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Storage capacity in museums

How do we ensure that the discoveries made on a dig, can be preserved for future generations? Watch Dr Rhi Smith explain more.
I think when you’re actually excavating, you don’t necessarily think what happens to the objects in the end. You’re so excited when you dig something out of the ground. And then at the end of the dig, you’re loading stuff in the van and it’s going to the lab, and people tend not to think about where it’s going to end up. There are a lot of storage issues facing museums generally. The majority of museum collections are actually in store. You’re only seeing a small percentage. And with things like human remains, which you’re also looking at in the course, you have to think very carefully.
People talk a lot about display of human remains, but you also have to think about respectful storage of human remains. Who’s going to have access to that? How are they going to be laid out? You have to ask those questions, as well. You might go around a gallery and only see a couple of front-of-house staff, but you won’t realise what’s going on behind the scenes. You won’t realise the amount of expertise that’s needed, the amount of space that’s needed, the amount of resource that actually takes up. And we get very excited when we go to a heritage site that’s a finished product. So we go around Stonehenge, we go, that’s great.
But all the stuff that’s been excavated from Stonehenge over the years that we might not be seeing, what’s happening to that? And we should be passionate, and we should care about that, as well. You know, we’re passionate about people rescuing archaeological sites. They get in, they get the stuff out, but we don’t think about what happens when it goes in the van and gets to the museum. And I think that final stage– we have to be as passionate if not more passionate about that because it can be a little bit dull sometimes, and I think people who are passionate about archaeology need to care about that and need to speak out about that.
So last year I was PI on a project with the Science Museum and Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, and also the Museum of English Rural Life. It was funded by the AHRC, and it was called Who Cares? Interventions in ‘unloved’ museum collections. And as part of that, my case study was historic hand tools, which are great. We do actually get archaeology students down to look at the rural craft collections because some of these items are quite conservative in terms of how they change over time, and sometimes people have the same solution to problems over time. So I was working with a range of different objects. And there’s some fantastic stuff in there– for example, hay rakes.
So we don’t actually have hay rake makers anymore, so as a museum, we have to think about how we’re going to bring these things to life for people who don’t have access to those skills and stories. We’re getting to the point with the Museum of English Rural Life where the people who knew those collections and used them are no longer with us, unfortunately, and so we have to think about how we’re going to record and make those stories relevant. With archaeology, obviously, most of the times, the people aren’t with us anymore, but we still have to think about that storytelling and how you can build that research around it, and make it significant, make it meaningful for people today.
Because as Freeman Tilden said, people care for things when they know about them. So we have to help people to understand them better.

In this video, Rhi Smith explains why it is vital that we think about the process after an excavation. How do we ensure that the discoveries made on a dig, can be preserved for future generations?

As Rhi mentioned in the video, a huge amount of work happens behind the closed doors of a museum or heritage site and it’s important that the discoveries are kept in the most appropriate place. The Archaeological Collections Areas Database and Map provides details of organisations that accept and archive archaeological finds and if there is a specialist in each of the locations.

If you are interested in reading more about archaeological archives, A guide to best practice in creation, compilation, transfer and curation may be of interest.

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Archaeology: From Dig to Lab and Beyond

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