Museums must be more than repositories of Treasure

Sarah Philp, Issue 114/09, p15, 01.09.2014
It is no exaggeration to say that the introduction of the Treasure Act in 1996 and the creation of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) have had a transformative effect on how the sector interacts with what is designated as ‘treasure’ and our related archaeological collections.

Not only the number of objects being recorded and acquired, but the interest generated through the publicity that accompanies the discovery of ‘buried treasure’ means we have more opportunities to engage audiences with an embarrassment of riches – objects that can connect visual and material culture, domesticity and trade, war and peace, kings and the common man.

In practice, however, the success of the Treasure Act and PAS has meant that the number of Treasure acquisition cases supported by the Art Fund has increased from fewer than one grant a year before 1997 to almost 10 every year since.

Finds are often acquired by a museum close to where the objects were discovered, and they might not always have the resources to make the most of them.

But the Art Fund’s job is to support new acquisitions so that they can be seen and enjoyed. We designed Treasure Plus to bridge the gap between acquisition and audience, and help museums across the UK do more than act merely as an archaeological repository.

Treasure Plus, a partnership between us and the Headley Trust, has supported 26 projects in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales with grants of up to £10,000. We have awarded more than £150,000, but the 64 applications we received asked for nearly £500,000 in total.

We are clearly on to something – the funding has gone a long way to help highlight the extraordinary objects buried deep in the ground or deep in museum stores and to connect us with our ancestors.

Projects have ranged from training staff and volunteers to conserve a hoard in full view of visitors at Worcester City Art Gallery and Museum, to new secure cases that have allowed Athelstan Museum to display medieval gold coins for the first time.

Treasure Plus also shines a spotlight on the needs of Treasure and archaeology collections. The more Treasure found (there were 990 cases in 2012, compared with 205 in the scheme’s first year), the better our archaeological heritage is understood.

But it makes it increasingly important to support the needs of the museums that acquire these objects, and want to do more with them.

We will soon be announcing the application deadline for a third round of dedicated funding. We will also be hosting a symposium which, as well as featuring case studies and ideas about what to do with Treasure, will address the question of how as a sector we continue to find the support, and funding, to do it.

Sarah Philp is head of programmes at the Art Fund