The conversation

Gail Boyle; Quinton Carroll, Issue 119/01, 01.01.2019
Should the sector change its view on the rationalisation of archaeological collections?
Dear Quinton:

The Society for Museum Archaeology has published guidance on the rationalisation of museum archaeological collections. My view is that it may largely be a problem for museums that have been collecting over long periods of time, and that the processes being put in place to govern the compilation and deposition of modern archives will hopefully negate the need to pursue it in the future.

Best wishes, Gail

Dear Gail:

The rationalisation of collections is a matter for a museum and its curators, but there is a question over this being applied to planning-derived projects, where the objective is creating a publicly accessible archive of excavations. By rationalising such material, is a museum taking into account whether it is compromising this objective?

What level of understanding of an archive is necessary to be able to safely rationalise it, and is it realistic to go through this process? Post-excavation analysis is always improving. Processes being thought through should reduce the need to rationalise post-deposition, as that decision should have been made at the archive creation stage.

Best wishes, Quinton   

Dear Quinton:

The quality and size of archives produced before standards were applied to their compilation presents a challenge, but studies have found variable quality in those produced relatively recently. Curators shouldn’t attempt to rationalise archives to such an extent that original research questions cannot be reinvestigated.

These exercises require access to archaeological expertise. But this may be in short supply and costly. As the studies also showed that rationalisation is unlikely to release much storage space, what alternatives might museums explore?

Best wishes, Gail  

Dear Gail:

We need to challenge the presumption that a museum should store archive material in its stores; it’s not necessary. Would you rather spend money on improving your public areas and displays to provide more benefit to users, or build shelves to put boxes on? We need a mechanism where a museum can be confident that material is being properly curated and is accessible to the public.

A great advantage of an archive arising from planning-based fieldwork is that the receiving body can influence its creation; it can obtain material that suits its purposes and fulfils its objective of a publicly accessible record of excavation, but it doesn’t have to keep the material on “instant access”. In Cambridgeshire, a remote store holds most of our material. Almost 10% of our archive collection has been accessed by museums, researchers and the public in the past 18 months.

Best wishes, Quinton

Dear Quinton:

That would be a challenge. But it also somewhat assumes that stores and their archives are not an integral part of the public museum offer. Planning policy requires archives to be deposited “with a local museum or other public depository”. But it doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all solution.

Best wishes, Gail

Dear Gail:

I’m suggesting we have an alternative that allows museums to get the benefit of archives without the storage commitment. Many museums already operate remote stores. It’s just that ours is operated by a third party and we work closely with the depositors to facilitate the curation. But shouldn’t we be discussing helping museums see the benefit of archives in order to justify the use of space and resources required to curate them?

We looked at rationalisation but decided the return wasn’t worth the investment, so our efforts were focused on getting the cataloguing and packing to a point that could support using a remote store. The only rationalisation we undertook involved repacking boxes and maximising use of space, and did not involve any removal of material from the archive. We also concentrated on developing processes to encourage decision-making around archive content before it is deposited, to try to alleviate future pressures.

Best wishes, Quinton

Gail Boyle is the senior curator (archaeology and world cultures) at Bristol Culture, and the chair of the Society for Museum Archaeology

Quinton Carroll is the historic environment team manager at Cambridgeshire County Council

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