Guidelines For 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The American Folklife Center defines an ethnographic field collection as: a multi-format, unpublished group of materials gathered and organized by an anthropologist, folklorist, ethnomusicologist, or other cultural researcher to document human life and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

What is an Ethnographic Field Collection?

Ethnographic Collections in the Archive of Folk culture: A Contributor's Guide

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 following procedures:

  1. Identify, perform basic inventory, and condition reporting of any ethnographic field collections in your institution.
  2. Maintain updated contact information on collectors and/or their heirs and/or executors.
  3. If possible, separate collections with adequate documentation from those with inadequate documentation.
  4. Develop a policy for acceptance, maintenance, curation, and de-accessioning of ethnographic field collections.
  5. Store ethnographic field collections under similar conditions as those used for archival collections, rare books, etc.
  6. 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.
  7. Inspect the ethnographic collections for damage, insect infestations, etc. at least once a year.
  8. 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:

  1. Be aware of preservation concerns and integrate preventive conservation into all phases of research design and conduct.
  2. Be especially aware of problems with acidic paper, non-archival inks, and long-term storage of electronic documents.
  3. 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.
  4. Don't wait until you return from the field to begin preventive conservation. See the websites above for resources.
  5. Become thoroughly familiar with historic preservation, cultural property, protection of human research subjects, and applicable tribal laws, etc. before beginning research.
  6. Find out your repository's policies for preparing donated collections and implement them as research proceeds.
  7. Include archivists, conservators, museum curators, or librarians on your research team or among your resource people.
  8. Learn about different materials and how they respond to environmental conditions. Learn about the basic chemistry of materials you'll be working with.
  9. Learn about health and safety risks in conducting fieldwork and take reasonable precautions.