Lesson in Mindful Collections Management

by | Jul 27, 2022 | Articles, Collections Programming, Internship, Fellowship, and Volunteer Programs

As an Anthropology major with a focus on archaeology, a component of my education is the proper management of the objects that are excavated or in some way have archaeological value through their history or context. These objects often end up in massive collections and, depending on their age, are at varying levels of an organization, cataloging, and proper storage. Even though the Coe is not an anthropological collection, its approach to caring for the objects is one I wish to center in my future work. These were ideals instilled in me through the practical skills and experience I have gained over this short time working with the Coe’s collection and Collections Manager Samantha Tracy.

Although I have worked closely with the Coe since the first Hands-On Curatorial Program in 2015, I had not had such an opportunity to become intimate with the North American collection until now. Ted Coe collected predominantly North American pieces from Indigenous communities all over the continent. I, however, always found Ted’s collection of intricately carved paddles, Polynesian weapons, and the striking variety of African human figures and masks captivating. I shied away from the North American pieces in a mixture of my own guilt for knowing that somewhere in my familial past, I had a relationship with these Indigenous pieces, but that narrative was long forgotten and never reached my ears to hear and speak on. During this time, I worked on updating the Coe’s inventory with the location, condition, and overall status of most objects in the North American collection. 

As anyone who has visited the Coe knows, the way in which the objects are exhibited for accessibility tends to encourage the pieces to wander around the building. Tracking down each piece took a lot of handling and patience. Becoming physically comfortable with delicate materials and internalizing a cautious approach to moving them is a key skill that I was meant to learn throughout this time. In the field, archaeologists handle objects at a high risk of damage, so this skill is important for me. Beyond that, gaining an eye for knowing how and when an object is at risk is another great skill. As all organic (living) things in this world age, some parts get weaker, and objects need to be re-assessed to ensure that their current situation fits the appropriate level of stress and condition of the object. 

During one tour, while I was noting down baskets in our upstairs collection wall, I overheard Executive Director, Rachel Wixom, explain the mission of the Coe; to allow everyone who comes through our doors to have meaningful conversations with our pieces and to learn more about the world through the person’s own curiosity. This can be done by bringing in the powerful voices of objects and encouraging a thoughtful conversation between visitors and a piece. In its strive to be a rigorous science, archaeological collections sometimes forget the relationship between a viewer and an object can generate important educational moments that bridge large cultural differences. This way of interacting with objects centers on the need for a compassionate approach to them. The relationship has to be respectful from our end as viewers, we must take precautions to care for the pieces and handle them carefully. However, leaving an object devoid of its use and only as a piece of aesthetics also robs it of its original purpose and ignores the voice of its experience and life. As someone entering the fold of archaeology, I want to highlight this voice on the material culture because they are what can continue informing our understanding of the past.

-Oscar Alfredo Loya, Summer 2022

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