There’s trouble in store at our museums

Many museums are facing a lack of space
Many museums are facing a lack of space

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Dr Robert Symmons, the curator at Fishbourne Roman Palace, writes about the struggle at local museums to find more storage space

There is a crisis facing many museums in Britain and for once it is not financial, but is due to a chronic lack of storage space.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the vast quantities of artefacts that archaeology museums keep behind the scenes.

These research collections form the backbone of any museum of archaeology and come from excavations that take place ahead of housing developments and other construction projects.

You may have noticed in recent years that more and more construction projects are going ahead, but you almost certainly won’t have noticed your local museum extending its store to keep the artefacts recovered during these projects.

So, where is all of this newly excavated material going?

Most museums cannot take it in because they are full and building or hiring additional space is too costly.

The only logical solution is to create more space by disposing of some artefacts, and this is perhaps the biggest ethical minefield any curator is ever likely to have to negotiate.

Who is to say that a box of medieval pottery deserves to be kept more than a crate of Roman tile?

Part of the problem is that we don’t know what technological advances the future will bring.

Most curators dread disposing of anything in case future scientific methods mean that it has unrecognised archaeological research potential.

What a relief museums didn’t get rid of all of the animal bone excavated in the 1960s or we would have lost all the information that recent advances in DNA analysis has enabled, for example.

And what do you do with the material once the decision is made to dispose of it?

It is unlikely that other museums will want it and there is a limit to how much will be needed by schools and other groups as teaching material.

You can’t simply send it to landfill or dig a hole and bury it, unless you want to cause future generations of archaeologists untold confusion if it is ever found again.

There are no easy answers and until these problems are solved, the situation is getting worse, with more and more artefacts stored in contractors’ warehouses unavailable for display and unable to be accessed by the public whose heritage it represents.

n Fishbourne Roman Palace is in Roman Way, Fishbourne. Call 01243 785859 to find out more about the museum.