Monday, August 08, 2005

Security? How do you mean?

We read with grave concern an article in the 29 July 2005 edition of Public Servant entitled Culture in Crisis: Britain's Teasures are Kept Under Wraps.

The article reports on the effects of cut-backs in the wider cultural heritage sector.

The V&A

Of specific concern to archivists are developments at the Victoria and Albert Museum and British Museum in London, the former having suffered thefts of objects from public galleries and the latter since March 2004 from both store areas as well as public galleries in each case resulting from outside contractors being left unsupervised.

Both the V&A and BM hold archives. According to Janet Foster and Julia Shepherd's British Archives (4th. edition, 2002) the V&A's collections comprise Special Collections, the Archive of Art and Design, the Beatrix Potter Collection and the V&A's own administrative archive while the BM holds a so-called Central Archive.

The National Archives at Kew has already admitted to large scale loss of documents to thieves (see our earlier blog Safe in Our Hands)

We asked Benedict Crumplethorne, our spokesman on civil service matters, to comment further.

Clearly if contractors are being left unsupervised in the rear areas of national museums we must assume their archival collections are at risk too. It seems we can no longer take it for granted archivists and the directors of such museums treat security of collections as paramount. We know this tendency exists in the local government sector too [see Some Dos and Don'ts]

I don't think it's entirely a matter of under-funding. The issue is a cultural one within the archives profession, among our so-called para-professional colleagues and the strange breed of directorial staff who head national museums and archives who seem to be neither one thing or another, a sort of blurry-eyed many-headed monster combining the attributes of researcher, chief executive and figurehead which cannot see archives at all or differentiate them from museum objects or library books. These people have no knowledge of security; they are in fact descendants of those well-heeled late 19th. Century and early 20th. Century antiquarian types who hoarded collections as much in their private homes as in museums.

One need only look at the situation in the US National Archives.

However, what makes me mad is Iraq. Would you believe representatives of the British Museum are advising Iraqi officials when our own house isn't even in order? Or that the National Archives is advising Iraq on modern records management?


We thank Benedict for his insights.

The domestic sequel to all this is that the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has met MPs to push the cultural heritage further up the agenda, in so doing reminding us of the failure of the National Council on Archives and others to do this for archives.

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