Museum Tutorials: Cultural Collections

Cultural Collections

NPS museum collections are divided into two categories: cultural history and natural history. Archival collections bridge both cultural and natural history and are essential components of both. Though there are many similarities between cultural and natural collections and a great deal of overlap, each requires specialized techniques for handling, storage, and cataloging.

Cultural collections are tightly tied to the history of the parks, whether through traditionally associated peoples, eminent figures, or themes highlighted in the park’s interpretive or educational programs. There are 3 types of cultural collections: history (including works of art), archeology, and ethnology.


Archeology is the study of cultures of the past, through the objects or features they left behind. To be considered archaeological, an artifact must have been made, modified, or used by humans, and have been recovered as a result of a systematic investigation using archaeological techniques.

Archeology is by nature a destructive science, and the artifacts and documents produced during the excavation become the record of the site and its inhabitants. In addition to traditional excavation, non-invasive techniques are also used, including ground penetrating radar, magnetometry, LIDAR, soil resistivity, and other methods.

Archeology collections come from the parks themselves, from underground, underwater, or inside historic structures, and are given a new home in a museum facility. Archeology is especially significant when trace evidence is all that remains to uncover clues to people, events, or places of the past.

Example from the Parks

The Chaco Culture National Historical Park Collection contains approximately one million artifacts from over 120 sites in Chaco Canyon and the surrounding region. The Archive documents over 100 years of excavation and contains 330 linear feet of records, 30,000 photographs, 7,000 color slides, 600 glass lantern slides, 2,000 maps, 1,000 manuscripts, field notes, reports, and other written records. Inkstand used during the signing of the Declaration of Independence

View the museum collection from Chaco Culture National Historic Park.


Historic materials are those made or used by cultures with a written tradition up to the present time, which relate to the people, activities, and events associated with a park’s mission, themes, and history. The archeology classification is different than history because archeological artifacts are recovered as a result of a systematic investigation using archeological techniques.

Example from the Parks

Some NPS objects are icons of American history, such as the silver ink stand used at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Inkstand used during the signing of the Declaration of Independence


Although the NPS has significant artworks in its collections, parks do not collect art for its own sake, but rather because it relates directly to the mission and purpose of the site.

Link to video showing wolf skulls in the collection at Yellowstone National Park Watch a video with Colleen Curry, Museum Curator for Yellowstone National Park, as she shows how the park manages their artwork collection.


Ethnology is the analysis and comparison of cultures, and the museum classification used for objects manufactured by or associated with American Indians or other indigenous peoples. Most commonly, NPS ethnographic collections are from Native American, Polynesian, or Micronesian peoples who traditionally occupied an area within a park, or have a historic or contemporary association with a park.

Museum Tutorials

Museum tutorials are provided through the Collection Connection, a group of NPS experts offering advice and showing how they successfully manage their park collections. Join the Collection Connection Group in the Commons to find experts, ask questions, get advice, and read success stories.

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