Monday, 24 November 2008

The New PAS and Museums in England and Wales : NuPAS 6

In the 2008 PAS Review assessing the objectives of the New PAS in the light of the changes in regional museum provision, most particularly the “Renaissance programme”, the main arguments of the author seem to be that the New PAS is intimately linked to museums as it gets people involved in museum activities who would otherwise not be.

This sits rather uneasily with the prevailing doctrine which is that in the UK the local “metal detectorists” only dig archaeological artefacts out of archaeological assemblages because of a “passionate interest in the past”. One might ask if they are so passionately interested in the past, how is it possible they cannot find the entrance door to a museum? It also raises the question why the non-collecting British public would want to entrust the curation of a substantial portion of the British archaeological heritage in scattered ephemeral collections of artefacts to people who have no great affinity for or interest in museums? Maybe they should be asked if this is what they want (after they are told how much it costs and what proportion of the evidence lost annually is in fact being saved).

Clark several times presents the PAS database as a “a virtual collection of c. 350,000 objects used by a quarter of a million individuals each year” (p. 5, 12, 19, 23, 25, 28, 31). The first of the new aims of the Scheme are intended to reflect therefore (p. 28) that it is “creating a virtual collection that is influencing our understanding of the past”. Some sixty to seventy percent of those finds that it contains however are the product of artefact hunting, the deliberate dismantling of the archaeological record as a source of collectables for somebody’s entertainment and profit. This is to be presented as a public benefit by the NuPAS Ms Clark proposes establishing .

The statistics of “number of hits” on the PAS website has always been a staple of their annual report ‘spin’; numbers with six zeroes on the end always look impressive. So the PAS website received 250 000 hits last year. Big deal. Just to put it in perspective, this metal-detector-related You Tube video posted November 29, 2007 has received more visits than the PAS website (currently 335,203 ) and this is just one of the videos on this rivetting topic (and not very well presented at that). Equally one could compare the number of virtual visits to the PAS artefacts showcase with visitor figures to single museums and the number of hits on the websites of individual museums from which it can be seen that the PAS has not really been providing anything which other museums are not capable of delivering (but at a lesser overall cost to the archaeological heritage than in the case of the PAS-displayed artefacts).

It is interesting to reflect that modern museums have been emptying the extensive row-upon-row displays of similar-looking pots and brooches that used to be the civic pride and joy in the early part of the 20th century, making a more definite division between display and reserve collections. It was assumed that this is what the public wanted, more easily assimilated ‘sound-bite’ displays rather than a mass of information to be individually searched. If Ms Clark thinks the PAS database – the “virtual” equivalent of the over-stuffed showcases of the past with rows and rows of similar looking artefacts - is really what the public want, then maybe it is time to reflect on current display policies. Are we underselling the public which is why they no longer come to museums?

Maybe we should be heeding all those collectors who say we should not be holding reserve collections in storerooms (where they are “rotting away” they claim) and put them on display again. Far more emotive than an image on a computer screen.


Roger Bland said...

To support your allegation of `spin' by PAS you quote a figure of 250,000 hits on the PAS database per year. In fact the number is 81,986,373 (Portable Antiquities Annual Report 2006, p. 131), but the numbers of visits (247,103) and visitors (247,103) are more significant. I am sorry if such statistics are `spin'.

Paul Barford said...

Roger, thank you for taking the time to comment, it is much appreciated.

Since May 2004 I have written a series of detailed posts on Britarch and PAS Forum (and a couple on the PAS blog) attempting to analyse the figures presented in the PAS annual reports. On the basis of what I discuss there, I concluded that they most definitely can be considered ‘spin’. The PAS steadfastly ignored almost all of these online comments and direct questions I posed concerning those figures. Four years’ worth. So thanks for at last reacting. The support for that general allegation comes in all those previously unanswered posts.

In this post, I quoted the quarter of a million after Kate Clark who seems to find it an impressive number. I admit that the term “hit” is perhaps not the precise word I should have used. Nevertheless these are figures that are regularly quoted in PAS annual reports (and in Parliamentary debates a few months back) as “look how well the PAS is doing” symbols. I’m not sure what their true significance is, since as I said, we can show other web resources which receive just as much traffic, and don’t cost eight million quid to put up. I don’t know for example how many “hits” the UKDFD website gets a year.

Now it’s a shame you pick up on just that one (I would say minor) issue in what I wrote, but did not comment on the main topic of my interest which was the emphasis that is being placed on the PAS not as an element of resource management but merely as a “look what we have found” showcase for finds made mainly by “metal detectorists”. I find this a disturbing effect of the obvious emphasis of Kate Clark's 2008 PAS review on forming some kind of "partnership" defending the interests of artefact hunters and collectors and establishing some form of closer connection between the PAS and the museum world. The review thus (but inexplicably) totally misses another context in which PAS (in its original heritage-management role) fits perfectly into Renaissance, I made these points in the discussion (18th Dec) of Renfrew’s article in the Guardian . My feeling is that Clark under the influence it would seem of the metal detectorists' vociferous public campaign on behalf of the PAS misapprehended what the PAS was intended to do and what it should be and what it could be. And that is not to be a government-financed UKDFD.

dandan said...

Sorry, I don't have time to comment on the rest of your writing, I'll just address the web comments.

Hits are definitely an extremely poor measure of a website's worth and usefulness. The reason why we've always used hits is down to DCMS reporting; I've never been comfortable representing these. Better quantatitive methods are: user sessions, time spent on a site, pages viewed. However, if you look at the stats from 2003 to now, you'll see a steady increase in people using our web resources.

If you're that dischuffed about our webstats, then perhaps you should ditch your counter on the left as that represents false data as well. Try using Google Analytics for your blog instead.
In terms of funding the Scheme's website, it has been a very small %age of the budget in terms of setting up and maintaining. You cannot compare the UKDFD site to the Scheme's website in many ways. Their site is based around bulletin board software, which has been moulded to purpose. We offer some very different services; for example:

1. We transfer data to HERs directly from our database - the new exeGesis importer will make this far easier.
2. We have contributed data to a variety of European projects via webservices.
3. These data can be reused in a variety of formats - RSS for example.
4. Images are given away freely to any researcher that requests them.
5. A growing number of academics are using these data to complement their research for trade patterns etc.
6. It might be a virtual showcase, but wouldn't you complain more if no one recorded this information? Searching these data is hard at present, but I'm working hard to rectify this.
7. The new database has cost my working time for 6 months and will need just the cost of the new server to setup. Compare that to a recently completed National Museum website that cost thousands.
It has been recoded from scratch and has functions that should drive penetration to the public [for example embedding data on local parish council websites, on your own blog, on googlemaps, commenting on objects, allowing people to record their own discoveries.] The Scheme's database could be deemed to be thespine of the recording effort and yes at the moment, it is extremely creaky.
8. Comparing to Youtube is a waste of time. I filter out robotic hits etc for the webstats and collect much more meaningful data than that.
9. How can you compare virtual visits to physical museum visits. The base subject matter and reason for visiting vastly differ across the institutions and sites you offer in an out of date DCMS document.
10. How many museum collections are actually online in such a full format - not many. By February (when I hope to release the finished product) we'll have 1/2 million objects online.

The website will also be completely integrated with the database. Finds guides will be complete and draw on the data held within the database. I think your comments on another post belittle the efforts made by the numismatists that worked with me to build them. (Yes the Medieval one is currently incomplete. I did not have time to finish it.) They offer a different thing to the other sites you compare it to. The coin guide will offer maps of objects as they discovered, images of them and they also drive the recording options that people have available to them within the database itself. As for incorporating more information on archaeology, that will come, but there's only me to work on this with a couple of interns. The rest of the Scheme's staff work on their core duties of outreach and recording.

Have a good weekend. I'm going to watch England get a drubbing from New Zealand, can't wait.


Paul Barford said...

Many thanks for the comments.

Fair enough, I should make it clear that in the above post I was commenting on the 2008 Review which takes a similarly superficial approach to those "website use figures" and it was Kate Clark's remarks I was trying to see (set) in context. So I am not pressing the You Tube analogy, merely using it to illustrate that mere numbers mean very little. We seem to be in agreement there.

"If you're that dischuffed about our webstats, then perhaps you should ditch your counter on the left as that represents false data as well. Yes, I have two trained monkeys in the other room randomly opening various pages to make it look as if people are reading this. In reality its only you me and Roger and maybe Nigel and a few coin collectors from time to time reading this.

You cannot compare the UKDFD site to the Scheme's website in many ways Well, you know my feelings on UKDFD so you will realise that those comments were a little tongue-in-cheek. But there is NO difference in Kate Clark's presentation of your "virtual museum" (sic) and theirs. It is precisely because I think there is more to the PAS database than lots and lots of pretty pictures of some pretty collectables that I question an attempt to present it primarily as such.

I appreciate the other more general points about the database, as I say I was here addressing mainly what Kate Clark wrote.

With the numismatists, what I was commenting on was the choice of coins to start with. As I said, there are already lots and lots of decent resources on coins on the web put up by collectors mainly, and in my opinion it would have been useful to just give some links to them and break new ground by starting with something else. Roman locks and keys, early medieval flax combs, ear wax scoops, erotic samian, that sort of thing.

I am of course looking forward to seeing the new updated fully revamped PAS database and putting it through its paces. Good luck with that.

Anyway, I hope the best team wins (the rugby match that is, here I am somewhat outnumbered).

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