Collections in the Archive of Folk culture: A
Contributor's Guide http://www.loc.gov/folklife/cg.html
The Guidelines were compiled by Deborah J. Clifton, Collections
Curator, Lafayette Natural History Museum and Planetarium.
Contact the Louisiana Folklife Program or your Regional Folklorist for
help in preservation planning or to identify specialized expertise if you
find collections in an advanced state of damage.
For repositories with ethnographic collections, we recommend the
- Identify, perform basic inventory, and condition reporting of any
ethnographic field collections in your institution.
- Maintain updated contact information on collectors and/or their
heirs and/or executors.
- If possible, separate collections with adequate documentation from
those with inadequate documentation.
- Develop a policy for acceptance, maintenance, curation, and
de-accessioning of ethnographic field collections.
- Store ethnographic field collections under similar conditions as
those used for archival collections, rare books, etc.
- Designate a curator for the ethnographic collections. If unable to
hire someone full-time, investigate the possibility of obtaining
part-time or volunteer help with managing and arranging these
collections. It might also be possible to enter a consortial arrangement
with a larger repository.
- Inspect the ethnographic collections for damage, insect
infestations, etc. at least once a year.
- Be informed about health and safety issues that could arise in
handling ethnographic collections
Conservation needs to start as soon as something is identified for
collecting. We encourage field researchers to be aware of the following
when collecting artifacts:
- Be aware of preservation concerns and integrate preventive
conservation into all phases of research design and conduct.
- Be especially aware of problems with acidic paper, non-archival
inks, and long-term storage of electronic documents.
- Identify a repository for the collections you will be creating at
the beginning of the research planning process. Begin negotiations with
your chosen repository as early as possible.
- Don't wait until you return from the field to begin preventive
conservation. See the websites above for resources.
- Become thoroughly familiar with historic preservation, cultural
property, protection of human research subjects, and applicable tribal
laws, etc. before beginning research.
- Find out your repository's policies for preparing donated
collections and implement them as research proceeds.
- Include archivists, conservators, museum curators, or librarians on
your research team or among your resource people.
- Learn about different materials and how they respond to
environmental conditions. Learn about the basic chemistry of materials
you'll be working with.
- Learn about health and safety risks in conducting fieldwork and take