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Minister responds on archaeological storage and access problems

On Monday 8th October Rescue was represented, along with Philip Wise, chair of the
Archaeological Archives Forum and Sue Davies, director of Wessex Archaeology, at a meeting
between Robert Key, MP for Salisbury and James Purnell MP, Secretary of State for Culture Media
& Sport.
Robert Key (who is also a trustee of Wessex Archaeology) had asked questions of a former
minister, David Lammy, about the problems of archaeological archives in temporary storage because
no museum could or would take them (as highlighted by Rescue, for example see RN 99 on Saffron
Walden) but had received no relevant response and had not received a reply to a letter in May
outlining the problem.
The meeting was positive in tone, with a recognition that it was not fulfilling the implicit
requirements of PPG 16 for thousands of boxes to remain in temporary stores in arbitrary places
around the country (Rescue cited the case of Northamptonshire, whose recent archaeological
archives are currently housed in Edinburgh, London, Cirencester, and Lincolnshire – rather a long
way for a local researcher to travel). The need for joined up thinking between government
departments (DCMS and DCLG over PPG’s) and agencies (English Heritage and Museums,
Libraries, Archives) was raised, as was the weak position of local authority museums and the
importance of the archive as a key part of researching and disseminating new ideas by and for all
those interested in the past. The Secretary of State had been well-briefed on the problem (a copy of
Rescue’s pre-meeting submission is reproduced below) and had prepared his reply to Robert Key’s
letter which will be published in a future edition of RESCUE NEWS. Hopefully recognition of the
problem at this level will mean we now have a chance to make some progress.

Archaeological archives in the UK


RESCUE – The British Archaeological Trust
Summary
Rescue, the British Archaeological Trust, has a membership which encompasses a wide range of
professional and voluntary archaeologists as well as members of the public interested in promoting
the interests of archaeology in Britain.

We have been collecting data and expressing our concern about the decline in local authority
heritage services in recent years, particularly as there has never been adequate provision for the
care and active curation of archaeological archives which are the essential end product of fieldwork
and the basis for future interpretation and understanding of our past.

We believe that there needs to be:


• greater clarity about the financial responsibility for archives in the long term,
• a recognition of the value of the material for the research, interpretation and illustration of our
past in the context of the present,
• investment in regional or county based centres for storage and access to the wealth of new
data which is being excavated in response to strong development pressures

Key principles

• Archaeological archives are the principal outcome of all types of archaeological


investigation. They represent the accumulated knowledge derived from excavation, survey
and other kinds of archaeological research.

• Archaeological archives consist of not only artefacts and environmental samples but also
written, drawn, photographic and digital data which together constitute the sum total of our
knowledge about individual archaeological sites, buildings, landscapes etc.
• Archaeological archives are essential if we are to be able to revisit and reinterpret the results
of earlier investigations in the light of new knowledge and new understandings. They require
appropriate standards of care and curation if they are to survive into the future.

• The creation of archives is at the heart of the principles enshrined in Planning Policy
Guidance note 16 which emphasise preservation by record in those cases where the
physical preservation of a site is not possible.

The problem

• Recent years have seen an increase in the redevelopment of ‘brown field’ sites in towns and
cities throughout the country. By their very nature, almost all such sites encompass
archaeological features of greater or lesser complexity and importance. The archaeological
work required to prepare these sites for redevelopment is generating archives of significant
size and importance which require appropriate conditions for their care and curation;

• The rate of development is increasing throughout the country, but most notably in the
Midlands and the south-east and as a result the volume of archival material being
accumulated by archaeological units is rising. There is no corresponding increase in
museum resources to cope with the rising demand for archival storage and curation and an
actual decrease in such resources in many areas such as Northamptonshire;

• While PPG 15 and 16 ensure that archaeological recording takes place in advance of
development and in collaboration with the developers, there is no effective mechanism for
including the real cost of archive storage and curation. Thus developers will fund the
excavation and reporting of a site but there are no means for ensuring the integrity of the
archive in the long term or of facilitating the work of researchers whose input is vital in
interpreting the excavation records to present comprehensible and accessible information to
the public;

• The success of local heritage initiatives funded by the National Lottery has increased the
size and significance of archives generated by local amateur and voluntary groups. These
also need housing and long term curation and this is rarely included in the funding packages
supporting these community groups;

• Museums throughout Britain are struggling to accommodate archaeological archives.


RESCUE makes no criticism of staff who, in all the cases we know of, are endeavouring to
do the best in an increasingly difficult situation. The reduction in core funding to local
authority heritage services and museums, the cuts to staffing levels and the many and
diverse calls on the time of remaining staff members are all combining to place archives in
an increasingly vulnerable position. In comparison to ‘front of house’ services (education,
new displays, outreach work etc) archives are a neglected area and have fallen behind
developments elsewhere in the museum sector. As staff numbers fall so the opportunity for
staff to undertake research on specific archives or collections has been significantly reduced.
Research facilities available to outside researchers have not kept pace with the growth in
archives and have in some cases been absorbed by the need for simple storage space.
Cuts to conservation staff (documented by ICON-AG) have reduced the monitoring of
archives and the possibility of basic conservation work on the material constituting the
archives.

Case studies

Saffron Walden Museum


Writing in Rescue News 99 (Summer 2006), Carolyn Wingfield, curator of Saffron Walden
Museum outlined the problem facing a typical local museum in an area of rapid economic
development (which includes Stanstead Airport). Her analysis of the situation focuses on the lack of
resources available to such museums to meet the capital costs inherent in expanding provision for
archaeological archives. Initiatives such as Renaissance in the Regions, while welcome in
themselves are ‘not designed to offer local museums anything towards the capital cost of improving
inadequate buildings, stabilising dwindling revenue budgets or consolidating in-house levels of
permanent staffing and expertise’.
Alternative sources of funding are now either inadequate to the purpose or are aligned with
DCMS priorities (in the case of the Wolfson Foundation for example) and so are unavailable to meet
the costs of archiving and storage. While the remit of the Heritage Lottery Fund may under certain
circumstances allow grants to be for resource centres and similar facilities which might include
archival facilities, the problem of generating matching funding in areas such as north-west Essex
are so great as to make this an all but unattainable goal.

Northamptonshire
A researcher suggests that about 15 different units have carried out commercial fieldwork in
Northamptonshire in the last decade. Because there is no county store for archaeological archives
the material is currently scattered between Edinburgh, London, Cirencester, and Lincolnshire, while
access to older archives held in district museums such as Northampton has become almost
impossible.

Commercial archaeological Units and Trusts


Where museum facilities are inadequate to the purpose, the responsibility for curating
archives falls on the shoulders of the commercial archaeological units and trusts who carry out
archaeological fieldwork. This is entirely beyond the remit of companies working in an under-funded
area of the development industry whose primary role is to carry out archaeological investigations
quickly and efficiently in order to fulfil the requirements of developers according to briefs issued by
local archaeological curators. RESCUE is unwilling to single out individual companies in this area in
view of the widespread nature of the problem but the experience of our members is that few if any
have facilities which are adequate to the task of taking over the traditional role of museums in
curating archives in the long term. Units are responsible for preparing and delivering archives in a
form in which they can be accepted by museums under normal accession rules. They have no
resources adequate for the maintenance of archives and, generally speaking, lack staff with the
required areas of expertise to allow them to do this. By default, however, they are holding more and
more material in those situations in which there are no adequate museum facilities to receive them.
This is a situation which is unsustainable even in the short term.

The solution
On the basis of our contacts with museum professionals and archaeologists working in the
commercial sector (both groups represented in RESCUE’s membership), RESCUE believes that
urgent action is necessary to ensure the long term survival of archaeological archives in a form in
which they can contribute to ongoing research and to the presentation of the results of that research
to the wider public through new and innovative exhibitions, outreach work and educational
initiatives.

• An acknowledgement by the DCMS that museum archives are central to the work of the
museum sector and that they should lie at the core of any medium or long term planning
undertaken by museums;

• Recognition by the DCMS and local authorities that archaeological archives are a vital and
necessary resource for our understanding of our shared past and heritage and that to fulfil
this purpose they must be adequately funded in order to ensure their physical survival (at the
least) and creative use (at best);

• Clarification of the scope and extent of the responsibilities to be borne by the various parties
involved in archaeological investigations (developers, local authorities, the museum sector
and central government) in respect of archaeological archives;
• Incorporation of provision for archive storage and curation in all future Lottery funded
museum and gallery extensions, and new building;

• Restoration of core funding from local authorities to ensure that facilities in museums do not
decline any further (minimum requirement) and are actually improved and renewed to allow
for the expansion in facilities in the face of an increasing demand;

• Active investigation of the possibilities for the creation of regional or county based archival
facilities to receive and curate archives from new archaeological investigations (this might
involve the expansion for regional hubs, the creation of new facilities like the LAARC in
London or the creative reuse of otherwise redundant facilities such as Cold War sites as
archival centres);

• Restatement of the necessity of research as a core function of museums and the


acknowledgement of this in staffing levels and areas of staff expertise and experience;

• Better liaison between commercial archaeological units, amateur and voluntary groups,
museums and universities to ensure that the research potential of our archives is recognised
by university departments in order that maximum use is made of archives to generate new
data and new interpretations to feed into new exhibitions and outreach;

• Closer liaison between museums, commercial archaeological units and finds specialists
working in the commercial sphere to ensure that the potential value of individual archives
and groups of archives (e.g. from the same locality) are recognised, investigated and
researched in ways that will generate fresh material for use by museums, the education
sector and voluntary groups investigating the pasts of their local communities.