Sometime this summer a truck, or trucks, loaded with artifacts and papers at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana, will slowly pull away from the monument and set out on a 20-or-so-hour drive south.
When the truck, or trucks, pull into the National Park Service's Western Archaeological and Conservation Center in Tucscon, Arizona, workers will unload roughly 150,000 artifacts and archives tied in some fashion to the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry's darkest days in June 1876.
For at least a quarter-century Park Service officials have known they needed to better care and protect the items, which include hunting buckskins belonging to Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who was among the 263 soldiers who died in a two-day battle with vastly superior numbers of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.
Back in 1986, during preparation of the monument's general management plan, a need for better curatorial facilities was recognized. But a lack of land on which to build such a facility in combination with a new visitor center has prevented that aspect of the GMP from being realized.
Down through the years, more and more concern was voiced for the artifacts and printed materials tied in some fashion to Custer's Last Stand. All the while the artifacts and archives have been stored in the basement of the battlefield's visitor center, where conditions are decidedly not museum quality.
"The primary issues are way too small space, and so, as a result of not having the correct space, we have to sort of pack things into the space that we have in ways that are not conducive to conservation," explained Little Bighorn Superintendent Kate Hammond. "For example, piling documents on top of each other, leaning artwork against each other, putting uniforms in a drawer rather than hanging them up appropriately.
“So I’d say space would be one of the main issues. Second would be lack of museum-specific climate controls. The basement of the visitor center is heated and cooled in the same way as the rest of the visitor center," she continued. "So it’s not to say it’s 115 degrees in the summer, and 20 below in the winter, but it’s targeted towards visitor comfort and not towards museum protections. Humidity I think is another concern. There’s no humidity control. There's no fire protection in the building, and then there are exposed water pipes running through the area. It’s also not ADA accessible, unfortunately, being in the basement. There’s no way for disabled visitors, tribal members, researchers, or even staff to access the collection.”
Last fall, as the monument gathered public comment on its management needs, concerns over the materials' storage were reiterated and convinced battlefield officials something had to be done soon about safely storing the collection.
"During that public engagement process we heard quite loudly and clearly from stakeholders and historians that that museum collection is enormously significant and that we have got to do something about that, even if it means temporarily relocating it away from the battlefield," Superintendent Hammond said.
"And so I think hearing that from our stakeholders gave further credence to what we had already heard, and it was sort of the impetus for the move," she continued. "And so I’d say over the last three to four months is when we’ve been looking at what are the options and where could we take this collection to?”
The options in the immediate area, unfortunately, were few. While Yellowstone National Park has a relatively new 32,000-square-foot facility in its Heritage & Research Center, and Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site at Deer Lodge, Montana, has a proper facility for its unique collection of more than 23,000 artifacts from the heyday of 19th century and early 20th century cattle industry, neither had space or staff to store and curate the more than 123,000 historical archives and some 26,000 historic objects from Little Bighorn that needed a temporary home, according to the superintendent.
A similar lack of suitable private or state-owned facilities in the vicinity of the monument led to a decision to ship the items to the Western Archeological and Conservation Center, which holds collections from 71 Park Service units within the Intermountain Region. Not only does that 50,000-square-foot facility have plenty of storage room, noted Superintendent Hammond, but it has a staff that can curate the items.
"We’re not looking for a place where the collection can just sit and be safe for a period of years. We’re looking for a place where its condition can be improved and where some work on some of the back of the house stuff can be done with database management, with cataloging items, etc.," she said.
“We have a couple of ongoing projects to digitize parts of the collection, some of the archival parts of the collection, and we felt like those projects could best continue if we kept them in a Park Service facility," the superintendent added. "And more specifically WAAC, where they have all of that expertise on-site, as well as consevation labs. Thirty-thousand objects from our collection are already down there. ... They’re already in the midst of working on these digitization projects. So I think for a number of reasons that became the most advantageous temporary home.”
At WAAC, Tef Rodeffer, the regional curator for the Intermountain Region, said staff will be ready to beginning working with the materials when they reach the facility later this year. (For security reasons, Park Service officials are not saying how many trucks will be needed to transfer the materials, nor specifically when the transfer will be made.)
“When it gets here it will be properly stored, so it will expand the amount of space that it needs as it’s properly stored. Right now, because of the amount of space available in the curation area (at Little Bighorn), individual items may not be stored to provide the maximium amount of preservation of the items because there’s not enough space to unfold it for example," said Ms. Rodeffer. “Or we have some textiles, uniforms, that are stacked on top of each other because there’s no other place to put them.”
Once unpacked, the items won't simply be properly stored away and ignored until a facility at Little Bighorn is built to house them, she added.
“Actually, the operative words relative to this collection is it will be ‘very active’ down here. We anticipate doing a plan for its conservation because there are a number of items in the collection that need conservation and need conservation soon," Ms. Rodeffer said. "So we’ll be preparing a plan and figuring out what it costs to do that.
“Also, when the collection gets here, there are items that have yet to be cataloged, and that will be completed here. Some funding is already attached to that," the curator said.
Perhaps a greater problem at this point, though, is identifying acreage that can be added to the Little Bighorn monument, finding a way to acquire it, and then finding the money to build the visitor center and museum/curatorial facility needed.
“I think the plan is to make a concerted effort to negotiate with all of the stakeholders that would be involved in some kind of a modest boundary expansion -- two of the primary ones would be the Crow Tribe and the Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee -- to try and push forward and say is there a way that we can move forward with this to meet a number of mutually beneficial goals," said Superintendent Hammond.
"In the event that we’re not making progress on that in the upcoming months and year or two, then maybe it’s time to reconsider our general management plan or reconsider sort of our overall approach to addressing these issues, because it’s clear that we don’t want to wait another 30 years.”