Sunday 14 February 2010

Antiquity Collecting and "The University Culture"

Over on the coin collectors' Victims of the Elitist Conspiracy Against Citizens blog, in a post called Ancient Coins and the Corruption of Youth a complaining coin collecting lawyer of Washington laments that:

Archaeo-blogger Paul Barford reports that fellow blogger Nathan Elkins has written a "peer reviewed" article entitled, "Treasure hunting 101 in America's classrooms" (2009, Journal of Field Archaeology 34 (4):482-9).
He is referring to my post here, and continues moaning:

Elkins' article is not readily available for free to those not associated with the university culture and I don't want to spend any money to get it, so I must confess I have not read his work.[syntax edited slightly by PMB]
Now this is very odd. One of the principle "justifications" for the collecting of decontextualised archaeological dugup collectables, constantly trotted out by collectors, is that the possessor is able to "study" (do research on) them in their own home and thus add to scholarship. It is however generally recognised that to add to scholarly knowledge about the past (or anything else for that matter), one really has to be cogniscent with what has been done before, and current research elsewhere, and how to use the results in one's own work. Learning how to do that is surely what that "university culture" is all about. That is why academic institutes like universities have libraries. How on earth can Tompa or any other collector claim to be able to add to scholarly knowledge about the past without reading any books and basing their selection of works read only on literature that one can get for "free"? This only leads to the kind of pseudo-science that we see when people try to write about complex issues on the basis of what they can garner from Google-Books (see my discussion earlier of the so-called 'Hooker Papers' of the ACCG).

Now I understand that the little provincial town in the backwoods of east coast America in which Tompa lives, it is possible only to reach out to the past by internet orders of Ancient Greek and Medieval Hungarian coins etc which arrive weeks later on the stage coach when the condition of the muddy winter roads permits it. Of course it is unreasonable to expect such a place as Washington to have a library which could in any way have some form of an interlibrary loan system like we have in Poland and in Europe. If Mr Tompa would like to send me his home address, I can send him a xerox of the article since understand that access to such machines may be limited where he lives, poor guy (a Washington lawyer complaining he has "no money"?).

Do attitudes like Tompa's dismissive reference to what he calls the "university culture" mean that collectors are antithetical to "book learning" (as Bede once put it)? I think a case can be made for suggesting that this is the case. The writings of collectors are full of "them and us" dichotomies, the "them" being academics in general, archaeologists in particular and museum staff who fail to fill galleries to overflowing with exhibited stuff as well. They clearly wish to be seen as the victims of some kind of academic elitism, somehow excluded from mainstream scholarship. I would suggest that it is more the case that they are deliberately excluding themselves, and then claiming that they are being victimised.

Vignette: "Book learning"

1 comment:

Nathan Elkins said...

Interesting points. There is, of course, this specter of elitism that has been interjected, but it has been made part of the debate before (some previous href="">comments here). I do find it peculiar to come from a group that claims to represent independent scholars. Any scholar, independent or otherwise, surely knows that if you want to do quality research, then you have to actually have to go through the literature in a research library. One summer when I was between degrees and working on a project, I went to the local university library to do research; you can't find everything on Google. Surely the many collectors who have published great peer-reviewed articles in numismatic journals have conducted research in a library. Even the scholarly numismatic journals are not freely available online. If you need to check an old reference from a 1963 article of Numismatic Chronicle, you'd have to go to a library.

As a side note, there also seems to be some misdirected contempt that the point of my article was to say that decontextualized objects are not educational. This was neither stated nor implied in my article. Instead, the focus of the article is the detrimental way in which material for the ACE program is sourced and the role that the program plays in the broader context of other lobbying initiatives.

I am of the opinion that one should read something firsthand before determining how they will criticize it. I still have several offprints that I would be willing to share to interested parties.

All best,

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