Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Ersatz Collection Management

The coin dealers' lobbying blogger Peter Tompa (September 11, 2012, ICOM Working on Syrian Red List) suggests that: 
It continues to be a dark shame that much Syrian archaeology is so little documented. The inventory of the Damascus Museum's [**], a true gem among museums in the Middle East, filled with crucially important material, is meager in comparison to what it holds. The same is true of Syria's other regional museum[*]. Perhaps worse, excavations have done little to fully document what they have dug up, or allocated funds necessary to make full records of the material they have uncovered. It is always easier and more fun to dig than to record or publish. But the consequences of such negligence have been apparent in Iraq, and now stare us in the face in Syria. What are we to do about it? 
[**] Incomplete sentence, the lacking words might be - I would guess, knowing Mr Tompa's inclinations - "numismatic collection"
[*] Incomplete thought, there are several regional museums in Syria.  
I am not clear what the evidence is for Tompa's assertion. I do not know how it is with the US missions to Syria, but in the Polish case completing the inventory of material deposited in the storerooms of their excavations in Palmyra is a condition of the excavation permit. He continues:
Why don't archaeologists do a better job of documenting what they excavate and why don't they do more to help countries document their museum inventories better so if something goes missing it will be noticed sooner? That seems more positive than just bashing collectors.
Again, I am not sure why Mr Tompa should be saying that US archaeologists working in Syria are doing a bad job of documenting what they excavate - if that is true they should be thrown out of the country. 
Is Mr Tompa asking why US archaeologists do not settle down and inventorise the complete collections of foreign museums instead of doing research? I suppose the answer to that is the same as a corresponding one,  asking why US employment lawyers do not settle down and inventorise the complete collections of institutional legal libraries in Washington. There are two reasons, one is that collection management is the job of the people employed to do collection management in both foreign museums and institutional legal libraries. The second reason is that you need specialist training to do both jobs. Archaeologists do not all gain qualifications in museology and lawyers in librarianship. Also I imagine what employment lawyer Mr Tompa (and the unions) would have to say about a Washington legal library which fires its qualified staff to take in their place untrained volunteers from Syria.

Nevertheless, it is of course incumbent on archaeologists working in foreign countries to not only comply with the conditions laid down by their hosts, but go beyond that to create an atmosphere of close collaboration with the aim of protecting, understanding and promoting the common archaeological heritage of the regions of the world where they are working. If they are not doing that, and merely being exploitive, they are probably doing more harm than good.

I'd like to see Mr Tompa addreess his question to the US El-Hibeh excavation team, who when they were there this year announced that although they were not allowed on the site, they had a huge backlog in the inventorying of the finds from previous seasons to keep them busy. In my experience though they do not like people asking them questions.

And yes, let us see museums and public collections everywhere make the effort to get their collection fully documented, so that should some disaster befall it, there is utmost clarity about what has gone, what we are looking for. Let us also see dealers and collectors making much more active use of such information. 


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