Society for Museum Archaeology

Can rationalisation solve archaeology’s storage crisis?

Recent work by the Society for Museum Archaeology (SMA) in collaboration with Historic England (HE) has clearly demonstrated the pressures that museums with archaeological collections are facing in terms of diminishing storage space, staff reductions and loss of expertise. It is in this context that rationalisation (the application of agreed selection strategies to previously accessioned archaeological project archives, with the purpose of de-selecting parts of the collection) is being increasingly suggested as one way forward to help alleviate the archaeological archive storage problem and create storage space. Furthermore, the audits required by the rationalisation process are seen to be useful exercises in collections management since they increase knowledge of and access to collections. However, despite the potential value of rationalisation, little practical guidance exists for those wishing to carry it out and the overall efficacy of the process has never been fully assessed for archaeological material – until now.

The publication of SMA’s Guidance for the Rationalisation of Museum Archaeology Collections provides museum professionals with a series of practical considerations, written in straightforward language, as informed by the real world experiences of institutions.

The guidance marks the final stage of a hugely informative and collaborative project funded by HE and delivered in partnership with SMA and five institutions in England responsible for the collection and care of archaeological archives:
• Museum of London
• Museums Worcestershire
• Stroud Museum
• Suffolk County Council
• Tullie House

These organisations, selected to provide a geographical spread and range of collection size and level of in-house specialism, undertook scoping studies to audit their holdings, establish selection criteria, estimate the resources required to undertaken rationalisation and calculate the likely amount of space that could be created if rationalisation was carried out. Their critical reflections on the process and honest responses allow real insight into this complex process.

Learning from these scoping studies has been combined with sector best practice by the SMA to produce wide-ranging guidance relating to:
• Project Planning
• Auditing Collections
• Assessing the Significance of Collections
• Disposal of Collections

This new guidance document demonstrates that rationalisation is unlikely to release large amounts of space in store. Insight from the participating institutions demonstrated the range of problems museums can face when undertaking such a project including poor recording of archives. All five participating institutions conclusively demonstrated that rationalisation is not a cost-effective way to increase storage capacity. The costs and resources required to undertake rationalisation and disposal to its conclusion were high, whilst the amount of space it released was relatively small.
In response to this the guidance also covers Space-saving Solutions outside the context of disposal including tips for repacking archives to reduce volume, specification of storage and method to streamline future collecting. There has never been greater public interest in archaeology, but the potential of future collecting is threatened. Perhaps it is time for the sector to change its view of rationalisation as not so much a solution to archaeology’s storage crisis but an opportunity to revisit the significance of our collections so they can be used in the most effective way possible.

Gail Boyle FMA FSA, Chair of The Society for Museum Archaeology said:

“SMA is grateful to Historic England for enabling this piece of work to be undertaken so as to enable all those responsible for the care of archaeological collections to embark on a rationalisation project with their eyes wide open to both the challenges and benefits such an endeavour can bring.”

Barney Sloane, Director of Research at Historic England, said:

“Government’s full endorsement of the sector-wide action plan to tackle the pressures on archaeological collections recognised the need for everyone to work together on solutions ( This guidance is an important step in helping museums to share ideas that work and to make the most efficient use of space without losing the significance of what they are entrusted to look after.”