British Archaeology, no 12, March 1996: Comment

Here comes a national museums crisis

The Museum of London is not the only museum in trouble, writes Hedley Swain

The Museum of London's announcement of its inability to continue taking archaeological ar- chives is likely to prove only the tip of an iceberg. Throughout the country, numer-ous museums are straining under the weight of archaeological material - and as each month goes by, more and more excavation archives are being created, all needing somewhere to be stored.

Let there be no doubt about this, here is a national crisis in the making. Before long, the ever-expanding body of excavated ar-tefacts that tell Britain's story, and which constitute a precious national heritage, may have nowhere to go.

The crisis was partly created by an oversight in PPG16, which failed to identify who should pay for the long-term care of finds and records. One could argue that museums have a duty to take archaeological remains from their areas, but in every other area of collecting museums choose what and how much they collect. In archaeology, by contrast, they are expected to take everything. Care of collections is generally the most expensive element in a museum's budget, often consuming as much as two-thirds of revenue, and many museums can no longer cope.

The situation is particularly bad in areas without a county museum service, such as in Surrey and Kent. In Kent, museums are finding it extremely difficult to take archaeological material, because all are full. In Surrey, many museums that hold arch-aeological collections are unaware of the archaeological work going on in their area, and none has adequate storage capacity to deal with the expected rate of future finds. Solutions are being sought in both areas, but it is difficult to see where the money to fund new stores will come from.

The picture that emerges elsewhere is similar. Suffolk has no museums which meet the Museums and Galleries Commission standards for the storage of archaeological material; and in Cambridge, a county store has been created, but it is unsuitable for sensitive material which has to be lodged separately in the archaeological unit's offices.

Further up the east coast, the museum in Lincoln has been closed for some time with no plans for reopening, and in Northampton the borough museum has put a three-year hold on accepting new material from the county, pending the outcome of local government reviews. Things are not quite as bad everywhere; but at a time when museums are being asked to take more archaeological remains, there is a discernible trend of cuts all across the country in local authority museum and archaeology budgets. We are left with museums unable to care properly for the archaeological collections they have, unable to respond to their public role of informing the public about archaeological matters in their area, and unable to plan for the future.

Many believe that developers should pay for the long-term storage of material from developer-funded excavations; and in some areas a `developer levy' has been introduced by default. However, it is hard to see a developer levy working, especially if it is unregulated and develops in an uneven manner. Under such a scheme developers would, presumably, be entitled to choose the `cheapest museum' irrespective of location, and archives could be dispersed. Moreover, a developer levy would not solve the current problem of under-capacity in the system.

What is needed, by contrast, is a network of regional, environmentally-sensitive, actively curated archaeological stores, as proposed by the Society of Museum Archaeologists last autumn. At present, English Heritage only pays for the storage of finds from excavations it has funded itself; but it is the SMA's view that the Government should step in to ensure the conservation of all excavated material, which would be in the public interest. In the current political climate it is, perhaps, hard to see that happening, but as one well-known former Prime Minister once said, there is no alternative.

Hedley Swain is the Finds Manager at the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS). He has recently undertaken post-graduate research into Britain's archaeological archives.

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