Posted by: Dr Julien Parsons

Ever since the early 20th century, when archaeology emerged as a discipline rather than a pleasurable hobby for gentlemen, the creation of an excavation archive has been central to its very identity. As any field archaeologist will warn you ‘excavation is destruction’ and can only be justified if in the process of digging away strata he or she can record deposits and features, and gather finds from each context. The resultant archive provides an alternative reality for the destroyed site which can be maintained and referred to by future investigators. This is known as preservation by record. All very well, but I suspect many of the early pioneers of field archaeology would be aghast at the vast volume of artefacts and organic remains that are now cared for by Britain’s museums; all awaiting researchers to revisit their contents. But where are they?

These are exacting times for UK museums, scrutinised like never before on how meagre resources are spread within an organisation. Understandably, bemused trustees and councillors are apt to raise their eyebrows when directed towards a warehouse full of thousands of cardboard boxes and plastic tubs that constitute an archaeological archive. ‘Do we really need to keep all of this?’

To justify public funding to sustain and care for research collections, not just archaeological material, museums need to demonstrate that they fulfil a use; but more than this, collections need to stimulate new projects of such an academic standard that they attract support from research councils or independent trusts. Stemming from the academic work are public programmes, exhibitions, events and publications which engage and delight our users. It’s a virtuous circle that begins in the humble surroundings of a museum storeroom.

Reserve collections are held as a resource for the whole community, especially researchers, and it is the responsibility of both the museum and its community to ensure collections are valued and used. Our Research Collection is tailored to individuals and institutions who have an interest in our holdings. Let this serve as a call to arms, make full use of our holdings or face the possibility that in the future they may no longer be there.