These are difficult times for the several thousand voluntary archaeology and heritage groups in the UK. Normal forms of interaction – monthly meetings, walks, tours, finds processing, library research, and field work – are all closing down as the CORVID-19 virus, and the measures needed to combat it, takes hold. At least three major surveys in the last 10 years by the Council for British Archaeology, Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, and Historic England have repeatedly shown that these forms of interactions by volunteers are at the heart of exploring the past. This voyage of discovery is a shared experience, reflecting our common humanity, and one that has significant health and well-being benefits.
As Chair of one such body, the South Trafford Archaeological Group, I know that the well-being of our members and visitors is paramount. This is why, like thousands of other bodies, we have suspended all meetings, postponed our spring conference, and closed our display centre at Timperley Old Hall, in Trafford, for the foreseeable future.
Many museum and voluntary heritage organisations are working on developing or boosting their digital presence, in addition to their websites, e-newsletters, and social media activities. Others are offering to expand free online resources. A good jumping off point to explore these online resources is the Museums Association’s website: https://www.museumsassociation.org/home
Thus, at STAG we are looking at the current difficult situation as an opportunity to boost our online presence – Digital STAG if you like. We are working on a more extensive website show-casing our 40-years-worth of research; expanding our social media presence to encourage more interactive content; listing research topics that members might want to explore at home; and increasing the frequency of our e-newsletters.
There is, though, a silent problem. About 10% of STAG’s membership do not have or have chosen not to give the Group an email address. Like many (most?) archaeology societies the age profile of STAG is focussed on the over-60s, the very group most vulnerable, it seems, to the impact of the CORVID-19 virus. What can we do as archaeology group members to support our fellow members? I think the answer here is to follow those great human instincts for compassion and concern, and to use the 19th century technology of the telephone in the way that it was originally envisaged – as a device that allows two people to talk to each other remotely. Therefore, STAG committee members will be trying to contact all our fellow members during the current crisis on a regular basis to make sure that they are safe and well.
However, I worry that a prolonged shut down will lead to the closure of many of our smaller local archaeology and heritage groups. Voluntary groups such as these have been a distinctive feature of the UK heritage landscape since the mid-19th century and have contributed significantly to our understanding and preservation of the past. The current health crisis shows that they are vulnerable. When this passes, and it will, a practical action that many under-60s interested in the past can do to help secure its future, is to go out and join their local archaeology and heritage society – assuming it’s still there.