Thousands of boxes of archaeological artifacts are currently being stored in the basement of McClung Museum and are at risk of losing their research value due to a lack of resources and funds, said Lynne Sullivan, a curator of archaeology at the museum. Many of the artifacts were excavated in the 1970s when the Tennessee Valley Authority built Tellico Dam in Loudon County.
Since McClung Museum is mainly a research museum, meaning many artifacts are used only for research, artifacts on display are just the tip of the iceberg. According to Sullivan, many of the shelved boxes in the basement contain artifacts that are stored in brown paper bags instead of archive-quality, plastic zipper bags.
“This is a problem because the brown bags deteriorate over time, and the contents fall out, thus becoming disassociated with the identifying information written on the bags,” Sullivan wrote to The Daily Beacon.
“As the years wear on, it will get worse,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan also serves as the chair of the Society of American Archaeology on the Committee of Museums, Collections and Curation.
Funding to organize these artifacts is limited, she said. Though TVA is technically responsible for the upkeep, the government is not allocating much support for them, she said.
In 2002, McClung Museum, along with UT Libraries, was awarded a two-year grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to create an online database containing photographs of excavations in the TVA dam constructions in the 1930s.
The museum also recently received a grant from Save America’s Treasures to rehouse the more fragile artifacts in high-quality cabinets. McClung was one of 42 projects nationwide to receive one of those federal grants, Sullivan said, and the only one in Tennessee.
However, funding for the brown-bagged items is not available, Sullivan said. Around a year ago, there was a joint proposal made to TVA with the UT Anthropology Department to correct these problems, but the TVA has not been able to provide the support, Sullivan said. There are not many grants available to care for federally-owned collections, like those owned by TVA, Sullivan said.
The main issue is trying to keep the collections so they are valuable to researchers, Sullivan said. The museum has been successful in preserving these artifacts, but there are certain areas which still need improving, she said.
“Some people are in a crisis, but we are not,” Jeff Chapman, director of McClung Museum, said. Chapman was also the principal investigator on the Tellico project that lasted from 1967-1982. Compared to other museums around the country, McClung is in far better shape, Chapman said.
Sullivan also said that despite the museum’s catch-22, it is “doing a good job of finding resources where possible to preserve these collections.”