Sunday 15 July 2012

"Better Off With US?" The Heritage Health Index

In connection with my two posts today on US attempts to dictate to other nations how they are to look after their own heritage, Kyri reminded me of the 2005 US "Heritage Health Index" survey and it seems I have no post here devoted to it, but it seems worth noting. We recall how an incesant justification of no-questions-asked acquisition of dugup (and other) artefacts is that the brown skinned guys out there across the borders are all less capable of looking after the stuff properly than American collectors. The mantra is that if its in an American museum or private collection, the object will automatically be better looked after than in any foreign museum or collection or preserved in situ in an archaeological site.

That this is little more than self-justificatory and xenophobic wishful thinking on the part of our transatlantic friends is well illustrated by a survey of the actual, rather than imagined, state of US public collections. While no data were gathered from private collections, the state of these is hardly likely to be better (and at least in one field, the documentation of the collections is demonstrably much worse).

The survey in question was produced by the American non-profit organization Heritage Preservation whose mission is "to preserve the nation’s heritage for future generations through innovative leadership, education, and programs". The Report on the State of America's Collections "A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index", was published in December 2005. It was based on data gathered from more than 3,000 institutions, among them museums, historical societies, government archives, libraries, scientific organizations and universities and shockingly found that some 612 million artefacts in these public collections - from photographs and paintings to nature specimens and pottery - were at risk of deterioration because they were not cared for properly. The summary report is here.
Among other things it was found that
26% of US collecting institutions have no environmental controls to protect their collections from damaging effects of temperature, humidity, and light.
59% of US collecting institutions have had their collections damaged by light.
53% of US collecting institutions have had their collections damaged by moisture.
80% of US institutions do not have paid staff dedicated to collections care.
71% of US institutions need additional training and expertise for staff caring for their collections.
77% of US institutions do not specifically allocate funds for preservation in their budgets.
70% of US institutions do not have a current assessment of the condition of their collections.
80% of US collecting institutions do not have an emergency plan that includes collections, with staff trained to carry it out. Thus 2.6 billion items of historic, cultural, and scientific significance are not protected by an emergency plan and are at risk should a disaster strike their institutions.
39% of US institutions have a significant backlog in cataloguing their collections.

What I found most disturbing is the HHI website, here.  Look at the dates of the updates, and news of subsequent events. There apparently has been little happening here since 2005. Seven years. So what has improved in that time?

UPDATE 16.07.12
This post was a reaction to the  arrogance of American collectors who habitually use the "objects better off in a US collection" argument. I should point out that it is not just American museums and collections which are under-resourced to deal with the preservation of the objects they contain, even in the so-called 'developed' world - see SAFE's post about a recent ICCROM survey:
 Museum collections no better off in developed countries, international survey says


Cultural Property Observer said...

As for the discussion of the number of objects in US museum collections: (1) the US is not demanding import restrictions on US artifacts based partly on the theory that US museums are the best stewards of artifacts; (2) this is an argument for deacession of artifacts in both the US and Cyprus. At least the US museums know how many artifacts they have in inventory. Can Cypriot and Greek museums say the same?

Finally, with respect to US Museums, one wonders what the figures are for archaeological type museums like the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

Paul Barford said...

Yeah, I'm really worried about that.

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