Friday, October 7, 2011

Museums and Society

Wales has a long tradition of the establishment of museums for the benefit of the public. They are permanent and professionally managed storehouses of information about the history and other aspects of the Welsh land and people. They are the focus of academic activity and are important educational and culture-forming resources. Museums are universally recognised as of great benefit to the public. Before the PAS, the museums of Britain offered opportunities for members of the public to bring in items they had found for identification, recording and eventual acquisition (preferrably by donation) by the museum. This allowed museums to be seen as a central part of the cultural life of the community.

The default curation of large numbers of loose archaeological finds by artefact hunters works against this system, scattering the individual elements of archaeological information among a variety of ephemeral personal collections or leading to them being sold off (often abroad). This obviously makes their further study should a particular site be investigated further in the future next-to-impossible. The information they may contain is in effect lost.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was set up to allow the recording of what can be retrieved from collectors who have archaeological artefacts at home in a permanent archive, but this is no substitute for the controlled collection of these data through more conventional archaeological means. The central role of museums as collecting and curation focussed institutions is diminished in the public consciousness as members of the public are encouraged by the Scheme's press material to create ephemeral mini-museums of freshly dugup artefacts in their homes. This is presented by the media as a beneficial cultural activity (and the fact that the digging up and selective retention of the finds from archaeological sites is not highlighted). The museum however is to some extent marginalised in the social conscience, even if it is to the local museum they will go with their finds to show the Portable Antiquities Scheme officer who has an office there.

Despite pro-PAS propaganda to the contrary the 1995 report of Denison and Dobinson on Metal Detecting and Archaeology in England (Tables IX-XI) shows that the volume of finds being shown to museums by "responsible metal detectorists" in pre-PAS days was by no means insignificant. With a little investment supporting the identification services of local institutions, the role of the PAS as a separate recording organization can be replaced by a service that integrates local cultural institutions more closely into the community.

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