FORT LEE, Va. – A joint study is underway to determine if the operational model of the Regional Archaeological Curation Facility here is a good fit for similar preservation activities across the Army.
“Fort Lee is the test case to assess the feasibility of a centralized system of curation for federally owned collections,” elaborated Elizabeth Bell-Monnich, Cultural Resource Program manager, Environmental Management Division, Directorate of Public Works.
She noted that the study is being conducted under the authority of the Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District. It was launched three years ago but ramped up last month during a “critical logistical phase.”
The pilot study is walking through the process of assessing collection conditions for participating installations; the logistics of moving collections; and assessing long-term/cost benefits to a centralized facility housing entire collections, Bell-Monnich said.
The RACF serves as an archaeological collections repository for Fort Lee and several other federal entities including Fort Monroe and Marine Corps Base, Quantico. Collections range from centuries-old native artifacts to documents concerning historical and archaeological surveys.
Other federal facilities nationwide perform missions similar to Fort Lee’s RACF. There also are many entities that store collections in other facilities. Some lack proper security or climate control to preserve collections, according to the MCEC website. Some divide collections between one or more facilities.
All federal collections must comply with regulations governing handling and storage that are designed to preserve various components of the nation’s heritage, the MCEC website also underscores. The RACF meets all federal handling and storage standards.
In addition to examining the cost effectiveness of collection practices and regional operations in general, the case study should improve public access to collections, said Bell-Monnich.
“We have a comprehensive database of every artifact in our inventory,” she said. “So, for example, if a researcher was looking for a shell – because shells were used for multiple purposes in this area – all they need to do is give us an idea of what type of artifact they’re looking for. We can see if we have it and connect them with someone responsible for the collections to see if they can get permission to access it.
“If someone has to go to five different places to get to a collection – items from the same installation – that could reduce the likelihood that happens,” Bell-Monnich continued. “If it is all in one place, we can make it more comprehensive and we’ll have data on everything in our inventory.”
Six installations have opted to be included in the study, she noted. The RACF is in the process of storing collections from 18 federal entities, including Fort A.P. Hill, an Army installation located roughly 70 miles to the north.
“It takes a lot to move (artifacts),” Bell-Monnich said. “Before we started this project, we had 900 cubic feet of collections we were hosting for various installations. Right now, we’re at 1,054, but by the time we’re done processing all this stuff this summer, we’ll be at 1,500. So, we’re increasing our capacity by about 50 percent.”
To support the case study, the Corps of Engineers, St. Louis, sent personnel to Fort Lee on a temporary basis.
“They went out and inspected the collections to get kind of an idea of what condition they were in at their locations and they are organizing the logistics of the move,” said Bell-Monnich, noting “some of the collections need to be rehabbed a bit and some are in perfect condition.”
Bell-Monnich, who became RACF’s manager late last year, is enthusiastic about the case study because it could lead to increased protection of archaeological resources and public access to the information those resources provide.
“I don’t have expectations,” she said, “but I’m hopeful. I’m personally very big on the project’s purpose because, if anything stays untouched on a shelf 20 years, we are failing that purpose.”
The RACF case study is scheduled to be completed by Oct. 1. The final report will determine Fort Lee’s capability – drawing comparisons of old and new practices – which Bell-Monnich said will allow for recommendations on whether or not this should have a broader application.