@CaralNiChuilin on dealing with the past

Everyone is familiar with legacies of the development boom and bust, such as ghost estates or negative equity. A slightly less obvious legacy was raised in the Assembly yesterday when Carál Ní Chuilín answered a question on the preservation of archaeological collections recovered from sites being developed during the boom. Currently a working group is preparing a report on how to deal with this issue for the Environment Minister, Mark Durkan, who has the majority of responsibility in this area. This is largely due to the fact that management of known archaeological sites is part of the Built Heritage function of the Environment Agency in his department.

In the Assembly, Anna Lo raised the issue with reference to any future impact on museum resources (see here under Local Storage) since that impacts on DCAL, the Department of Arts, Culture and Leisure (which has responsibility for museums services). Lo was referencing a survey carried out by the Environment Agency which has estimated that some 1,800 project archives are currently in private hands. Current best practice for management of cultural heritage promotes the use of dedicated facilities to store and accession artefactual material and relevant archives. These should include specialist reports, such as on the circumstances of recovery (e.g. by archaeological excavation). Future heritage management strategies and development policies rely on the synthesis of this type of information to inform the debate on what should be preserved, why and how (and, technically, to assist in compliance with the Valletta convention). Appropriate curation of the archives and artefacts should also make provision for access by the public and researchers.

The 1,800 project archives in question were mostly created when a development project was given approval on condition of recording what was of archaeological significance on site prior to it being removed (or partially preserved in situ) during construction. If you browse summaries of typical projects on the Excavations website you can work out that the archives will vary from a short report and handful of objects recovered at some sites to the full excavation of previously unknown archaeological sites which produced hundreds or thousands of objects (you can also see actual excavation reports here to get an idea of the variation involved). The projects were licensed by the Department of Environment and paid for by the developers under the ‘polluter pays’ principle. The requirement on the developer was usually to record the archaeological remains before they are destroyed (excavation is simply controlled destruction). This only arises from the proposed development so the responsibility for funding the recording lies with the proposer (i.e. the developer).

Unlike some other polluter pays principles, the mechanism used isn’t a levy the developer is required to pay prior to commencing the project, but rather, a free-market system where the developer engages a heritage consultant (usually a ‘licensed’ archaeologist), often by competitive tender. While the developer pays for the project itself, there is no contribution made towards the future management of the physical archive arising from the project. The cost of managing and curating objects and archival materials then falls, locally, on the museums service, where (or if) it is in a position to accept the archives into its care. One scale of the issue can be seen in the estimates that the archives include up to 1.4 million objects (h/t @DanHull), a significant proportion of which have not received any significant post-excavation treatment.

There has been a long-standing debate on the use of Community Infrastructure-type Levys (eg see consultation document and recent review, plus a letter from the Chair of the Historic Monuments Council in 2009). But the current issue is a legacy issue and won’t be resolved by any future use of levies to recognise the ongoing funding requirement that arises from the curation and conservation of the relevant archives. The current Environment Minister has been urged to act on this issue for some time by the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland (IAI), with the Department’s current working group considering proposals. However, this has been a live issue for a considerable amount of time and is not new (e.g. see background here).

The implications of managing the conservation and curation of such a volume of material are likely to be significant, as Carál Ní Chuilín starkly pointed out to the Assembly yesterday that any solution is likely to:

…entail vast sums of public money to have these archives not only assessed but housed, stored and exhibited…

She also pointed out that the current planning policy statement of the Department of Environment, PP6, is defective in failing to adequately deal with the issue of archives and curation and urgently needs to be reviewed. In reality, a wider overhaul of the resourcing of heritage services and museum needs to be undertaken, since the current system appears to be failing in many directions (e.g., see the recent destruction of a Mesolithic site in County Down). There also needs to be an informed public debate about what is appropriate treatment of the estimated 1.4 million objects and 1,800 project archives.

Any significant funding of a programme to deal with this issue will undoubtedly face public resentment since key services and benefits are being cut and other resourcing is under serious pressure. The value of heritage as a driver for tourism also needs to be introduced into the debate to widen public understanding of the potential and opportunities here. Given the consistency with which the Department of Environment appear to have dropped the ball on this issue, hopefully DCAL will now take a lead and deal with this particular legacy of the past.

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