Society for Museum Archaeology provides rationalisation guidance

New publication highlights challenges of storing archaeological collections
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Simon Stephens
Rationalisation of archaeological collections is unlikely to release large amounts of storage space, according to new guidance from the Society for Museum Archaeology (SMA).

The SMA has been working with Historic England to highlight the pressures that museums with archaeological collections are facing in terms of diminishing storage space, staff reductions and loss of expertise.

The guidance on rationalisation marks the final stage of this collaborative project that has also involved five institutions responsible for the collection and care of archaeological archives: Museum of London; Museums Worcestershire; Stroud Museum; Suffolk County Council; and Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery.

Rationalisation (applying selection strategies to accessioned archaeological project archives with the aim of de-selecting parts of the collection) has been suggested as a way to alleviate the archaeological archive storage problem.

But an SMA statement to accompany its guidance said: “All five participating institutions conclusively demonstrated that rationalisation is not a cost-effective way to increase storage capacity. The costs and resources required to undertake rationalisation and disposal to its conclusion were high, while the amount of space it released was relatively small.

“Perhaps it is time for the sector to change its view of rationalisation as not so much a solution to archaeology’s storage crisis but an opportunity to revisit the significance of our collections so they can be used in the most effective way possible.”

The publication of the SMA’s Guidance for the Rationalisation of Museum Archaeology Collections is intended to provide museum professionals practical advice and support.

“SMA is grateful to Historic England for enabling this piece of work to be undertaken so as to enable all those responsible for the care of archaeological collections to embark on a rationalisation project with their eyes wide open to both the challenges and benefits such an endeavour can bring,” SMA chair Gail Boyle said.

The SMA is the subject specialist network for British Archaeology in the UK. It promotes museum involvement in archaeology and encourages greater public understanding of archaeology. Historic England (formerly known as English Heritage), is the public body that champions and protects England’s historic places.

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