The design of an archaeological conservation laboratory: Three case studies

Betty Seifer, with contributions from Melba Myers and Doug Currie


The planning, design and construction of a conservation laboratory, in particular, for archaeological materials is a complex process. Most important to the success of a project is the establishment of a mission and scope for the laboratory before beginning development of a plan for design. It is in this document that the decisions are made that form the foundation and underlying philosophy for the myriad design and construction questions and proposals. It must be well stated and developed to support one through the many meetings and debates with architects, builders and contractors. Having a mission and a well defined process in decision making is what has made the construction of the facilities represented in this presentation successful for the institutions which they serve. The mission of each institution and significant details considered in planning each conservation facility will be presented.

The Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory is a multi-program facility. In 1987, the State of Maryland assessed archaeological services and artifact holdings throughout state agencies. The State Office of Historic Preservation and the governor provided the impetus and political clout to ensure funding. A decision was reached to organize archaeological services into one agency and assemble all state owned collections in one facility. Planning began with visits to existing facilities in the United State and Canada. A mission was developed and a detailed program was written detailing space needs, functional relationships and capabilities, and a basic preservation philosophy to guide decisions. A conservator was hired to serve as technical lead during design and construction. Throughout the ten years of development, design and construction, the archaeological community was involved and provided support.

The mission of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory is to research, conserve, house and provide access to the archaeological collections of the state. The facility was designed to accommodate these four functions, providing individual zones of climate control and security to meet the needs of each function. The facility was designed to provide access to the general public as well as researchers. Three zones were created for security. The public area provides access to the meeting room, library, administrative offices and service areas. Security doors separate the public area from research, conservation and collections management sections. Access to this area by tour groups, students and visiting researchers is escorted. The third area of security is collections storage which has limited access.

The MAC laboratory was designed to maintain a controlled environment throughout all locations in which artifacts would be studied or processed. Work areas were designed to provide open, flexible space for each function. Research has a large layout room for analyzing artifacts, a storeroom, map and file room, and a field processing room. Conservation occupies a series of laboratories for treatment of wet or dry archaeological artifacts — a large processing laboratory for wet and dirty cleaning, an X-ray room, a treatment room with freeze drying equipment, a clean room. a materials science room and a solvent work room. Outside is a covered work yard for oversized projects and a chemical storage building. Collections management has a large layout room, a visiting scientist room and the collections storage wing. A room has also been set aside here for native peoples. All units share a local area network for communication and work together to serve the public and preserve the archaeological resource. Hallways are ten foot wide to allow easy movement of artifacts, carts and groups of people. Interaction between laboratory programs is integral to the function of facility. Making the archaeological record accessible is a primary goal of the staff in providing service to researchers and to the general public.

In Virginia the Department of Historic Resources (DHR) had old adapted buildings for collections research, conservation and storage. In 1995, a panel was appointed by the Governor to study the entire state bureaucracy and make specific recommendations for each agency. This panel recommended more appropriate storage for collections and archives. The department’s director looked for a partnership with a museum in order to create a Virginia History Center. The Code of Virginia mandates that DHR’s primary function is “to educate, advise and inform citizens, organizations, state, local and federal agencies regarding historic resources.” Any partnership formed must meet the this primary public outreach function. The search was successful. A partnership was formed with the Virginia Historical Society. A member of the Society’s board donated the money to build a new wing as an addition to the Society’s museum. The Department of Historic Resources would occupy the first and third floors and the Society would open a new exhibit area featuring artifacts from the archaeological collections on the second floor. The new exhibition area and the location of the Curation Facility on the ground floor of the new wing made the collections more accessible. The Curation Facility includes compact storage for collections, a study collection area, curators offices, and a conservation laboratory with a window wall for public viewing. The layout of functional islands and workstations were determined by the conservator based on work flow. The lab was designed to handle small to medium sized archaeological and decorative arts objects with an expected heavy load of archaeological metals.

Several crucial forces were at work which came together to make possible this dramatic improvement in curation facilities for Virginia’s archaeological collections from over 750 sites and stored in over 6,500 boxes. The Historical Society wanted to expand their “Story of Virginia” exhibition and needed both space and access to the DHR’s extensive archaeological collections. The addition of an objects conservation laboratory was an added bonus. All was made possible by an generous donor who was intrigued by the idea of helping to increase the public profile and accessibility of the archaeological collections and the National Register of Historic Places archives. In Virginia, where budgets for agencies were being drastically cut, this contribution provided a platform for getting state money to fund a computer network to make the archives available online to clients all over the state. Funding also provided a local area network, a wide area network to connect regional offices, the National Park Service and other agencies, and a Geographical Information System for the location of state archaeological sites and historic standing structures. Public access is also provided through exhibits in the window wall of the conservation laboratory that is in the lobby of the Department. Visitors to the building are a captive audience that finds the artifacts and the computer displays interesting.

The third archaeological conservation laboratory to be presented had a different impetus. In 1983, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation of southeastern Connecticut set as a principle goal upon gaining federal recognition, the building of a museum that would tell the story of Native Americans of southern New England spanning 10,000 years with a focus on Pequot history over the last 400 years. The culmination of that goal was the opening in August 1998 of the 300,000 square foot Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. The museum houses permanent and temporary exhibit spaces, a research library and archives for Native American and early Colonial history, educational and public program facilities, and conservation, collections, curatorial, and archaeology departments. The Mashantucket Pequot tribe has funded and directed, in conjunction with archaeologists from the University of Connecticut, archaeological excavations on their reservation for over 15 years. Funding of a temporary conservation lab at the university in 1992 was established to treat the thousands of artifacts already excavated. When planning for the new museum began, the conservation and archaeological labs were designed as integrated elements (both at the policy level and the physical spaces) in order to enhance research and preservation of Native American history and materials, the stated mission of the Museum. The Conservation Department would provide to the Archaeology Department specialized field services, conservation treatments of all artifacts, and offer advice on the safe storage and long-term preservation of artifact material. In addition, the Conservation Department would assist in the analysis of the excavated materials through the use of x-radiography and optical microscopy. The conservation labs were designed to handle and treat the specific types of artifacts found in excavations in the region as well as the ethnographic materials on display and in the research collections. Guiding all of these designs were the issues that must be addressed when sacred or repatriated materials are encountered such as private storage areas, space for smudging ceremonies, or the arrival in the conservation labs of materials that will not be treated or handled except by Native people.

1999 | St. Louis | Volume 6