Sunday 21 June 2015

PAS Meltdown (6): Why this is a Problem

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme headed by Roger Bland had built itself up as a semi-autonomous national Scheme involving local partners. This passed relatively seamlessly into the British Museum between 2006-2010 and still retained the character of a national scheme which just happened to have found a safe harbour in the British Museum when the MLA collapsed.

All this has began to unravel with the downgrading on 1st May of the Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure as a national scheme to a project within the "Learning, Volunteers and Audience" LVA (what we used to call the Schools') Department of a London museum. Furthermore, one which has no fixed budget of its own, because from now on portable antiquities will be allocated funds from that which goes to LVA from the museum's grant. This is what Roger Bland, quoted in the post above meant by "I hope the British Museum continues to ensure that the PAS is adequately funded in the difficult times ahead". A PAS in the LVA department will not have the ability to decide about its own funding options. If, for example a metal detector manufacturer stepped in to foot the bill for a year's operation of the Scheme (or writing up the Lenborough Hoard) as a marketing gimmick, Lava-PAS would not have the possibility to refuse on ethical grounds if the LVA management wanted to make use of this option.

Furthermore, if PAS funding is no longer ring-fenced within the museum's government grant, which has been steadily falling, then it stands to reason that with loads of volunteer (free) labour to call on, LVA management is going to be tempted to prune the funding more and more to help support its other projects. yet it has been quite clear for a long time that PAS has been systematically under-funded relative to the need, let alone to allow for expansion of its operation to cover more of the artefact-hunting-generated-knowledge-loss. 

Roger Bland warns "how easily the whole structure could collapse". It seems the implosion is due very soon. Two things are going to cripple the PAS if these changes are not reversed. 

The first is splitting the database from the Scheme proper. Rightly or wrongly, that database had become the core of the Bland-Scheme's operation. It was and is the raison d'etre of the whole operation. It is wholly illogical and ultimately damaging to place the remains of the Scheme under one manager and its core under another. Mike Lewis is not responsible for the database, the director of Digitisation and Publication is. The PAS and its staff (and finds advisors who've been scattered around the BM too) will no longer have any formal control of the format, input, modification and indeed further existence of the database, which may one day even end up being outsourced to India if the DP director so decides. Dismembering the Scheme's structure and making the core database an external feature at best hinders the recording work of the Scheme, at worst completely destroys the sense of it. It seems to me that the person taking this decision quite simply did not understand how the PAS operated and what it did, and one wonders why he did not make the effort.  

Indeed the problem of why there was so little external consultation of these fundamental changes to a national scheme, with a vital task which affects many millions of stakeholders outside the rarefied atmosphere of Bloomsbury is one I think deserves some attention. These changes are NOT an internal affair if they bring to an untimely end the only means England (and for the moment Wales) have of dealing with knowledge loss through artefact hunting, if we are not now to quickly rush through the legislation to make reporting of finds a statutory duty.  

That is not hyperbole if we look at the other problem that is going to cripple the PAS as a nationwide scheme. Last year about a third of the external partners were declaring that budget constraints meant that their contribution to the Scheme would be lessening, maybe even having to cease. Posts went vacant and remained vacant for lengthy periods of time during which artefact hunters did not stop hoiking. Many gaps were thus created in the information, many artefact hunters who'd worked with a FLO in the past would tend to drift away if there was nobody in the position. 

But what about those local partners? Being among the first local museums to withdraw from a recognized national scheme that has been running successfully for twelve years is one thing. Withdrawing from another museum's schools department's project is something else. What comes out from some of the documents I have seen is hinted at in the British Archaeology Magazine article. From the LVA department "they" [The Treasure Team and the Portable Antiquities Scheme]:
will be able to support the BM in its drive to be the "museum of the country", working with partners outside London
Now take a moment to think about what that means. Barsettshire County Museum hosts an FLO, and covers a large part of the expenses of running the FLOs office on their premises. The contribution from London for that post was always lower than what they paid out. Organizing it that way was one of Roger Bland's better achievements, but as he says, it is a fragile arrangement. Barsettshire have got very little from London. The FLO post is to some extent paid for from public funds taken from the taxpayers of Barsettshire. Now suddenly the museum finds it is not subsidising part of a laudable national scheme, but sending information and material to the Schools Department of another museum, furthermore by doing so "supporting it in its drive" to become the pre-eminent museum in the country - with the help of the yokels in Barsettshire. Such a position will bolster the BM's kudos and position, it will mean for a start that the BM will be less exposed to the sort of budget constraints as the 'local partners' will face in coming years. Why should this collaboration with the Scheools Department be at the cost of the local "partners"? How many local authorities in England (forget Wales, they'll drop out immediately) will stand for that? Their money will now be going mainly to build up the kudos of another museum in distant London, and entered onto a database to which their FLO will not have access through the Scheme, but through a totally different line manager. I think when various local councillors get wind of that, a lot of FLOs are going to be looking for another job. I really do not understand why the British Museum feels it can act in such a colonial fashion.

Setting up patronising "county pages" is not going to solve this issue.

It still remains to be clarified how these community recorder volunteer teams are going to operate. In Bland's PAS the finds were being recorded by professional archaeologists employed as liaison officers, there was quality control, entries were not only made by professionals, but expert finds advisors verified them (well, that was the theory, that system actually broke down many years ago). Now the recording  is going to be in the hands of teams of trained monkeys volunteers who no doubt will do the best they can, but this is far from being the Scheme that once was seen as what was needed.

When the PAS needed help earlier on this year, it seems not enough support was mustered among archaeologists or the public to prompt the BM to take another look at their proposals. It would seem that a lot of people have just lost patience with it not delivering. Its supporters ran out of arguments in its favour years ago, capable only of shoulder-shrugging glibness and "better than nothings". The Lenborough hoard carrier bag 'dig' on You Tube was perhaps for some the final straw. Metal detectorists of course and antiquity collectors are all for the Scheme still - it's the only thing now that stands between them and disaster. Yet it seems to me that the past few weeks have led to a severe diminution of  its ability to be the shield from criticism that it once was. As the PAS loses its prestige as it becomes just another little project in a museum's education department, along with the 3D scanning project, the show-and-tell of "Archaeology Days" and all the rest of the non-PAS geegaws the LVA department is engaged with. The castrated PAS will gradually lose its status as an effective spokesman for so-called "collectors' rights". At least that is something to be glad of, it should never have got itself in that position in the first place.

Still, it is a huge shame that all that hard work by Roger and his people, the MLA, the DCMS and others  over all those years (and at a cost to us all of millions of pounds) is just being thrown away by the British Museum, without any attempt at a wider discussion.  Scandal.

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