Mapping the value of Archaeological Archives within museums (Samantha Paul PhD candidate University of Birmingham)

The third in our blog post ‘poster papers’ for the Who Cares Conference (Science Museum 6th November 2015) from Samantha Paul, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham.

Following graduation in the early 2000’s, and clutching my BSc in archaeology firmly in hand I joined the ranks of the commercial archaeologist on ‘the circuit’- working around the country for whoever would employ me. I spent years excavating and filling finds bags with bits of broken pottery and animal bone (if I was lucky occasionally something prettier!) safe in the knowledge that I was preserving my nations heritage for future generations. I am ashamed to say I never gave one thought to what became of all this material once I had finished with it and a report had been submitted to the client. However, as my career progressed and I moved away from the field and into the post-excavation environment I slowly became more aware of the grumblings surrounding archaeological archives coming from outside of the commercial archaeology profession.

Sam Paul 1

Since the growth of rescue archaeology in the 1960’s, which ultimately resulted in the implementation of PPG16 in 1991 and Planning Policy Statement 5 in 2010 ( the planning policy guidelines which regulate archaeology as part of the planning process), archaeological fieldwork within England has increased and so has the rate at which archaeological archives are produced. This exponential growth has led to a serious storage issue with many museums unable to accept more material into their already overcrowded stores, and contracting units unable to deposit their archives, holding large collections in poor and inaccessible conditions.

Academic papers on museum archaeology by Nick Merriman and Hedley Swain, and articles in the Museum Archaeologist from the last 20 or so years have detailed not only the storage crisis within museums nationally, but also the lack of use of archaeological archives. This has led to the assertion by some that they are not worth the space and time they take up within museum stores. The situation surrounding the storage of, and access to archaeological archives is considered to be at a tipping point where the cost of curation and storage for posterity is be balanced against value and access in the present.

While archaeological archives do receive a generous portion of the blame for the current museum storage crisis, current discourses of sustainability in museums suggest disposal as a collections management tool across all collection types. Museums need to continue collecting, but without rationalisation the situation will never resolve and standards will clearly reduce for some if not all collections. The idea that by collecting we are maintaining the past for future generations is growing, therefor museums that continue to grow while existing collections suffer are unsustainable.

Sam Paul 2

While archaeologist are shocked at the idea of selection and discard as a way forward, evidence that that all archaeological material should be kept in perpetuity has yet be demonstrated. The fact is that the value held within these archives as either public assets or museums collections is only just beginning to be addressed, and only by those museums that have begun to review their collections with the aim of meaningful rationalisation.

Sam Paul's paper 3

But how are these decisions being made and what implications do this have on the future long-term retention of archaeological material and creation of the archives in the first place? Through a series of case studies I am hoping my PhD will ascertain how archaeological archives are valued within the museum profession, and their place within the collection as a whole. I will consider whether archaeological archives should remain separate from the current discussions on sustainability within museums or of if in fact reduction through selection is the way forward. This may inform on the creation of the archive, its future potential and the value judgements points which could be applied prior to their final deposition with a museum.