Friday 4 November 2011

Display of "Public Finds" at the British Museum

This YouTube video featuring smooth-talking Roger Bland presents a new case shoved in a gallery in the British Museum called "discovering our past". It is apparently the only place in the British Museum that one can see discovered items which tell us about the past. These finds are extra-specially impor'nt because they were found by "the public" y'know (unlike things like the Battersea Helmet or the Snettisham Great Torc or the Mildenhall Treasure which of course fell from the sky into the Museum courtyard, dropped by a passing alien spaceship). Since their beginnings, most of them in the middle of the nineteenth century (though the BM has older origins), museums in Britain have not contained any archaeological objects discovered by members of the public at all, this has only been made possible by the invention of the metal detector.

What is more, these items (second panel down) have been "saved". Saved from what the visiting Japanese tourist might wonder, the melting pot? The black market? Underground gold-gobbling mutant worms? Or lying safely in an archaeological context below plough's reach only to be found and understood generations hence? The museum visitor is not informed - just sent to the PAS website, anyone looking it up on a mobile device will not find the answer there either. Neither will they find anything there putting British "metal detecting" (artefact collecting, the British collectors' market) in any kind of context whether of the Enlightenment "Universal Museum" so beloved of BM directors, or the international antiquities market and the looting question ("now go and see the Parthenon Marbles in the gallery this way and read the explanatory text....") or even that notion of a partnership between museum and artefact hunters. Just a case of a few mouldy and glittery pieces of metal from the (as yet unpublished) 2011 Lewes Hoard. "I think my favourite item might well be the Sussex Loop actually, because you can imagine that these were once worn on someone's wrist, it enables you to feel a little bit closer to the Bronze Age in that sense" enthuses the trainee curator learning the art of the trite pro-collecting narrativisation required to deflect public interest from why Britain is NOT doing anything about uncontrolled artefact hunting).

The notion that the Treasure Act is "saving" important finds derives from the detectorese for hoiking random items of archaeological evidence out of any meaningful archaeological context they may have and into an ephemeral private collection. What the Treasure process is "saving" (by buying them) are "important finds" (the glitteriest ones) that are already out of the ground and would otherwise be being flogged off on the no-questions-asked market - so at great cost to the public purse saving them from disappearing into the hands of greedy and unscrupulous buyers who are unconcerned even about things like export licences and the depletion of a nation's archaeological record. I reckon that for all that cost the public visiting an institution like the BM instead of a "look what we've got 'saved' today" case might legitimately expect to receive some information about the wider issues of which this is just the minutest tip of the iceberg. or is the idea to keep the public (the British public whose heritage the archaeological record is, and the museum's public ) in the dark? Perhaps on the assumption that they do not need to know, have no right to know, and anyway nobody in the PAS and BM can be bothered to tell them?

This is "Bread and circuses" public archaeology by the BM, stick a few shiny things in a case for the grockles to gawp at and keep them happy and stop them asking questions.

Do the words "Treasure Act reform" appear anywhere in the vicinity of that case for the voting public to see?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A display case dedicated to metal detected items is indeed inappropriate - PAS was set up to collect knowledge from an activity that was seen as damaging, not to promote and expand that activity (or indeed to ensure PAS's own continued funding by using taxpayers' money to run a continuous propoganda of success campaign as it so conspicuously does).

As for the Treasure Act being there to "save" Treasure that also is a false claim. It is to pay people for OUR Treasure that they would otherwise not deliver to us. That's not "saving" it, it's paying millions of pounds in ransom.

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