Another yawning gap is opening in archaeology – and indeed I suspect in many other subjects, this time over the use of the term ‘volunteer’.

 

 

On the one hand there are the big quangos, usually government financed, with a staff of half a dozen or a dozen, who conveniently use volunteers as a sort of cheap slave labour and who need to wave their banner of ‘volunteerism’ as a means of extracting government finance; and on the other hand there is the local society on the ground with perhaps a hundred members but who live in an entirely different world to that of the big quangos. And unfortunately, if they do not look out, they are in danger of being run over and squashed by them.

 

English Heritage has commissioned Heritage Link to find out what the voluntary heritage sector in England does, and how it does it. Details can be found on their website www.heritagelink.org.uk from which their twelve page questionnaire can be down loaded.

 

It is an odd sort of document: Heritage Link is essentially a get-together of large quangos who receive lots of money from the government, very different to the local archaeological societies.

 

Thus they want to know how many staff you employ – which will eliminate all archaeological societies save a handful; how much you spend; and of course they ask those crucial questions: what percentage of your membership are under 45 years old; how many belong to socioeconomic groups C2, D and E, and to ‘black and ethnic minority groups’.

 

They are very keen too on ‘partnerships’ which clearly they think are a very good thing and thus all their questions in this section are biased. They ask, for instance, for the advantages of such partnerships but not the disadvantages. (For a good example of a phoney ‘partnership’ see the Gobbledegook Corner, above, a good example of a Mother Hen trying to pretend it is in ‘partnership’ with its nine little chicks). Nobody seems to have told Heritage Link that partnership in the sense that they use it is a political trap, an attempt by Government or more often local Government to draw the fangs of local societies so that they are no longer independent and are thus no longer able to criticise local government. More subtly, they are drawn into the local government/civil service way of doing things, which is not always the best way to create a vibrant entrepreneurial local society.

 

The basic problem with the questionnaire is that they are asking all the wrong questions and are therefore unlikely to get the right answers. The big problem for local societies over the past generation has been the advent of professionalism. Now professionalism has, in my view, been overwhelmingly a Good Thing, but like all Good Things, it has gone a little too far. The questions we now need to be asking concern the limits of professionalism, to seek some guide lines for the role of the local society. What sort of activities should the professionals and indeed the government and governmental bodies be doing – and more importantly, what should they not be doing. What activities should be left to local societies? Where is their evidence of market failure, the main economic reason for the government to step in with taxpayer funding? These are difficult questions. I think it is widely recognised that the best way for a local society to flourish is to carry out a successful small excavation where there are lots of finds and everyone can join in and find something. The excitement of touching even a small pot sherd that has been untouched for hundreds of years is one of the fundamental lures of archaeology. Yet local societies are being squeezed out from suitable opportunities for excavation. These are the questions that Heritage Link should be asking, but is not. If English Heritage intends to rely on its results for their annual propaganda document called Heritage Counts, they will be relying on evidence that is worryingly off-target.

 

This opinion comes from CA issue 204

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