Wednesday 18 July 2012

The Ethics of Collecting in Public Debate

As the viewing public waits with bated breath for the inane soaps to finish on ITV so they can break out the popcorn and beer to settle down to being told in breathless excitement about another collection of decontextualised artefacts (ten coming up in Episode three, 3 minutes each), let us recall what we were promised back in March. I refer to the material Maev Kennedy wrote about ('TV treasure hunt show to pick Britain's most important archaeological find', Guardian Monday 26 March 2012). Remember that? I remember the bit where it said:

Although Roger Bland, keeper of portable antiquities and treasure at the British Museum, said they were excited about the chance to highlight the success of the scheme, the programmes will also inevitably revive the passionate debate about the ethics of metal detecting for antiquities, which some archaeologists regard as no better than looting.
So where have the writers and producers of this series managed to fit that into the format of this programme?  It seems unlikely that it will be slotted in between the witch bottle and the Nazis tonight, maybe at the half-way point, after object 25? Or maybe at the end?

I think even a few weeks ago we had no inkling that this programme was going to be as bad as it is at presenting any of the debate. I note David Gill wrote ("A gaping hole in the legal protection for finds", LM March 26, 2012) in response to some of the Guardian article comments:
Perhaps Buerk will apply his considerable talent when he is given the opportunity to interview key personalities in the debate. And perhaps senior members of PAS will be asked to describe where they can see any "gaping holes" in the present legal protection for archaeological finds.
Buerk seems unlikely to be doing any interviewing at the moment his main function in the programme is to stroll around the empty forecourt of the British Museum with his female counterpart making facile remarks intended to be the link-in to the next celebrity-presented show-and-tell soundbite. What a wasted opportunity.

It is worth recalling that four years ago English Heritage published a document setting out their principles of heritage management. One of the principles was public engagement in the decision-making. How can the "Great British Public" (there, I said it) do that in the case of artefact hunting collecting and the trade if the basic information is being kept from them? Is it not precisely the PAS who should be leading the way in providing that information, it is after all primarily a "portable antiquity" issue.

English Heritage, ' Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance Sustainable Management of the Historic Environment' (London, Apr 2008)

Britain's Secret Treasures, ITV 1 16th-22nd July 2012

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