Wednesday, January 12, 2005


No Money for Archaeology in Seaport Museum

by Lisa Schiffman
Januay 10, 2005

Seaport Museum officials plead poverty as fate of New York City's past remains uncertain.

Six months after its board of directors fired seven South Street Seaport Museum employees, including its archaeological curator and maritime librarian, the fate of its 2-million-plus artifact collection and its research library and archive remain uncertain.

Blaming reduced attendance at the museum since 9/11 and a $1 million budget deficit, Seaport Museum chairman Lawrence S. Huntington said in a New York Times article last July that the cutbacks were necessary "to put this museum on a break-even basis."

Among staff let go were archaeological curator Diane Dallal, who ran New York Unearthed, the city's only archaeological museum and conservation lab, and Norman Brouwer, curator of ships and marine historian, a 32-year veteran of the museum in charge of its library.

The Archaeological Collection
Given just one week's notice before she was let go, Dallal says that after expressing concern over the artifacts under her care she was told by the Seaport Museum's executive director Paula Mayo to "just leave them."

The collection--excavated over a 20-year period from archaeological sites in New York City--includes structural elements of piers and wharves of the early port of New York City, objects recovered from the landfills that expanded Manhattan, nineteenth-century merchandise, artifacts from the Great Fire of 1835, and the earliest remains of Dutch New Amsterdam.

It is imperative to have an archaeologist trained in conservation techniques overseeing these artifacts, Dallal says, because they are extremely fragile and in need of continuous conservation or they run the risk of being either lost or destroyed. She notes, for example, glass that was long-buried in the ground starts to flake once they are excavated.

If the glass is not treated, then pieces will flake off until there is nothing left. "The problem is that they [the artifacts] had been in a very different environment for over 300 years and adapted," says archaeologist Diane diZerega Wall, co-author of Touring Gotham's Archaeological Past and the Seaport Museum's original curator.

"When excavated they were taken out and put in a different environment." Wall emphasizes that artifacts also need meticulous documentation. "Archaeological collections need more oversight than normal museum collections," she says.

"If things don't get put away in the right place it is as if they never existed." What can be lost is the context--where the artifact came from." ...


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