‘Clock is ticking’ to find storage solutions for archaeological archives
Time is running out for museums to find sustainable storage solutions to house the ever-growing collection of archives from archaeology projects, a Historic England advisor has warned.
"The clock is ticking - we have four or five years before we really do start seeing massive problems," Barney Sloane, the national specialist services director at Historic England, said in a recent interview with the BBC.
Sloane was referring to archaeological projects in England, but museums across the UK face similar problems as archives reach record levels due to new construction works.
The lack of space is exacerbated by a fall in the number of dedicated archaeological curators, with fewer than half of museums in England now employing one, according to the Society for Museum Archaeologists.
Sloane said it would be a “massive shame” if the sector cannot find a way of housing and caring for archaeological archives, most of which come from surveys and excavations undertaken for new infrastructure and construction projects. The archives include objects such as pottery, animal bone and human remains, along with samples, drawings, photographs, and documents.
Sloane said some museums have already stopped collecting archaeological archives.
"The potential of archaeological archives is really rich," he told the BBC. "It would be a massive shame if we couldn't find a way of making sure they are protected for the future."
Heritage sector bodies, including Historic England, the Society for Museum Archaeologists and Arts Council England, are currently working on a joint programme to find a sustainable future for archaeological collections.
The Future for Archaeological Archives Programme (FAAP), which was set up in 2021 and is chaired by Sloane, is an initiative of linked actions and projects that hopes to find a consistent, sustainable approach to the creation, compilation, transfer and curation of archaeological archives.
The programme is reportedly in talks with the UK government about the possibility of creating a national repository to address the problem in the long term.
Other options mooted include the use of subterranean storage facilities, such as DeepStore, a storage service in a former salt mine used by Cambridgeshire County Council to house its archaeological archives.
“We are working with various partners across the archaeological and museums sectors on the Future for Archaeological Archives Programme, which has been set up to find a sustainable future for archaeological collections recovered as part of excavations in England,” Sloane told Museums Journal.
“This programme aims to help resolve the increasingly urgent issue of storing nationally significant archaeological collections in the context of diminishing space available in museums, and to provide guidance on selection of artefacts so that we keep only what is important for future research and public access.”
We desperately need a fund which would allow museums to commission experts to review old archives and apply contemporary selection processes retrospectively. This could lead to 1/10th of the existing material being retrained. And so much better if the sites have not been published and can have completed reports at the same time.