Cuts are affecting the whole heritage sector (see Rescue’s map) but cuts to “outreach” are perhaps the most damaging since a well-informed public is crucial to stewardship. While Cadw in Wales still has a Community archaeologist (see our recent story about Tinkinswood) English Heritage’s has had to close its outreach department leaving outreach in the sole hands of those who lack funding.
Not that it isn’t excellent – e.g. see here (Brislington) and here (school outreach in Bedfordshire using archaeology techniques) but there is now less of it and as a consequence other messages about archaeology have become more influential by default. Few archaeologist would be happy for PAS’s metal detecting game or detectorists’ “show and tell” sessions to be the main message schoolchildren hear yet that becomes progressively more likely as mainstream outreach contracts. That the two messages aren’t the same could be shown by one of those “show and tell” detectorists visiting a Bedfordshire school: “Hey Mr, last week we used archaeological methods to maximise knowledge and minimise damage and treated the finds as everyone’s yet you lay claim to yours and want applause for showing them to us. If you do it for everyone leave them all here!” Of course, if the previous outreach hadn’t happened that comment wouldn’t have arisen!
We make no apologies for supporting what we could call the proper “fifties” message not the other one. Back then archaeology was seen as public property not a public goody bag and the fact that a monarch’s reign later we have 10,000 people scouring every hotspot on the basis “it’ll be mine” doesn’t change anything. Our fear however is that the proper message is being overwhelmed as funding reduces. And things are about to get worse due to planned TV programmes ostensibly celebrating “Treasure” but with only one certain effect, an expansion of acquisitive artefact hunting. There is no way that’s the image of archaeology that most archaeologists wish outreach to portray yet how can they compete? The other message is winning the battle for public attention.
But some of us can’t accept a brash new world in which votes, finance and viewing figures depend on depicting artefacts as targets of personal posession or “Treasure”. Just because no-one now gets paid to talk about the fact that the information to be obtained from the non-bling, boring, inconsequential bits of the archaeological resource is the real treasure doesn’t mean that message is wrong. As Rescue say on their website: “It belongs to all of us” and which outreach message prevails depends on which of two possible interpretations of that statement archaeologists choose to support.