Remember the last scene of the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark," where the Bible's ark of the covenant is packaged up and lost in a large government warehouse?
That actually is happening to untold artifacts and documents, because the Department of Interior largely doesn't know what is in its collections, often doesn't know if items were obtained legally and doesn't properly care for many of them, according to the department's inspector general.
"Elements of the nation's heritage are being neglected and forgotten in thousands of boxes that contain millions of objects neither identified nor accounted for," says an inspector general's report released Wednesday.
"The Department of Interior is failing to fulfill its stewardship responsibilities over museum collections second in size only to the Smithsonian Institution."
The inspector general evaluated how well collections are being managed by visiting 28 department facilities — from national park museums to artifact storage facilities — and three nondepartmental museums with artifacts and documents on loan from the department.
None of the facilities visited were in Utah. However, Utah was the site of a large federal raid last year on private sellers of Indian artifacts found on public land. Officials then said that such people were robbing the nation of its heritage. The new report says poor management of federal museums may be doing the same.
The report said widespread problems were found with accessioning — the process of ensuring that items were obtained legally — as well as cataloging and performing regular inventories. It said many of the problems had been earlier noted in other reports since 1990.
The report says the department has an estimated 146 million items in its museum collections, but 78 million of them have not been catalogued — just over half of them.
All Interior agencies have huge cataloging backlogs, but the National Park Service stood out with an estimated backlog of 60 million items, according to the report.
"The backlog at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, Calif., was over 3 million objects, while the backlogs at Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine, and the Alaska Region Curatorial Center in Anchorage, Alaska, were around 1 million objects each," the report said. "In some cases, objects remained uncataloged for decades."
As a result, "millions of objects remain boxed — unknown and unaccounted for," the report said. "These objects are, for the most part, unavailable for research, education or display and are susceptible to theft, deterioration and damage."
Of the 28 sites the inspector general visited, "nine were not accessioning (making sure items were received legally) upon receipt," the report said. "In fact, three of these sites were not accessioning at all."
The Bureau of Reclamation's New Melones Artifact Storage Facility in Jamestown, Calif, for example, had accessioned only about 24,000 of the estimated 418,000 objects stored there.
The report said the department also is not conducting required annual inventories to verify that items in collections have not disappeared or been stolen.
For example, five of the seven Bureau of Indian Affairs facilities visited not only had failed to conduct such inventories but also "were unable to provide a current inventory listing of the objects in their collections," the report said.
Besides the Interior Department's own facilities, the report said, the inspector general found that Interior is not tracking well what items the department has loaned to colleges and outside museums and "had little idea of what objects those facilities held."
On top of all that, the report said: "We found that the department needs to take additional steps to improve preservation practices over its museum collections. Because the preservation of the collections at many DOI sites has been neglected, countless (items of) artwork, artifacts and other museum objects are in jeopardy."
The report said the problems were caused by poor management and by failure of the government to allocate enough manpower and money to care for and track collections.
The document made numerous recommendations to resolve problems, including doing annual inventories, pursuing partnerships with colleges and foundations that could help catalog and care for items and identifying all items the department has and what facilities have them.
The report said the department agrees with the need for improvements, but "it took exception to how we described the current state of the museum program" and said it actually had made many improvements in the past two decades.
The inspector general acknowledged that some improvements had been made, but said, "We stand by our conclusions on DOI's museum program."