Museums need national support to tackle archaeological storage issue - Museums Association

Museums need national support to tackle archaeological storage issue

Institutions facing a growing problem, says Kat Baxter
Archaeology Storage
Kat Baxter
Developer-led archaeology has resulted in an increase in the number of artefacts needing to be stored
Developer-led archaeology has resulted in an increase in the number of artefacts needing to be stored
Kat Baxter
Vice-chair of the Society for Museum Archaeology and a curator of archaeology at Leeds Museums and Galleries

Many museums in the UK face a growing problem – the fact that they have had little control over the quantity and extent of the projects that produce archaeological archives.

Development-led archaeology has seen a significant upturn in the rate of production. It has been taken for granted that “the local museum” would accept whatever projects deliver, including documentary records, drawings, photographs, artefacts, and industrial and environmental remains. Some excavations can fill hundreds of boxes. But a rising number of museums are struggling to accommodate this material within collections that can also include art, local history and natural science.

Three surveys by the Society for Museum Archaeology (SMA), with support from Historic England, between 2016 and 2018 concluded that within 10 years, 77 of the 119 museums collecting archaeological archives will have to cease because their stores will be full.

Most had a five-year deadline that has now arrived – but we still await full recognition of the problem, let alone a solution. Institutions such as the Winsford salt-mine facility use commercial storage, while others, including the Archaeological Resource Centre in Northamptonshire, are planning new stores. But for most, including areas where collecting has stopped, these options are not available and national leadership is needed.

The Society for Museum Archaeology – a Subject Specialist Network – is a board member for the Future for Archaeological Archives Programme (FAAP). This is an initiative led by Historic England in response to the 2017 Mendoza Review into museums in England. The programme features an action plan that includes seeking a solution to the storage issue.


Recent publicity has focused on plans to develop a national store. Less well publicised is the FAAP proposal to create a National Collection of Archaeological Archives. It is an opportunity for affiliated partners to sign up to common collecting standards, while making their collections widely accessible through a national digital datastore. There would be no obligation to deposit at the store, which would exist to provide capacity where needed.

For the SMA, a national collection is the real benefit of the FAAP plans. There is recognition that archaeological collections have national significance which, when brought together, comprise a resource with limitless potential. If there was support for museums to work in unison to create online catalogues, which future archaeological archives were complied to feed into, there would be an upturn in public and political understanding and appreciation of the value of our excavated heritage.

This would lead to more people wanting to access museum collections – both on display and in store. At present, material that cannot be transferred to a museum or other repository remains with those who recovered it, benefiting no one.

Discussions in the media around the archaeological storage issue have not always been helpful. Headlines of the “treasures gathering dust on shelves” and “99% of museum objects never go on display” variety seem to wilfully misunderstand the purpose and importance of museums. Collections are not hoards – they are an investment in future learning and engagement, at any level and for all people.

The SMA recently produced new standards for the curation of archaeological collections and, in parallel, has worked with Historic England and others to support methodologies for ensuring that what is submitted as an archaeological archive is worthy of preservation, having the potential for further study and engagement. Sometimes it takes more than a generation for that potential to be realised, which is why it is so important to recognise and support the work that archaeologists do in the field and all the way to the museum.

Solving the storage problem is the first step; more exciting challenges lie ahead.

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