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An embarrassment of riches: UK museums struggle with archaeological archives

Created on Wednesday, 11 March 2015 14:21
Last Updated on Sunday, 15 March 2015 12:57


By Emily Sharpe

Museum professionals and archaeologists met in London today to discuss how to tackle the growing issue of what to do with archaeological archives in the UK as institutions rapidly run out of space to store them. In fact, many museums have stopped acquiring these types of collections, even though excavations continue to be big business.

“We have archival material in museums that are becoming increasingly inaccessible because of the lack of specialist archaeology curators and we have museums that are ceasing to collect this material which has created a backlog that has nowhere to go,” said Duncan Brown, the head of archaeological archives at English Heritage, who was one of the speakers at the Museums Association’s conference “Dig It! Museums and Archaeology”, held at the British Museum on Friday. A 2012 report on the subject, by the consultant Rachel Edwards for the Society for Museum Archaeologists and English Heritage, stated that there are more than 9,000 un-depositable archives in the UK.

Land developers spend around £200m each year on archaeological excavations, according to the Cambridgeshire county archaeologist Quinton Carroll. Roy Stephenson, the head of archaeological collections and archives at the Museum of London, warned that if this material remains inaccessible to the public, its value is going to be questioned. “We have to demonstrate the public benefit [of these collections].”

Some have suggested that the solution to the museum storage issue is simply to collect less. But Stephenson pointed out that developers are going to question why they are spending millions to properly excavate something that is just going to be thrown away. “There has to be a demonstrable research process in retention rather than in dispersal, and the emphasis should be on retention,” he said. “We should focus on what to select to keep,” Brown said, adding that economics and available storage space should not be used as the criteria for what archival material is kept. “It takes about a generation for scholars to reassess an archive. If we make the wrong decisions now, the next generation will feel it. It won’t be felt in my time, but I’ll probably get the blame anyway.”

The question of what to do with the excess materials was not fully answered, although when a woman in the audience asked if museums should sell unwanted pieces in their bookshops, the panel was unanimous in saying no. Stephenson added that at one point, the Museum of London offered pot shards encased in acrylic in the gift shop, but the items weren’t a big seller—he still has most of them in his office.

The conference was organized in association with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Council for British Archaeology.


Courtesy: The Art Newspaper