Connecting to Collections Care Online Community

Acquiring Legal Title To Collections

This topic contains 4 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  Cory Nowak 10 months, 2 weeks ago.

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  • #137288

    Cory Nowak
    Participant

    Hoping this is something someone with more experience than can offer guidance for.

    Background: I’m a graduate student in Minnesota, and I’ve been working within the archeology curation lab for a few years now while also doing archeological fieldwork. About two years ago I went through our lab’s (which is an official repository and technically a museum) accession records, digitized them and created accession records for collections we didn’t know we had. Being at a university, staff and student turnaround has been a constant, so for the first time there is an actual record of every collection and the collections are nice and orderly on our shelves. This was a pain, sometime in in the early 70’s a few students accessioned what was already within the university, and little information existed when they did it, I get it. Several of the professors who had taught here also had CRM firms and brought in collections from fieldwork, to include field schools offered in the summer. Many of these records had been lost in a flood when the repository was basement level, onto the issue.

    Issue: This I believe isn’t a unique issue for archeological repositories that take in collections from fieldwork. The field crew received permission to access land, and presumably there was general understanding (between the Principle Investigator and the Landowner) that artifacts would be recovered and analysed at the repository. However, of the 370ish accessions, I only have two loan agreements from collections that were the result of an archeological undertaking. We have statutes in MN for abandoned property within museums, however, those statutes are with the presumption that a loan agreement exists.

    What I’ve Been Doing: My first step is tracking the landowners address from the years these collections were removed from their property, for the collections only accessioned in the 70’s with know date for the fieldwork, I’m SOL for a decent amount I’m almost sure, good faith efforts to continue. Understandably, several of the landowners are deceased, have had children, likely none of the family is aware we have 1-20 flakes of lithic debitage housed here as the result of CRM work for road construction in the county. I’m searching whitepages to get the addresses of known family members, but I of course do not know who actually has legal title. To make matters worse, several of the recorded archeological sites these came from crossed property lines, so we cannot tie for instance, 5 of the 10 objects to the Johnson families land, and the other 5 to the Smith’s. The vast majority of these collections are from private property, so it is not the governments property in any way shape or form.

    I’ve got a template for contacting the property owners, it essentially states we have a collection from land they have, or have had, or parents have had owned at one time, we don’t know if they were aware we have this property, and would like to clarify the statues by receiving a provided loan or donation agreement. At that point I plan on waiting 60 days (which I specify in the letter) before I plan to publish an abandoned property notice in the local papers, and hope a claim roles in within another 60 days, and after that it becomes are property (documenting this process along the way). Even after this I’m still unclear if we then have legal title to the collections, being that no actual agreement existed (on paper at least) for the collections in the first place.

    I’m trying to do my due diligence, and make a good faith effort here. The archaeologists that created these problems are mostly deceased, or have moved on elsewhere. I only get paid to do this roughly 20 hours a week, and doubt anyone is taking on this project after I leave within two semesters. Any guidance or advice would be appreciated.

    PS: If anybody is looking to hire a veteran with experience in archeology and repositories, please let me know, I come with a catalog system I created for archeological collections.

  • #137319

    Patricia Selinger
    Participant

    Dear Cory,
    Thanks for writing to C2C and I apologize for the not getting back to you sooner.

    Tell me if I understand your issue correctly:
    You are working at an archaeology curation lab and have cataloged objects that were acquired from fieldwork. You don’t have accession records for everything and are seeking to contact property owners who owned the property at the time of the dig, which may or may not be the current property owners. You have little/no documentation on agreements made at the time of the digs. Your question is whether you are doing the right thing legally/ethically by contacting the property owners and how this project might continue in your absence since you see it is a long term project. Is that right? I think I can provide a proper response if I’m sure I’m answering the right question.

    I sense a great passion about what you are doing and a fulfilling sense of purpose. To me, that is what getting the degree and finding success is all about.

    Sincerely,
    Patricia

  • #137320

    Cory Nowak
    Participant

    Dear Patricia,

    I do indeed have accession records, although many are lacking in appropriate detail, but I have searched our internal records to get as much information added as possible.

    The main problem is the lack of loan and donation agreements. I have talked with the Director of our museum at length about this, likely, neither loan nor donation agreements exist for all but two of our accessions. I’m attempting to track down the rightful owners of all the property (whether living, or descendants) in order to get either legal title to, or a loan agreement for, the collections. Alternatively, we can give the collections back to the legal owners, although because of provenience issues this is simply not doing for some collections without arbitrarily dividing the collections up.

    So basically yes, I’m trying to do the right thing legally and ethically. Without loan or donation agreements I don’t believe we are even supposed to use the collections for research, public display, classroom use etc. Furthermore, I’m part of project developing the Minnesota Archeological Integrated Database (MAID for short). As part of the project I’ve also been providing and describing ownership forms, agreements, field forms etc. to assist other repositories and historical societies manage their archeological collections betterr. Because of my archeological experience I know other repositories have the same issues for their collections, having a well laid out process for addressing issues of this nature seems to be a worthwhile pursuit.

    I think ethically I’m going about this the right way, but legally I’m not sure if I’m missing any steps in the process. The museum statutes for Minnesota address abandoned property with the presumption that loan and/or donation agreements exist. I’ve also read through 36CFR79 a few times, it of course states the repository needs to have loan and donation agreements, but I’m in the here and now without either agreements, while also without a time machine. So here I am hoping someone has some guidance. If what I’m doing is the correct way, awesome. But I do not know if I have to take this a step further and track down information such as, which descendant has legal title to property to their father’s collection.

    Any guidance that can be provided is appreciated. It very well may be the case that there are other laws, guidelines, or statutes that I’m not aware of that can assist. Being that I’m only here for a short time, I’m hoping at a minimum to kickstart this process and develop a plan of action that can be carried out.

    Thank you,
    Cory

  • #137352

    Patricia Selinger
    Participant

    Dear Cory,
    Please hang on while I pursue your question with other experts. I have initially received conflicting information I need to follow up on. I will get back to you as soon as I can.

    Sincerely,
    Patricia

    • #137645

      Cory Nowak
      Participant

      Update, I have been following through with what a detailed in my plans above, and acquired donation and/or loan agreements for some collections (as time has permitted).

      Was still wondering if there is any additional information anybody has found since my initial post.

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