Monday 13 July 2015

Twenty Questions for the LVA PAS

Many observers are puzzled by recent developments affecting the way the nation’s Portable Antiquities Scheme is now run by The British Museum. In particular the lack of a clear and unambiguous statement concerning its reorganization on 1st May 2015 and the proposed manner in which it will henceforth function is regarded with some suspicion. I would therefore like to ask a few questions about matters of general importance..

The Fate of the National Scheme
1) Why has no official announcement been made about the dissolution of the Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure with which so many members of the public have hitherto had contact?

2) If the national scheme has now been subsumed by the education and outreach department of a museum, what changes does this impose on its scope, affordances and duties?

3) What will happen when (as seems very likely now) some local partners decline to invest scarce local authority funds in participation in a BM LVA-run scheme in place of the prestigious national one of which they have hitherto been a part?

4) Since the changes affect their own status, were the local partners consulted on the proposals to downgrade the PAS and in what form? What other bodies were consulted and which were not?
The Treasure Act and Heritage Policy
5) Does the change in management of the PAS affect in any way the so-called Treasure Process? Will this affect the process whereby external museums are notified of objects going through the process? What about relationships between FLOs and Coroners? And the relationship between the TVC and the LVA?

6) Will the LVA-PAS be joining other organizations lobbying the government with the aim of broadening the scope of Treasure in response to cases like the Crosby Garrett helmet?

7) What input does the LVA envisage making in national heritage policy concerning, for example artefact hunting, and how?
Mitigation of Information Loss (Valetta Art 2 and 3)
8) It is clear that many thousands of artefacts are found annually by members of the public which do not for various reasons get recorded by the PAS. In the case of artefact hunting – if UK policy is not to change - it is especially important that the deliberate and unsystematic taking of elements of the archaeological record for entertainment and profit is mitigated by as full a record as possible. What measures will the LVA be taking to ensure this aim is met to the degree required to mitigate a major portion of the knowledge lost through artefact hunting?

9) The whole purpose of the PAS was to create a framework for direct liaison between professional archaeologists and finders, during which an opportunity was created for education/outreach on all aspects of best practice, for example in artefact hunting. How will this now be achieved in a scheme staffed by volunteers without the background and experience of the former FLOs?
10) Will higher level access to the database for research purposes from now on be assigned by the staff of the LVA or D and P?

11) Will database entry be controlled by the staff or the LVA of D and P? What about data entry quality, who is now responsible for the progress of verification of the records which has been lagging behind in recent months?

12) While volunteers can no doubt be ‘trained’ to deal with simple artefact types (coins, brooches and strapends for example) by comparing the object in the hand with pictures in a book or catalogue, matters are not so simple with artefacts (such as pottery fabrics or lithics) which require specialist knowledge and experience to process and adequately ‘preserve by record’. How is it proposed to deal with this issue if a proportion of the recording of many finds brought to the PAS is to be done by outside volunteers? Or will such artefacts brought to the LVA’s volunteer scheme be left unrecorded for want of suitable staff to deal with them?

13) When material is assigned to ‘Community recorders’ by LVA, are the same criteria of selection adopted as when it is being recorded by the FLOs or are there differences in the datasets being created by these groups, and how will that affect the use of the archive as a resource for research?

14) When the information by the ‘Community recorders’ is incorporated into the database, will it be distinguishable in any way?

15) Given the possibilities for ‘laundering’ of provenance offered by the PAS database, and several known cases of objects being reported to FLOs with false provenances (which hints there may be undiscovered cases lurking in the ‘data’) in what way does the LVA envisage closer vetting of findspot information offered by finders?

16) Will turnaround time be shortened?
Social Media and Audiences
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.

18) Does the LVA have a policy of openness regarding use of social media such as Twitter and facebook by its staff to keep the audiences in touch with the day to day operation of the Scheme and flag up issues?
Public Outreach
19) From previous BM press releases about portable antiquities, the public has recceived 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?

20) There is a paradox in that, though most countries in the rest of the world have legislation to prevent the digging up and collection of objects taken from the archaeological record for personal profit and entertainment, Britain has set up a Scheme which encourages such an activity. This is damaging to the efforts of foreign colleagues trying to fight the antiquities trade which is doing so much damage to the archaeological record in, for example, the Middle East. The British Museum has in recent months taken a more active role in condemning the destruction abroad (in Egypt and Syria for example), but what will the LVA do to explain to the British public the nature and reasons (and justification) for the existence of the paradox that what we condemn when done in Isin (Iraq) is praised when done in Islip (UK)? If archaeological bodies in Britain were to start another Stop Taking Our Past campaign against irresponsible artefact collecting, would the LVA support it? 
I am sure there are many more questions that could be raised, but given the fact that the BM has kept awfully, awfully quiet about all this all along, the twenty above should be a good starting point to understand what they intend doing with our Portable Antiquities Scheme.

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