Can rationalisation solve archaeology’s storage crisis?

Society for Museum Archaeology
Guide for the Rationalisation of Museum Archaeology Collections

Recent work by the Society for Museum Archaeology (SMA) in collaboration with Historic England (HE) has clearly demonstrated the pressures that museums with archaeological collections are facing in terms of diminishing storage space, staff reductions and loss of expertise. It is in this context that rationalisation (the application of agreed selection strategies to previously accessioned archaeological project archives, with the purpose of de-selecting parts of the collection) is being increasingly suggested as one way forward to help alleviate the archaeological archive storage problem and create storage space. Furthermore, the audits required by the rationalisation process are seen to be useful exercises in collections management since they increase knowledge of and access to collections. However, despite the potential value of rationalisation, little practical guidance exists for those wishing to carry it out and the overall efficacy of the process has never been fully assessed for archaeological material – until now.

The publication of SMA’s Guidance for the Rationalisation of Museum Archaeology Collections provides museum professionals with a series of practical considerations, written in straightforward language, as informed by the real world experiences of institutions.

The guidance marks the final stage of a hugely informative and collaborative project funded by HE and delivered in partnership with SMA and five institutions in England responsible for the collection and care of archaeological archives:

• Museum of London
• Museums Worcestershire
• Stroud Museum
• Suffolk County Council
• Tullie House

These organisations, selected to provide a geographical spread and range of collection size and level of in-house specialism, undertook scoping studies to audit their holdings, establish selection criteria, estimate the resources required to undertaken rationalisation and calculate the likely amount of space that could be created if rationalisation was carried out. Their critical reflections on the process and honest responses allow real insight into this complex process.

Learning from these scoping studies has been combined with sector best practice by the SMA to produce wide-ranging guidance relating to:

• Project Planning
• Auditing Collections
• Assessing the Significance of Collections
• Disposal of Collections

This new guidance document demonstrates that rationalisation is unlikely to release large amounts of space in store. Insight from the participating institutions demonstrated the range of problems museums can face when undertaking such a project including poor recording of archives,

All five participating institutions conclusively demonstrated that rationalisation is not a cost-effective way to increase storage capacity. The costs and resources required to undertake rationalisation and disposal to its conclusion were high, whilst the amount of space it released was relatively small.
In response to this the guidance also covers Space-saving Solutions outside the context of disposal including tips for repacking archives to reduce volume, specification of storage and method to streamline future collecting.

There has never been greater public interest in archaeology, but the potential of future collecting is threatened. Perhaps it is time for the sector to change its view of rationalisation as not so much a solution to archaeology’s storage crisis but an opportunity to revisit the significance of our collections so they can be used in the most effective way possible.

Gail Boyle FMA FSA, Chair of The Society for Museum Archaeology said:

“SMA is grateful to Historic England for enabling this piece of work to be undertaken so as to enable all those responsible for the care of archaeological collections to embark on a rationalisation project with their eyes wide open to both the challenges and benefits such an endeavour can bring.”

Barney Sloane, Director of Research at Historic England, said:
“Government’s full endorsement of the sector-wide action plan to tackle the pressures on archaeological collections recognised the need for everyone to work together on solutions (https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/news/new-plan-englands-archaeol...). This guidance is an important step in helping museums to share ideas that work and to make the most efficient use of space without losing the significance of what they are entrusted to look after.”

Notes to editors:

Who are the Society for Museum Archaeology?
The Society for Museum Archaeology is recognised by Arts Council England as the subject specialist network for British Archaeology in the UK: it has members in all of regions as well as abroad. The Society promotes museum involvement in all aspects of archaeology and works to encourage greater public understanding of the archaeological past and a fuller public appreciation of the importance of archaeology. It campaigns for the acceptance of museums as guardians of a vital part of the nation's heritage and as the appropriate location for the storage and interpretation of all archaeological material. http://socmusarch.org.uk/socmusarch/gailmark/wordpress/

Who are Historic England?
Historic England (formerly known as English Heritage), are the public body that champions and protects England's historic places. We look after the historic environment, providing expert advice, helping people protect and care for it and helping the public to understand and enjoy it. https://historicengland.org.uk/

Links

Society for Museum Archaeology (Guidance on the Rationalisation of Museum Archaeology Collections, 2018):

http://socmusarch.org.uk/projects/guidance-on-the-rationalisation-of-mus...

Society for Museum Archaeology/Historic England (Annual Survey of Museums Collecting Archaeology, 2016 and 2017):
http://socmusarch.org.uk/projects/hesma-annual-survey-of-museums-collect...

Society for Museum Archaeology Report (Archaeological Archives and Museums, 2012):
http://socmusarch.org.uk/socmusarch/gailmark/wordpress/wp-content/upload...

Contact for interviews
Gail Boyle, FMA FSA
Chair, Society for Museum Archaeology
Gail is Senior Curator of Archaeology at Bristol Museums. Gail is also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and sits on Historic England’s HIAS Advisory Board, the Portable Antiquities Advisory Group and represents SMA at meetings of The Archaeology Forum. She has long-standing collaborative and teaching relationships with both the University of Bristol (where she is a Research Fellow) and the University of the West of England. Gail also sits on the Board of Trustees at Dr Jenner’s House, Museum & Garden in Berkeley, Gloucestershire.

Photographs to accompany this press release can be provided on request

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