A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Note: ARCHAEOLOGY has obtained a copy of the museum's response to the following letters and has requested permission to post it from Paula Mayo, executive director of the South Street Seaport Museum.
June 28, 2004
Ms. Paula Mayo, Executive Director
Dear Ms. Mayo:
Much to my distress I have just heard that Diane Dallal's position as Curator of Archaeology and Director of New York Unearthed has been eliminated. I do not know whether you are aware that the Seaport Museum is the only repository for archaeological collections in New York. Its loss has catastrophic implications for the preservation of the city's archaeological heritage as well as for the invaluable educational resource it provides for both New York City's school children and for scholars from all over the world. In a personal way I am concerned for the welfare of the 18 artifacts that are all that remains of the Five Points collection. The rest of the collection, which ultimately would have resided at the South Street Seaport Museum under Diane's care, was lost in No. 6 World Trade Center on September 11th.
I sincerely hope some way can be found to avoid eliminating the Seaport Museum's function as caretaker of this important part of New York City's legacy. It is irreplaceable and as Annemarie Cantwell and Diana Wall show so eloquently in their book, Unearthing Gotham, archaeology adds information to the history of New York that is otherwise unavailable. Tangible remains are all we have and we need to take their care very seriously. Please reconsider the decision to eliminate the position of Curator of Archaeology and Director of New York Unearthed. We need to know Diane is there watching over the precious remains of our shared past.
June 30, 2004
Ms. Paula Mayo, Executive Director
I am writing as the archaeologist who was the South Street Seaport Museum's original Curator of Archaeology. As you know, I set up the museum's procedures and policies as to its archaeological collections over a dozen years ago and also worked on the creation of New York Unearthed, the museum's extraordinarily successful archaeological program. Today, I often use the museum's archaeological collections in my own research and I have also used (and credited the museum for) photographs of artifacts in the collections in many of my publications (including, with Anne-Marie Cantwell, Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City, 2001, Yale University Press). Until now, the museum has been the leader in the nation in acquiring and maintaining the archaeological collections from a modern city, making them available to researchers, and incorporating the artifacts from them into exhibits. Each of its collections is unique and irreplaceable. Taken together, they provide tangible evidence of the city's history from the 17th through the 19th centuries.
I was extremely concerned to hear about the recent lay-offs at the museum. Aside from the enormous human cost, I am particularly concerned about the archaeological collections. Of course I care about my own professional needs - that the collections continue to be available to researchers like me. In fact, I understand that a researcher from the Netherlands is arriving soon to study the collections. But my primary concern is related to the conservation needs of the collections, needs which Diane Dallal, as the Curator of Archaeology, has been attending to for over a dozen years.
Archaeological artifacts are much more physically unstable than objects in other collections. Each of these artifacts has spent most of its existence (usually centuries for those in the museum's collections) in a particular underground environment, and it adapted to that environment. After the artifacts were excavated, they entered into a new environment, and many of them need continuous monitoring and conservation treatment to ensure that they adapt to that new environment. If they and their storage facility are not monitored, and the artifacts are not treated as necessary, the very physical existence of the artifacts is threatened. That is one of the most important, though less glamorous, tasks that Diane Dallal has performed so well for the dozen years that she has worked at the museum. The museum cannot afford to put the conservation needs of the archaeological collections on the back burner and assume that they can make up for neglect when they get the money to hire a new archaeological curator. Without that kind of continuous oversight by an archaeologist trained as a conservator who understands the physical needs of the artifacts, parts of the museum's archaeological collections could literally self-destruct.
When the museum acquired these collections, they took on a responsibility to maintain them and to make them available to researchers. Now, in my opinion, they are abrogating their responsibility. I know the museum has had to make some tough choices recently. But I strongly urge that the decision to lay off the Curator of Archaeology be reconsidered. It would be a terrific loss to the city's heritage if the museum allowed their archaeological collections to be destroyed.
Diana diZerega Wall
June 30, 2004
Ms. Paula Mayo, Executive Director
Dear Ms. Mayo:
On behalf of Professional Archaeologists of New York City, I would like to express both our regret and outrage over the dismissal of Ms. Diane Dallal, Curator of Archaeology at South Street Seaport and Director of New York Unearthed. We are also dismayed with regard to the expectant closure of New York Unearthed at South Street Seaport, a significant repository of archaeological collections.
New York Unearthed was born out of the City laws to protect and preserve our historical and cultural past. Over the years it has not only been a repository of some of the most important archaeological collections in New York City, but it became the center for archaeological research. Researchers from all over the world have come to South Street Seaport and New York Unearthed to delve into New York City's past. Ms. Dallal has served in her position as Curator for over a decade. Her work has earned her the respect and admiration of all who have had contact with her and she has brought great respect and prestige to New York Unearthed and South Street Seaport. As of now, she will no longer be able to continue these important tasks. Her dismissal and the expected closure of New York Unearthed will sadly tarnish all that she has worked for.
As professional archaeologists, part of our responsibility is to preserve the records of what we do. Excavation, by nature, involves the destruction of archaeological sites. That is why repositories like South Street Seaport are vital. Without being able to store, use, and learn from the artifacts of our past, we lose this vital information.
It is our fear that without Ms. Dallal expertly running and maintaining South Street Seaport's repository of artifacts and associated documentary information that the collections will now become off limits to researchers and eventually be lost forever.
We understand that South Street Seaport's main focus is the maritime history of The City of New York, but that history has been uncovered, in part, through archaeology. To eliminate the archaeological component is to take away an integral part of the history of South Street Seaport.
New York Unearthed, as the sole archaeological museum in New York City, has attracted thousands of students and visitors each year. The museum provides a place for all to go to learn about New York's archaeological and historical past. Now, we fear this museum, created out of the need to protect the past, will be gone forever. No longer will the multitude of school children be able to "walk" back in time to learn about how we came to this place called New York.
Without an archaeological curator the priceless collections that reside at South Street Seaport will no longer be cared for and available as vital research tools. Although some of these collections are over two decades old, new information is constantly being generated. Much of this is due in part to Ms. Dallal's tireless efforts on behalf of the South Street Seaport Museum, making the collections accessible.
The archaeological collections have been part of many of the exhibits and programs at South Street Seaport. This too will no longer occur without the proper care and conservation given by Ms. Dallal during her tenure. There is no question that the South Street Seaport is loosing more than it is gaining by eliminating the archaeological curator position, New York Unearthed, and access to the collections.
We ask that you and the Board of Trustees of South Street Seaport reconsider the elimination of archaeology from the Museum. If you feel your decision is irreversible, we would appreciate clarification on what is to become of the archaeological collections and if there are plans to allow researchers to continue to have full access to them.
We look forward to your timely response.
July 6, 2004
Paula Mayo Executive Director
Dear Ms. Mayo:
It has come to my attention that the South Street Seaport Museum has recently eliminated Diane Dallal's position as curator and caretaker of New York archaeological collections, and the existence of the NY Unearthed Museum is in danger.
This museum serves not only as a repository for some of the most important historical archaeological collections of its kind, but as an educational institution it is invaluable. As a former intern of NY Unearthed, I was taught priceless skills in conservation and artifact analysis not available in a classroom; I created and conducted educational classes on archaeology, gained museum experience with exhibits, wrote scholarly papers for academic purposes, but most importantly gained an even higher appreciation and respect for the preservation of these amazing resources. All under the remarkable supervision of Diane Dallal. I can honestly say I would not have acquired the proficiency in conservation and analysis that I now have without the guidance from Diane and the resources available from the collections at NY Unearthed. To think that future students and scholars will not be given this opportunity is not only heartbreaking to me, but simply, an irresponsible decision for a public educational institution such as the South St. Seaport Museum.
These collections reflect the city's remarkable past through material culture, and they provide an intangible heritage to the people of this city and nation. They provide resources for archaeologists and historians as well as offering educational experience through exhibits and workshops to local school groups and tourists. What will become of these collections? How will they be accessed for scholarly use? How will they be cared for and maintained? What will happen to the NY Unearthed facility and the exhibits, Where will the school groups go to experience New York's past through the exhibits at the unique museum NY Unearthed?
While I understand that financial constraints are significant at this time, I write to you to urge you to find a way to retain Diane Dallal's position as curator. For further advancement on the understanding of New York's history, scholars and students must use these collections and the valuable information they hold. In addition, the public must have access to them through your exhibits and public activities to answer their own curiosities about this city's past as well as experience them for their own enjoyment. You must find a way to keep these great collections alive and the position of curator to oversee them intact, for without a respect for the past how can we look forward to the future?