Cataloguing Death Valley : It’s Part of a Project to Create Historical and Resource Profiles of the National Parks


Shirley Harding stood outside the remains of the old Harmony Borax Works holding a decorated teapot dug up from the nearby 1880s Chinese labor camp.

It is one of 100,000 museum objects now carefully catalogued in a computer at the monument office, said Harding, the curator.

Over her desk hangs a 1968 Jean Gilbransen painting of Chinese laborers shoveling borax from the floor of Death Valley onto sleds and pushcarts to be transported to the Harmony Borax Works, which operated from 1883 to 1888 near Furnace Creek, in the heart of the National Monument area.

While the painting offers a glimpse of one aspect of the area’s past, Harding and other National Park Service workers are hoping to create a more complete picture of the history of all park service lands.


At Death Valley and in each of the 357 other National Park Service units nationwide, a massive effort is under way to catalogue and properly care for objects--and natural resources--found in the national parklands.

“Nothing approaching this scope has occurred anywhere before in the museum field,” said Harding, adding that the park service’s collection of “curatorial objects” may well rival that of the Smithsonian.

Each national park unit is responsible for putting its data into the Automated National Catalogue System, thereby providing an awesome source of information for researchers.

Ann Hitchcock was hired as National Park Service chief curator in 1980 to lead a centralized effort to bring museum collections of the parks up to professional standards. Congress began funding the project four years ago. This year’s appropriation was $4.1 million.


“When we started, we had records of about 3 million objects,” said Hitchcock, who believes the undertaking will cost about $57 million to complete. “We estimate by the time we finally finish, hopefully by the year 2000, we will have 25 million items preserved properly and recorded in the data bank.”

Everything is going into the computer, all natural resources, geology, plant, animal, entomology and paleontology collections, as well as historical records and objects.

“The ultimate goal is accountability, preservation, interpretation of collections, making the information available to the public for enjoyment and educational purposes,” Hitchcock said. “Unlike most major museums, our collections are site-specific. We are not interested in materials that do not relate to a specific National Park site.

“In the future when researchers ask, for example, where are all the National Park Service objects that have any connection with Abraham Lincoln, we will be able to query the whole system instantaneously.”


Death Valley, like most park service units, has never had a computerized inventory of its collections. There are some card files but most of its museum material had never been catalogued.

“We have things sitting in cardboard boxes, hidden in corners, underneath buildings, sitting out in the open. We’ve uncovered things we didn’t know we had,” Harding said.

For the past three years, Death Valley has employed a dozen museum technicians working full time on inventory and cataloguing.

There were four distinct prehistoric cultures in Death Valley, the oldest dating back 8,000 years. There are hunting blinds that early inhabitants hid behind centuries ago, shooting arrows at bighorn sheep and other animals. As recently as the 1930s, Panamint-Shoshone Indians were living in wickiups--brush shelters--here.


Nineteenth- and early 20th-Century equipment and tools left by miners are scattered throughout the monument. Huge wooden wagons that were loaded with borax and pulled by 20-mule teams to the nearest railhead at Mojave in the 1880s are on display at the Harmony Borax Works.

All will be recorded in the park system’s database.

From the time Death Valley became a National Monument in 1933 until World War II, it was run by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC built roads, cleared springs, manned checking stations and ran the telephone exchange. More than 4,000 CCC men were stationed there throughout those years and CCC material is an important part of the collection.

Museum technician Karen Duggan showed a large collection of fossil footprints of prehistoric camels, horses, mammoths, elk and other animals.


“We now have on the computer references to such things as the head of a titanothere (an ancient animal resembling a rhinoceros) found here in 1933, the first record of that animal discovered west of the Rockies,” said Duggan, adding that there also are computer entries on mastodon fossils and crustaceans from ancient seas.