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Archaeology crisis to be investigated

Simon Stephens, 26.07.2016
Society for Museum Archaeology survey to map impact of budget cuts
A crisis in the archaeological sector caused by budget cuts, loss of staff and lack of storage is to be investigated by the Society for Museum Archaeology (SMA).

The SMA has secured £23,000 from Historic England to run a three-year project to survey museums holding archaeology collections to assess the impact of austerity on the sector and to inform discussions about the future of archaeological provision in England.

“I have been receiving unprecedented numbers of requests for letters in support of individuals and museum services that are on the brink of closure due to cuts in funding but conversely very few where posts have been added,” said Gail Boyle, the chairwoman of the SMA and the senior curator of archaeology at Bristol Museums.

“This makes our survey all the more important because we need to get an accurate picture of the potential impact that these losses have on public access to and engagement with archaeological collections.

“We believe that where staff numbers are reduced as a result of budget cuts there is always the potential for major impact – there are fewer members of staff to deal with enquiries about collections, develop and deliver exhibitions with collections and run events based on collections, since those who do remain are spread more thinly or simply do not have the expertise to unlock their potential for teaching, learning and enjoyment.

“Archaeology is not alone in requiring people employed in museums who are passionate and knowledgeable about their particular collections and capable of communicating this to a wide range of people.”

The first SMA report will be completed by November 2016 and the survey will be repeated in 2017 and 2018.

An SMA statement said that there has never been greater public interest in archaeology, which “offers unique and positive engagement opportunities, bringing communities together and providing innovative ways to understand our place in time”.

A 2012 SMA report outlined the growing crisis facing the archaeological sector, with 9,000 un-deposited archives in England alone.

The SMA said an increasing number of museums are no longer collecting archaeological archives from commercial, community and research projects, mainly due to pressure on storage space.

Possible solutions could include the establishment of archaeological resource centres, regional storage facilities shared between different institutions, and/or more rigorous selection strategies of archaeological material.

The SMA is a subject specialist network that promotes museum involvement in archaeology and works to encourage a great public understanding of the subject.

It is a supporter of the Festival of Archaeology, which is coordinated by the Council for British Archaeology and runs from 16-31 July.

Gail Boyle will be speaking at the Museums Association Conference and Exhibition 2016 in Glasgow at the session Subject Specialist Networks: What Next?