Monday 27 July 2015

The Future Shape of the PAS (3) Comments

Below are my comments on the replies received to the questions I submitted to the LVA about their running of the new PAS

The first section of my questions referred to 'The Fate of the National Scheme'. In reply to my first question, the PAS seems to be denying that no official statement was issued. In answering my second, they are suggesting that the new organization of the Scheme does not affect in any way its scope, affordances and duties. We will see.

The answer to the third question is wholly evasive. Documents I have seen suggest that before these changes, one third of the 'local partners' were already considering having to withdraw part or all of their contribution to the FLOs as part of the cuts affecting all public spending, and culture is a soft target. While these changes may be staved off one year, two, three or maybe more, the issue is not one that can be ignored and a situation that cannot be sustained indefinitely. Yet the BM answer avoids the question, referring back to their past "active partnerships" (loans and tours)  and refusing to acknowledge the changed context. Yes, "the local partners remain core to the [PAS'] delivery", and while perhaps in the middle of 2015 the Scheme still "retains its national reach across England and Wales", this is not going to continue much longer, the Welsh "reach" is already very tenuous. The question was not answered.

Likewise the BM does not regard making outside partners subservient to the programmes of the LVA department of a distant London Museum is in any way a downgrading of the Scheme which they had joined. Let us see whether local authorities see it that way. I asked whether those partners were consulted on the proposed changes to the programme in which they are partners and in what form. I suspect they were not, because the BM merely answers evasively: "we continue to consult with local and national partners on future strategy".

Neither is it true that "the status of the British Museum’s relationship with our partners in the PAS has not changed". Documents which had a restricted circulation outside the BM a few months ago suggest pretty unequivocally that the whole purpose of this reorganization was to facilitate development of those relationships in a certain direction in the interests of the British Museum itself, which could be said to be at the expense of the local partners. These documents should be made fully public.

My second batch of questions touched upon The Treasure Act and Heritage Policy The answer to question 5 suggests there are no changes at all in the Treasure Process. I asked whether the LVA PAS would be active in promoting changes in the " scope of Treasure in response to cases like the Crosby Garrett helmet" The answer was evasive.

As for the input the LVA envisages "making in national heritage policy concerning, for example artefact hunting, and how", I do not think they understood the question.

The next batch of questions concerned the core role of the PAS database in 'Mitigation of Information Loss (Valetta Art 2 and 3)' a key function of the PAS when it was originally set up. I asked what measures the LVA will be taking to ensure this aim is met to the degree required to mitigate a major portion of the knowledge lost through artefact hunting. The answer seems to be "none" but "through PASt Explorers we are hoping finders themselves, and other volunteers, will contribute to the recording effort". So we are going from a scheme where artefacts are reported and vetted and then recorded by professional archaeologists to one where the artefact hunters and other members of the public record their own finds? Like the UKDFD then? Yet in the answer to my ninth question, we are told "the PAS is not staffed by volunteers". This blog has for a number of months been trying to get to the bottom of just who those volunteers are and what their relationship is to the Scheme as a whole and the mechanics of their use to create database records. The results of those efforts (which basically consists of BM evasion at every step) are documented in the pages of this blog. Anyway it is good to know that the karaoke recorders are kept in the background, and that the 'front line' [sic] remains (and will remain) the Finds Liaison Officers.

The next batch of questions concerned that all-important Database. We are told that PAS staff will somehow continue to assign higher level access to the database for research purposes though the actual mechanics involve people in a different BM department (again, I do not think the new managers understood the question). Likewise we are promised that the Finds Advisors will take responsibility for the quality of the records, but PASt Explorers project officers are (solely? mechanisms?) responsible .for volunteer records. But have not, in the BM reorganizations, some of the Finds Advisors been moved out of PAS to other departments?

My twelfth question was another one that was not really answered. Again this is a question of mechanics. We note that the question of the mechanics and logistics of the new system is a topic which the BM has been studiously avoiding discussing, and this has been going on now for some time. Did they understand the question? Likewise question thirteen - a pretty important one in preservation by record - is totally dodged. A three year Leverhulme grant has just been gobbled up by a BM project on the value of the PAS database as a research tool, it's a waste of money if it referred to a database which is no longer being created on the same principles. What are the underlying selection criteria in the LVA's database?

In question 14, I asked when the information by the ‘Community recorders’ is incorporated into the database, whether it will be distinguishable in any way. In other words can the user of the record determine that it was created by an archaeologist, or one of the trained volunteers. This is fundamental in its use for research purposes. I would have thought that meaning was pretty obvious. Sadly not: "Everyone working for PAS has a unique user account", which is "obfuscated" so that effectively prevents its use as a source of information (look at the confusion obfuscated codes created in the case of Ben Paites).

Eighteen years into the Scheme, experience should have taught the PAS that the former laissesz faire attitudes to verifying findspots are not providing adequate data quality control. LVA says it does not intend introducing changes. ("If there is a breach of that trust then the British Museum will take appropriate action" can they give any examples of this in the past? Many?). Recording turnaround time (question 16) may be shortened by the use of volunteer labour.

 Obviously as a blogger I am interested in the use made of social media in interacting with audiences . It probably does not take many IQ points to work out what is meant (under the heading 'Social Media and Audiences') what is meant by this question.
17) Are there any plans in the LVA for the creation of a public forum to allow active interaction between the many audiences of the PAS about the current developments? This would be a logical move, but instead you seem to have adopted a ‘top-down’ blog format.
You know, the doleful "we once had a forum".Remember that? The PAS used to have a public forum, and does not now, my question (I would have thought quite obviously) concerned whether "Learning, Volunteers and audiences" means members of the public can use the the Scheme's social media to discuss issues connected with portable antiquities and the Scheme. The answer ("The British Museum is advised by the PAAG as the forum for discussing...") is not at all what was asked, and I fully suspect that the department of "Learning, Volunteers and Audiences" knows what a "forum" is in the social media. Shame on you for dodging the question. Why is the department of "Learning, Volunteers and audiences" so scared of contact with those audiences (because there is more than one)? My next question referred to "openness regarding use of social media", the LVA PAS claims it "encourages FLOs to highlight their work via social media", but fails to admit that while exposing FLOs to this, its own staff BLOCK access to their social media ('Lava-PAS: Outreach from Under a Bushel' Wednesday, 24 June 2015).

The final section was on 'Public Outreach'. Question 19 was an archaeological one. It went right over their heads.
From previous BM press releases about portable antiquities, the public has received a picture of archaeology which is predominantly merely about „digging up things about which stories can be told”. This object-centric view of the past common to collectors and dealers is damaging to the public perception of archaeology, its aims and methods. Can we hope that it is the aim of the LVA to break out of this and to present a more nuanced manner of outreach presenting a more holistic picture of archaeology, and if so, how?
The British Museum, through PAS and in many other ways, makes a significant contribution to archaeological knowledge, helping to inform academic research, archaeological fieldwork and also heritage protection. The public fascination with important new finds is one way to engage people with broader issues and bring them to a more nuanced understanding.
I am wondering how much "learning" one can do from a department which is unable to understand a simple question. The first part of the answer shows a total lack of awareness what "public perception" means. The second is nonsense. Talking about Treasure, Treasure, Britain's Secret Treasures is 100% NOT helping in any way to inform people about those broader issues (see question and answer 20) and a nuanced understanding only comes from nuanced presentation which most certainly is not what the PAS has been doing up to now. Hence the question to the LVA. The answer dodges it totally, in a way which suggests the 'Department of Learning... and Audiences' has not the foggiest idea of what it was being asked about. In a non-bonkers world it would be them explaining the issue to us, and not us having to put the question into Simple English so they'd cotton on to what the issue being addressed consists of. Duh.

The answer to question 20 was a total fiasco. The BM's LVA department obviously has difficulty in looking further down the corridor than the xerox machine. Read the question and their fob-off foggy answer and note they totally ignored the last bit of the question. If the context of artefact hunting in Britain led to archaeological bodies in Britain beginning another Stop Taking Our Past campaign against irresponsible artefact collecting, would the LVA support it?

The reader of these answers gets the feeling that there is a lack of meat. The LVA did not particularly exert itself in getting to grips with the questions themselves. Once again, we see the typical Bloomsbury fob-offs. Everything is OK, there's been no changes, we are on the ball with everything. Yet when there is a need to actually state a policy in more than just vague patronising terms, there is a huge vacuum. So while we are all, I am sure, grateful to Ms Raikes and Mr Lewis for putting pen to paper, we really are still very much in the dark about where the PAs is going. Let us hope that this is not because the people that run it are too.


Anonymous said...

A couple of points of logic concerning their replies if I may ….

First, they say “Recording finds with the PAS is voluntary so we are dependent upon the goodwill of finders and the support of the metal-detecting organisations to that aim.” But that's simply not true, PAS does NOT have the support of NCMD or FID as both have signed the Responsibility Code yet both retain their own codes under which their members don't have to support PAS. Logically, that must mean PAS is NOT supported by the metal detecting organisations doesn't it? Why maintain a fiction and mislead the public?

Secondly your question about whether they'd "support a Stop Taking Our Past campaign against irresponsible artefact collecting" was transparently dodged by the reply “The British Museum believes that responsible metal-detecting provides a useful archaeological tool”. Doesn't that mean, logically, they think irresponsible detecting isn't? Can't we take that as an admission they WOULD support a Stop Taking Our Past campaign against irresponsible artefact collecting? Maybe you should pose the question again?

Paul Barford said...

Well, I have had my twenty questions and answers. There must/ might be other people interested in where the PAS is going (you know, that 'audience') so they can ask if it interests them. I think the PAS is on its way out and we should be thinking more about 'what next' for UK policy on artefact hunting and collecting, the BM's LVA seems from those answers not really to have clue or interest in that issue.

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