The Inspector General (IG) for the United States Department of the Interior (DOI) has “found that DOI is failing to fulfill its stewardship responsibilities over museum collections.” In a December 2009 report, the IG found that DOI has failed to properly accession, catalogue, or inventory museum collections, leaving artifacts “unavailable for research, education, or display and … subject to theft, deterioration, and damage.”
The most widespread problem is a failure to properly document museum holdings. The IG reports that as of fiscal year 2007, DOI had not catalogued 53 percent of their collection holdings. Although several bureaus within DOI have backlogs of objects to be catalogued, the National Park Service has the worst backlog, with 60 million uncatalogued objects. Additionally, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, and United States Fish and Wildlife Service have failed to conduct annual inventories of collections to verify the existence of objects within their collections. The Department estimates that it will take at least 20 years to complete inventories of all Interior collections.
Moreover, the IG reports that DOI has paid too little attention to the management of DOI-collections held by other facilities. Four bureaus were not even sure what non-DOI facilities hold their collections. Where the facility is known, the bureau often did not maintain inventory listings or conduct the required annual physical inventory.
“These widespread accountability issues are largely due to poor program management, ineffective oversight, poor reporting, and an insufficient allocation of resources,” concludes the IG. Several of these problems have been chronicled back to at least 1990, when the IG released a report on the condition of DOI museum collections. In 1993, DOI implemented department-wide standards for collection management, however many bureaus have failed to follow that guidance.
The IG also found that lack of staff has been a major hindrance to proper collection management. Fish and Wildlife Service officials told the IG that the agency “simply lacks the staff, time, and funding to adequately respond to many of its conservation, cataloging, and curation issues.” National Park Service officials stated that staff “often has only a small percentage of time devoted to museum management with no technical oversight by a professional level curator.”
The report did note instances of proper collection management. Among the best practices used by individual museums were partnerships with colleges and universities, consolidation of facilities, and developing site-specific procedures for cataloging and inventory.
The report makes a number of recommendations for improving collection management, including requiring all bureaus to comply with department-wide collections management policies; developing a plan to address the accession and cataloging backlog; and ensuring annual physical inventories. The IG also recommends consolidating collections held within and among bureaus and pursuing partnerships with outside organizations.
In response to the report, DOI voiced support to improve management of collections, although the department does not believe that the status of its collections is consistent with the IG’s report. Interior points to the number of improvements made since 1993, including a unified collection management system.
The DOI is the second largest holder of museum collections, with an estimated 146 million artifacts and pieces of artwork at 625 DOI facilities and at more than 1,000 non-DOI facilities. Interior’s collections are comprised mostly of documents (60 percent) and archeological objects (35 percent). Approximately 82 percent of Interior’s collections are held by the National Park Service.
To read the IG report, please visit http://www.doioig.gov/upload/2010-I-0005.pdf.
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