Do museums want to hold specialist collections?

It seems that many local authority museums are less and less interested in the special knowledge that is held within their collections, including of course the archaeological archives which are a key part of the end product of archaeological excavations.

Recently Rescue wrote to Hampshire Cultural Trust, which has managed museums on behalf of Hampshire County Council (to whom Rescue also sent a letter) and Winchester Borough Council since 2014, about whether their current round of redundancies reflected a change of circumstances since the Trust was formed or over-optimism in the initial plans.

It appears that this trust, and doubtless also the many other variations on the theme of outsourcing museums from local authorities that exist throughout the UK, was created as a seemingly least-bad option in the face of rapidly declining funding. These new organisations have the advantages of a defined and graduated level of cuts over a period of years and greater freedom to fundraise as independent bodies – and of course to “restructure” the staffing.

The parallel trend in local authority museums has been the replacement of specialist subject curators by generalist appointments, mostly younger (cheaper) people appointed primarily to focus on outreach and educational roles. In the case of HCT the restructuring is described “…so that we can deliver exciting experiences that focus on our collections and their stories” and there are similar descriptions in many museum job adverts. No more employing boring people who know a lot about one aspect of the collections (who needs experts in the 21st century?). Much more important that we have people who can communicate how exciting this stuff is (apparently it is most critical that they understand the needs of the audience), even if they don’t actually know how to identify a find brought in by a member of the public and lack the experience to check whether a commercial unit is submitting a well-structured archive from their excavations. And once the people who did understand the collections in depth are gone who will actually be able to find the relevant material for specialist researchers and to ask new questions of the material they hold and to communicate changes in our understanding of what it means?

After saving money on staff of course the next step is to try and reduce the amount that is held in store. Although museums can, and often do charge for taking archaeological archives, that income can be quickly forgotten. Then the cost of maintaining storage facilities for material, much of which is not readily displayable but which has unquantifiable research potential, becomes an issue on the balance sheet. If the curators are no longer specialists how will they cope with demands for “rationalisation”?

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