the Neolithic House at Yarnbury, N Yorks. Picture: Alexander Gibson

Museums criticised for charging researchers for access

Rebecca Atkinson, 18.03.2015
Prehistoric Society produces statement in response to increasing number of cases
Charging researchers for access to museum collections is “ethically wrong”, according to a statement by the Prehistoric Society.

The statement, which can be downloaded on the society’s website, claims that such charges risk “atrophying the growth of artefact studies” and act against the interests of the museums, which benefit from research into their collections, especially in cases where curators are not specialists themselves.

Alexander Gibson, a reader in British prehistory at the University of Bradford and the president of the Prehistoric Society, said it decided to produce the statement after it asked about charges using social media and received a “flood of responses” – including one from a student who said she changed research topics because she couldn’t afford the daily charges.

“This is our public heritage, often discovered and preserved using public money,” Gibson said. “We realise the financial constraints that museums are facing, and while we understand the need for commercial revenue, this should come from merchandise and so on, not from the bona fide research of the collection, often by students who may be least able to afford the charges.”

The council said in the statement that the only exception to a principle of non-charging for research would be large projects with major funding, which might be a burden on museums. But it added that charges were otherwise “ethically wrong in relation to the role of museums in caring for collections that belong to the public and we also believe it to be counterproductive in the longer term”.

The statement also claimed that charges for research do not comply with the Museums Association’s (MA) code of ethics, which states that museums should make collections more accessible and develop mechanisms that encourage people to research collections.

Alistair Brown, the policy officer at the MA, said: “We recognise that charging researchers for access is a difficult issue. No museum will take the decision to impose charges lightly, and it is an indication of the difficult financial position of museums across the UK that a small number have taken this step.

“While the code of ethics does not explicitly discuss charging for access to collections, it does have a presumption towards public access. The ethics committee will be examining this issue in greater detail as we draft a new code of ethics this year.”


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Robert Symmons
MA Member
Curator, Fishbourne Roman Palace
29.04.2015, 11:10
We do not charge researchers at our (independent)museum, but if we did I hope it would not be for access to the collections, but for access to my time and collections knowledge. I don't think this would be unethical.

(That's my opinion and not that of my employer!)
David Bertie
MA Member
26.03.2015, 10:02
The blatant cynicism displayed by Anonymous is deeply disturbing and I am not surprised that s/he is not prepared to give her/his name. I sincerely hope that the new Code of Ethics comes down very firmly on the side of providing free access to researchers -- researchers are, after all, the very people on whom curators depend for obtaining information about those parts of the collection about which they know little themselves or have insufficient time for their own research work.

Charging researchers for access to collections is not just happening in museums. A few years ago I required access to archival material held by Edinburgh University -- it was the only experience I have ever had of being charged a fee by a university for access to archives.
MA Member
25.03.2015, 22:27
We shouldn't be surprised if sadly some museums are charging researchers, when universities are charging students £9,000 a year to have access to a library, some online journals, a few seminars, the pleasure of attending a series of over-used lectures with hundreds of others all crammed together and a naff ceremony at the end of their third year. If universities are asking their students to undertake costly research, then they should provide financial assistance or better still come to long term arrangements with hard-pressed museums (a partnership!!) to ensure the costs involved are covered.

They are plenty of other issues to be considered as well before blaming museums, which are being asked to do more with less. Archaeologists dig up the objects, eventually get round to writing reports (in theory anyway) which are occasionally made accessible to the public (though you usually need an archaeology degree, a lot of patience to read through the dry text they habitually produce and to be a subscriber to some obscure journal.) and then the objects are handed over to museums to care for and make accessible to visitors and researchers (unless the diggers hoard them away themselves, claiming for years if not decades that they need them on site.) However, there doesn't appear to be much thought gone into how much it costs museums to look after these collections and make them accessible once they leave the care of the archaeologists. These costs should be built into the initial dig costs and the recipient museum should be involved from the start. The idea that selling merchandise is going to cover the museum's curatorial costs is laughable. Back on planet earth, museum managers have to bills to pay and selling rubbers, pencil sharpeners and mousemats is not enough!! It is just as counter-productive in the longer term if museums are not managed in a financially stable way. Perhaps it would be best if all archaeological services were encouraged to build ongoing partnerships with local museums - then we would have a chance of a sustainable approach with the added bonus of more sharing of information with the public as well. In short, no digging up the past until you have thought about the present and the future first!!
19.03.2015, 13:28
Tim has made an important point. I do not feel research access charges work for museums ethically given we are about encouraging access, learning and research/discovery. I would hate to see a situation where researchers and students cannot access material to study because of economic barriers - it goes completely against the ethos of museums. However, when a commercial archaeology company utilises museum archives and collections to produce a report that they are providing commercially (at the cost of a developer), the museum should be able to benefit from charging a fee, particularly if staff time is involved, given they are also usually the repository who will have to store any resultant finds and archives long term - often at their own cost if they do not charge a deposition fee. Given the storage crisis when it comes to archaeological archives, a means by which museums can work with archaeology units to gain financial support from developers (who are part of a multi-million pound UK industry) will only help resolve the issue of historic archives in need of assessment, repacking, deposition etc. and to support the long term and sustainable care of archives deposited now and in the future.
Katie Davenport-Mackey
Liaison Officer, Lithoscapes Archaeological Research Foundation
18.03.2015, 18:26
I welcome the statement from the Prehistoric Society on access to museum collections and think it is particularly timely given the severe financial crisis facing many museums in the UK.
Tim Schadla-Hall
MA Member
Reader in Public Archaeology, University College London
18.03.2015, 16:57
Alex is quite right- and I fully support the statement- HOWEVER it is important to distinguish between students and others doing bona fide research and commercial archaeology interests- who should be charged