My bike, the authentic object with it’s own biography.

I’d like to take another moment to think about authenticity. The word itself has been thrown about a lot during my masters, in various contexts, and I am rather fond of using it. Authenticity is particularly interesting in a heritage/museums context. What is it that makes an object authentic? is a question that I hear asked a lot. And I think, a lot of the time, the authenticity of an object and the authenticity of its heritage are two completely different things. To illustrate this, I use my beloved bike, seen below.

A truly terrible shot of my higgledy-piggledy bike of joy and happiness, named George, outside Kings Manor in York.

The story of how I came to be in possession of such a beauteous thing is a rather sad one. For the last two years of my undergraduate, I owned a bike with a very much similar look (see below). It was pieced together lovingly by my father, with a Peugeot Provencelle touring frame at it’s core. Now I don’t know a lot about bikes, but I assume that this model (along with my current Dawes Galaxy mixte bike) started to be manufactured in the 1970s bike boom. In touring cycling especially it seems that the trend is to keep your (handmade, steel) frame and custom build your bike around that. When I moved to York, I took my precious Peugeot with me, and had  the audacity to chain it up outside my building. Alas, it was stolen.

The only photograph of my marvelous ex-bike that I seem to be able to find at the moment

Needless to say, I was devastated. Over the years I’d grown real attachment to this bike. It’s frame was so obviously retero, and therefore ‘cool’, and I’d attached meaning to it because of it’s connection with my dad. So the only thing to do was to get another one, just as authentically retero and cool, and equally comfortable to ride (I think to buy a new handmade, steelframed and therefore comfortable touring bike in the UK it’ll put you back a pretty £1000) so off I went and purchased a Dawes Galaxy.

The previous owner of this Dawes bike took great pride in the fact that it was in its complete, original state. It had these terrible drop-handle bars that more than once caused me to crash, and a rack on the back that made my panniers slip towards my heels as I pedalled. I realised that I actually placed very little value in the thing as an authentic object. For me, what would make this an authentic, Johnson bike, was extreme customisation and a whole lot of use and abuse. Only once I’d (or rather my dad had) changed the handle bars, added a new rack, given it better mud guards, etc, did I feel like I was ready to name my bike. And I suspect that it’ll be another two years before I develop a similar level of attachment to the one I had for my old Peugeot.

My point here is sort of relevant to conservation and definitely to heritage. Traditional ways of thinking suggest that authenticity is derived from a state of wholeness, completeness and uninterrupted existence of an object. But on a more personal, human level, what we as people and more specifically archaeologists love about objects, is the things that have changed them. The things that set them apart. These are the things that can help us to tell stories about the objects, that help us to understand their (often multiple) owners. Being able to trace an object’s heritage, I would argue, makes it far more authentic than it’s authenticity in the truest, most scientific sense of the word.

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The problematic topic of the volunteer culture in archaeology and heritage in Britain

In the past few months it has become apparent to me that the subject of voluntary work, in heritage in general and archaeology in particular, is a really rather difficult one. I’ve decided to write this post because the topic has been raised more and more as my classmates and I reach the final stretch of our studies in Cultural Heritage Management and Other Wonderful Archaeological Topics.

It has only become more apparent as I begin to search out jobs and complete application forms from employers who expect a huge amount of experience (both voluntary and paid) from successful candidates. All too often, it is impossible to gain experience in a paid position until you have really rather substantial voluntary experience. Personally I have around 700 hours of voluntary experience, most of which is in field archaeology, and some of which is curatorial or journalistic. But still this does not feel like enough to get the jobs which I have spent the last 6 months qualifying myself to do.

So one of the issues that comes straight to mind is what exactly qualifies someone to do a job – is it experience or is it a piece of paper? Universities are churning out hundreds of gifted and enthusiastic graduates and postgraduates who are inexperienced but who have all demonstrated an ability to learn and apply themselves to various tasks with which they might be confronted with in the working environment (as far as I can gather teaching transferable skills has become extremely important in most university curricula), but their lack of experience hinders them significantly.

So who does have the experience? Well, to me it appears to be those who have the resources that mean they can devote considerable amounts of time to their chosen voluntary pursuit, be that field archaeology or being a Steward at a museum or heritage site .  This brings us on to an even more challenging subject. It is, of course, money! Those who can afford to work for free, are able to do so. Those who have spent a considerable amount of money (not to mention time!) studying Cultural Heritage Management, Digital Heritage, Public Archaeology, Museum Studies need to be paid for their time in order to make their investments in their education worthwhile. Could it be argued then that heritage practice is becoming de-specialised because there are those without qualifications who are willing to work for free?

I must stress here that I am in no way against the involvement of volunteers and the general public in archaeology and heritage. I am a strong believer that everyone who wants to should be able to be involved in their own heritage, but if we lose the heritage specialist, then what do we have left?

There are so many aspects of this conversation to pursue (to list just a few: diminished levels of knowledge/professionalism in the field, entertainment, potentials for community development) which have been mentioned by some of my fellow tweeters.

Interestingly enough, as I started this post, I tweeted about it, and the very immediate and passionate response I had from both followers and non-followers was interesting. This is clearly a subject that people have strong feelings on. I’d love for this to become and open (respectful!) discussion, so please contribute in the comments below, or join in the twitter conversation here. We’re using the hashtag #FreeArchaeology to contribute our thoughts and opinions on the subject!

I will leave you with an interesting and amusing little flow chart that a good friend and fellow blogger of mine, Hannah Sterry  pointed out to me. It is entitled Should I Work for Free? and I believe it contains swears, although there is a button at the top which will remove all traces of the f-bomb.

I look forward to hearing any contributions anyone may have and below I will provide links to others’ thoughts on the subject:

Stone: Some Incoherent Thoughts on Volunteering – A wonderfully honest blog post from Lucy Shipley

Q: Why should archaeology be free? A: It shouldn’t. – Jennie Bancroft presents some statistics that provide an insight into volunteer culture in British Heritage

free archaeology, part one: volunteering, training and crowdfunding – A nice review of how the #FreeArchaeology twitterstorm started, summarising the arguments made on twitter and through blogging.

An MSc in Digital Heritage: contemplations on a personal future.

I can hardly believe that I’m in my final week of timetabled master’s lectures (and have under two weeks in which to finish my final summative assesments, oh god!) – the time has absolutely flown! I’m feeling very reflective about the whole experience, and whilst I’ve struggled at times, both with the content of my course when placed alongside my previous research interests and the simple case of balancing work and study, I wouldn’t change it for the world!

I’ve learned a lot about what the real world of Heritage is like, beyond the Universities. I’ve become more independent, and grown up a lot. But I think that most importantly, I’ve made contacts.

I’ve been extremely lucky to be involved in a hugely interesting project with the York Museums Trust, and last week the past few months of contemplation on the project came together as I interviewed a certain Mr. Lamplough on camera. Mr. Lamplough, now in his 70’s I believe, has donated a large and extremely important collection of Bronze Age objects to the Yorkshire Museum. These objects were retrieved from a series of Neolithic and Bronze Age sites across the North York Moors in a series of rescue excavations in the 1950s and 60s when Mr. Lamplough was a boy of around 10. The work was pioneering and of the utmost importance.  I will be blogging about the collection on the YMT blog and visual material from the interview will be pushed over the web over the next few months.

I’ve also been offered the opportunity to go and do some work on the ever-changing and often challenging museum at Çatalhöyük. This will happen at some point during the fieldwork season, and wouldn’t even be happening without the influence of my greatly admired supervisor, Dr. Sara Perry, to whom I am hugely grateful!

All of these opportunities have been amazing and eye-opening, and I really don’t know what to do with myself next (although I have an entire thesis to write before I can move on to the next adventure!). I have moments where I think oh god, what am I doing? I need to get out now before it’s too late! but I just know that it’s not over yet. I’m not done with archaeology yet.

I came into this course with a very simple aim: to equip myself with the qualifications necessary to get paid (ha!) work in a sector that I am passionate about, rather than end up doing work that will suck my soul out through any available orifice (I’m looking at you, retail). A group discussion via Google Groups between students on the second Cultural Heritage Management module at York has made it absolutely clear that almost everyone is worried, nay terrified, about finding permanent and stable work in the heritage sector. And I’m getting that itching feeling that I had at the end of my bachelors where I’m thinking I’ve come this far, why not just carry on!? I could be the first person with a Doctorate in the family!

I think if I do decide to attempt to get funding for a doctorate though, I need a good long time to evaluate just what I want to get out of it. The course I’m on now was a quick decision, and whilst it is one I don’t regret for a second – it’s brought me to a wonderful place –  it’s caused me to deviate hugely from my primary interests in archaeology. As I’ve learned and developed intellectually, I now find myself lost. I can’t remember what my original interests were in the first place (if I ever really had any!) and I’m pretty sure that they will have changed and morphed over the academic year.