An excavation by Museum of London Archaeology

Museum archaeology in England faces storage crisis

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 08.03.2017
Majority of museums say they will run out of space within five years
The future of archaeological collecting in England is at risk, with a majority of museums that currently accept archaeological material estimating that they will run out of space within five years.

A survey commissioned by Historic England and undertaken by the Society of Museum Archaeologists (SMA) has found that 71% of its 200 respondents had 20 cubic metres or less of storage capacity remaining for archaeological deposits, and 63.5% estimated that they would run out of space within five years or less.

Funding cuts and the loss of staff were contributing to the crisis, according to the survey, which said that “real, on-the-ground reductions in resource and capacity” were having a knock-on impact on archaeological collecting.

It found that 22.5% of museums that previously collected archaeological archives have stopped collecting, a proportion that rises to 60% among local authority museums. The majority of those (91.4%) cited lack of space as the main reason they had stopped collecting, followed by a shortage of expertise and staff resource (51.4%).

One respondent to the survey wrote: “It is important that the position of all museums, especially small museums, is recognised: lack of space, expertise and communications with archaeology community. This is a crisis.”

The SMA said it had received “unprecedented numbers of requests for support from museums and museum professionals concerning service and staff cuts”.

The association’s chair Gail Boyle told Museums Journal that the survey should act as a “massive wake-up call” for the sector to look again at where archaeological material should be stored.

“We haven’t got 10 years to sort the problem out, we’re really up against it,” she said.

Boyle warned that a failure to do so risked the loss of valuable archaeological data; there were 9,000 undepositable archives held in commercial stores in 2012 and that number is likely to have risen since then, she said. “Think of all the knowledge locked inside them,” Boyle added.  

She said that the upcoming HS2 rail project, which is expected to generate the biggest ever deposit of archaeological material, would represent both a challenge and an opportunity to the museum sector rethink archaeological collecting.

“Big infrastructure projects like this do have the capacity to set the trend,” she said.    

The survey, which took place in November 2016, is the first of three annual reports that the SMA is planning to produce on museums collecting archaeology.


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Maurice Davies
Head of Collections, Royal Academy of Arts
24.03.2017, 09:32
It's sad reading these comments. As Anooshka Rawden says, this has been a problem for decades, and museum archaeologists have been talking about it for decades. Ages ago I spoke at a Soc of Mus Archaeologists conference and said that it was *their* responsibility to sort out the problem, if they are proper professionals. Many people in the room got very cross with me for saying that, but no one else is going to take the lead. So, SMA, let's see an action plan followed rapidly bu some action. (Presses send and waits for the complaints...)
benno Van Tilburg
Location Manager/Head Department Ship Archaeology, Lelystad/Amersfoort the Netherlands
20.03.2017, 09:24
As former Head Department Ship Archaeology I would add to this discussion that its time again in Britain as in the Netherlands too to look into the policy of rejection and adoption of archeaological finds. You can't put everything in depots anymore. The costs are to high. So think again and make a protocol what you can handle in your stores. But look also to the past and start to look in your depots what you can get rid of it. What is the use of storing things for decades if no one is to look after it on a scientific base.

And off course look for cooperation and storing things together under the flag of Collection Britain and Collection Netherlands.

Benno van Tilburg
Charlotte Pratley
Director, Culture Syndicates CIC
13.03.2017, 16:33
We work particularly with small local authority museums, and we have found that this has been a real issue for them. They are already quite small, and do not have the knowledge and expertise to understand what should and should not be kept from an archaeological excavation, therefore leaving them with masses and masses of material that can not be displayed and is no longer research-able.

There needs to be more communication between archaeological digs and the museums that they will be depositing their archive with, to ensure that only the key streamlined material is deposited, as Anooshka commented below.

In the meantime, collections reviews and disposal seems to be the first step to helping, as we have done with a number of sites, and the next step being more guidance for museums regarding accepting archaeological deposits.

I explored this issue further in our blog:

Helen Simmons
Trainee Project Manager, Culture Syndicates CIC
Jean Hilgersom
Museum Consultant, ToornendPartners
13.03.2017, 08:47
Although it depends on the policy and type of museum, in general the collection growth is about 2% - 2,5% each year. The effect of this growth number is that, every 20 years, the volume of the storage space needs to grow with 50%. These are numbers we are using for strategic space planning for museums in several countries.

Most of the time the collection manager is going to complain when the storage room is already overloaded, at that moment you are too late, take care that this does not happen. The planning for the extension of a storage facility will take at least 3-5 years.
Maurice Davies
Head of Collections, Royal Academy of Arts
17.03.2017, 22:44
If your collection grows at 2.5% per year, in 30 years it will more than double, thanks to the wonders of compound growth. That's impossibly unsustainable and building more and more storage can't be the right approach.
Jean Hilgersom
Museum Consultant, ToornendPartners
24.03.2017, 09:01
There are more kinds of sustainability, If your collection is worthwhile, and this is museum policy, it can't be unsustainable. Collecting is very sustainable by it self.
The way to exhibit and the way to store the collection should be done in a way the energy-use is low, the efficient use of space and many other aspects, this to make the facility sustainable. Every museum is different, every collection is different, this means that the approach won't be the always the same.
10.03.2017, 17:27
The point is as you say - anyone working in the sector know these have been significant issues for a very long time. The problem has been that most of this knowledge had never been quantified, and certainly not widely. We realised that data was essential in order to target lobbying and work collaboratively to explore solutions. Without the data, it's hard to prove the extent of the problem.
10.03.2017, 17:14
I'm sorry, but for whom are the findings in this report a surprise?

I've been in the sector for over 30 years, and vividly recall long but ultimately fruitless negotiations with numerous partners, running up to & over the Millennium, and since, agonising over whether to establish centralised regional or county-based long term storage solutions, whether for excavated archaeological material awaiting deposition in museums, for the storage of bulk material, or for shared storage of museum-retained archaeology & other collections.

Unfortunately, having failed to solve the problem when it was merely acute, we now have a critical problem, massively heightened, as Anooshka says, by the loss over the last 10-15 years of so many experienced staff who had the expertise to deal with the material.

Perhaps the key difference here is that the problem is better evidenced now than it ever has been, but goodness knows who has the authority needed to take decisive action, and the will to do so.
09.03.2017, 12:46
This material is British archaeology excavated in Britain as a result of planning policy frameworks, research and volunteer excavations.

One of the other significant issues is the need for investment and support to help museums develop selection and retention strategies to ensure the material they are receiving from archaeological units is assessed prior to deposition with a museum - this will ensure archives have been refined with retention linked to ensuring the integrity of the archive while also linking to local research frameworks. There also needs to be support to ensure archives deposited previously deposited with no selection strategy are subject to collections reviews. The answer is not mass disposal - many archives from the 1980s for example are now opening up their enormous research potential thanks to scientific advances and multidisciplinary thinking between academic institutions and museums. Museums need to develop selection and retention strategies linking to Collections Development Policies to ensure archaeological archive collections are being shaped by clear collecting criteria which will empower museums to reconsider the ways in which archaeological collections can be used not only to support research but to support the wider programming and outputs museums are seeking to address and explore.

Linked to this problem however are the significant staff losses the curatorial archaeology sector in particular has suffered since the economic crisis from 2009. Significant expertise has been lost and this reduces the sector's ability to deal with the situation. There needs to be greater support and a collaborative approach to dealing with the problem.

The SMA would encourage museums to engage with the report and take part in the surveys that will be sent out later this year and in 2018 - with data we can target lobbying and look to develop solutions based on data from the ground.
Nick Booth
Head of Collections, SS Great Britain Trust
09.03.2017, 12:07
The findings of this report make for worrying reading - as Gail says above the problem is now, we can't put off dealing with it.

The survey team attempted to contact 493 museums (full list in appendix 3 of the report linked to above), and heard back from 200 of them (see appendix 4). Not a bad return rate, but we'd like to do better next time.

If your institution did not take part last time could I ask you to contact the SMA on and we will make sure to include you in the next survey - due to run over the summer this year.
John Rosenfield
Co-ordinator Scotland, BAfM
09.03.2017, 10:22
Last week I was at an ICOM Conference. There was some talk about repatriation, in future negotiations. Perhaps when we have returned all the stuff we will have more room in our museums?