Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Widening the Audience for Community Archaeology

The Archaeologist is a magazine for members of the Institute for Archaeologists. Its Autumn edition Number 81 has a section talking about public participation in archaeology in relation to PPS5 (government legislation relating to archaeology in the planning process). It is hoped that PPS5 will promote the development and enabling of community projects and public engagement, especially those groups at risk of social exclusion.

Many schemes have been set up to encourage Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) participation in heritage jobs. Less attention has been given to such aspects as socio-economic or disability barriers to heritage work and participation. Gloucester City Council's Heritage Service collaborated with GEAR to engage homeless people, for example. The Council for British Archaeology has set up the Community Archaeological Bursaries Project, funded by the HLF, to train future community archaeologists. All this is a step in the right direction. But (you could hear that coming) it is still to little and the results could still very well produce a narrow demographic of newly trained professionals coming into community archaeology from the same backgrounds, as I have witnessed as a digger. Namely white, middle class, university educated young people. That is only going to get worse as university fees cull working class people, young and old, from going to college. I could go to college as a middle aged man with two kids because of grants plus working through the holidays. Even so I was lucky to find someone of a similar background to me during my working life in the field. The only other people I did meet similar to myself came from the old MSC scheme which allowed them to work as archaeologists without needing a degree. Some have gone on to good careers.

The past cannot be changed. The demographic in archaeology will not change in a flash. Future community archaeologists will be from the same narrow range of backgrounds as in the field. The job demands having a degree and no less. Commercialisation of archaeology demands professional, highly trained people where time is money and no time for volunteers. The development of community archaeology through PPS5 will lead to a top-down programmes of engagement. The CBA scheme will lead to a few trained Community Archaeologists running a few projects in privilaged areas where developers with the inclination and money to pay for it. Meanwhile people like me (ex-professional, older, trying to engage local people with their past with no support) are struggling.

I don't have all the answers. But we could acknowledge that all our communities need to be allowed to choose to be engaged with their past. So we need as many trained and/or experienced archaeologists to supply that need. I would suggest that most communities have museums and that is where the community archaeologist could be located. Also in field units, heritage businesses, and local authorities. Community archaeology just won't work if it is not based in the community. That has to be small scale, bottom-up projects backed by the larger organisations with 'embedded' CAs. Who pays? That is a question for us all. How important is your heritage? We just have to sit down and work it out. Only then will the demographic change as more people from all walks of life, who have experienced the thrill of finding the past themselves, want to move into running more community projects or even become professionals, with or without degrees (we should move away from that criteria and value experience more).        

One example sited in TA 81 is a project at Telford New Town. The project set out to excavate workers' houses demolished in 1970 and a local iron furnace as part of the planning process (PPS5!). Pre- and post-residents got together and set up a heritage group with the help of a heritage business called NEXUS Heritage. This challenged the popular image of the New Town as having no heritage roots. This is an example of a project starting due to PPS5 and a business getting involved. Wouldn't it be great to see many such projects starting through the help of local community archaeologists and other partners (museums, units, businesses, local authorities, community groups etc) to work on small scale excavations (very local and not always on what would normally be seen as classic archaeology, as in Telford) and non-intrusive surveys.
Meanwhile I will just crack on doing my own thing as best I can.

Also go to: http://www.britarch.ac.uk/news/111004-servicesatrisk for news on cuts to our exisiting heritage service. The Philistines are back in charge.   

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