Thursday 11 February 2010

UK Conference on Collecting

I see that a UK conference is to be held (13th-14th March) on "Portable Antiquities: Archaeology, Collecting, Metal Detecting". It is organized by Britain's Council for British Archaeology and Newcastle University's International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies. It purports to "offer perspectives from a range of different interest groups, look at recent research, present case studies from around the UK and beyond, and ultimately offer views about what the future may hold for portable antiquities management". A glance at the programme indicates that the first part of this statement is somewhat misleading. It seems rather that participants will be faced largely with the usual lame fluffy bunny stuff about entering "partnerships" with collectors and patting them on the head. The whole conference programme appears biased towards that model of dealing with the problem of the exploitation of the archaeological record for entertainment and profit, rather than discussing any kind of outreach to try and persuade the public that this making ephemeral personal collections of selected bits of it is no longer an appropriate way to exploit what remains of the world's archaeological record. Or is British archaeology now unanimous in regarding this as quite "acceptable"?

While there may be effusive and optimistic talk of "portable antiquities management" (sic), where is the down to earth talk of the management of the other parts of the archaeological record affected by artefact hunting, and in particular the SITES from which this stuff is coming in steadily increasing quantities? Modern archaeology is not (used not to be, at least) by any means about "managing portable antiquities", but managing the archaeological resource as a whole, not just "things". Or in its British (per)version has it now become reduced only to this, the lowest common denominator?

The conference title assures us that it's going to address "collecting" (one presumes of archaeological artefacts) but the programme fails to do so in more general terms but merely concentrates on "metal detecting". The issues connected with the collection of so-called portable antiquities surely extend far beyond those engendered by sad little men in army surplus clothes and anoraks wandering about with bleeping tools for hoovering up collectable metal artefacts. There are whole fields of debate apparently ignored in the over-ambitiously titled programme. So-called "metal detecting" surely cannot be seen in isolation from the other manifestations of artefact collecting - though that is apparently what the programme suggests that the conference organizers have set out to do. There is a paper on te "ethics of ownership" by a collector, given the approach of the conference organizers what would have been more useful would be a parallel one from an archaeologist about the "ethics of partnership [with collectors of archaeological objects]".

Equally problematic is why no-questions-asked coin dealer lobbyist and ACCG Executive Director Wayne Sayles has been invited over from the US to lecture the Scottish and others on "cultural property nationalism". I would like to ask whether the conference organizers are paying his travelling expenses, conference fees and expenses in the UK.

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