Sunday 21 June 2015

PAS Meltdown: (5) The British Museum Steps in

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was headed by Roger Bland of the British Museum, which institution it must in fairness be said invested a lot in the time one of (at first) their numismatic curators spent on developing this scheme and then its later running. From April 2003, the Heritage Lottery Fund funded the Scheme's operation for three years, and as from April 2006 the scheme secured full funding from the DCMS, until March 2008. The project was administered by the   Museums, Libraries and Archives Council which was dissolved in October 2011. By this time, the administration of the scheme passed (in stages?) to the British Museum. In April 2006, the Portable Antiquities Scheme central unit became an official department within the BM, the Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure (formerly it had been a subsection of the Depratment of Coins and Medals). At this time, (April 2006) the scheme secured full funding from the DCMS, until March 2008, and this funding has been renewed periodically, administered through the BM. The structure of the organization was as follows.
the Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, a Deputy Head 
a Resources Manager (formerly administrator)
thirty-six external FLOs - most employed by 'local partners'
six Finds Advisers
an ICT Adviser
[there was also once a part-time illustrator and an education officer]
Everything was coherently organized within the Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, but in July 2012 Roger Bland was appointed Keeper of Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory and was less involved in the day to day running of the Scheme. We have no way of knowing just what was going on behind the scenes in the intervening period, Roger Bland became head of a Leverhulme Trust funded project about the research uses of the PAS database with two assistants to help. The Scheme went on functioning much as before. Since the Scheme in general was always very secretive about what was happening, it was less disturbing than, on hindsight, it should have been that there was fogginess about the mysterious announcements which began to appear in 2014 about a new manner of applying 'volunteers' (which I dubbed 'karaoke recorders'). A public opinion survey was done about the Scheme's "audiences" (note the term) and the PAS was extraordinarily cagey about answering questions about what exactly was in the pipeline. Perhaps now we see why.

Earlier on this year, a number of people outside the Museum - apparently archaeologists and politicians - began getting messages from Dr Bland asking for help opposing  funding problems  and certain moves within the Museum. There was nothing much new in this, as we have seen, when the PAS was set up, there was no fixed system of financing it established, indeed to some extent at the beginning it was experimental. The PAS has been fighting for funds for well over a decade and lurching from one severe financial crisis to the next. Not infrequently this was accompanied by various strenuous attempts to get support from archaeologists and on one infamous occasion metal detectorists.

The announcement of the change which occurred on 1st May 2015 in the British Archaeology Magazine has some strange phrasing, it bears reading between the lines. What is much more interesting is that there was no official announcement by the BM itself, which apparently is treating this as an internal affair. It quite clearly is not. In terse words, the magazine's text informs its readers that Roger Bland has resigned from his post in the Museum (not just the PAS in which he had only a limited role since 2012). 
"The Treasure Team and the Portable antiquities Scheme [...] have been relocated within the management structure of the British Museum. The Museum says the staff changes will be beneficial. Roger Bland who [...] formerly led the Museum's Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure has resigned [...] Jonathan Williams, BM deputy director, told staff that the changes, which came into effect on May 1, will, on balance, be beneficial".
The staff changes are presented succinctly as follows:
The PAS (under its head Michael Lewis) and Treasure teams have moved from the Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory to that of Learning Volunteers and Audiences. From there, it is argued, they will be able to support the BM in its drive to be the "museum of the country", working with partners outside London [...] Dan Pett and Mary Chester-Kadwell, who maintain the critically-important PAS database, have been transferred to the Museum's new Digital and Publishing Department. 
Staff changes are not the only problem:
The BM has cut the PAS budget by 6%. From April, PAS funding is no longer ring-fenced within the museum's government grant, which has been steadily falling [...] Roger Bland [...] "I hope the British Museum continues to ensure that the PAS is adequately funded in the difficult times ahead", he told British Archaeology, "because I know how easily the whole structure could collapse." He leaves in July. 
The BM claims that these changes will not impact on delivery or external relationships other than in a positive way. I think that is self-evidently not the case, and will explain why in the next post (below).

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