Public Relations for Industrial Archaeology

By James, N. | Antiquity, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Public Relations for Industrial Archaeology


James, N., Antiquity


Completion of the motorway M74's west end, through part of Glasgow and its fringe, was taken vigorously as an opportunity both to explain archaeology and local history to residents and to invite them to contribute to the study of the route. The route runs five miles across the old industrial south of the city and through the Gorbals, once the British byword for an urban 'sink'. The Discover M74 Public Archaeology Programme ran from August 2007 to February 2009, while archaeological tests and excavations were carried out and the bulldozers and pile-drivers then moved in. It engaged well over a thousand schoolchildren, various study groups and community groups, and many other local visitors. Imaginatively and effectively organised under the aegis of Transport Scotland (for the Scottish Government) and three local authorities, it has set a new standard in planning and managing public outreach.

This is becoming a prime principle in Britain. Historic Scotland, the Scottish Government's agency for managing the historic environment, runs a 'Community & Outreach' programme. All the signs from England's corresponding body during the past ten years are that, there, the proposed Heritage Protection Reform Bill will make priorities of public access, information and consultation (see, for instance, English Heritage's current statement, in References). Yet to be worked through, however, is the relation between 'archaeology in public', on the one hand, the kind of programme undertaken for M74, where professional priorities determine what is done, and, on the other hand, 'community archaeology', in which residents contribute to the agenda. Smith & Waterton (2009) have recently reviewed the main issues.

The project at Glasgow depended on two visions, civic, and archaeological. As with other urban road schemes, there was controversy, and it was partly on that account that Transport Scotland and the Glasgow City Council--prompted by its interdepartmental Local History & Archaeology Strategy Working Group--were keenly alert to opportunities for education and for acknowledging residents' memories of the area affected. Assessment, by Glasgow University, of the road's likely impacts on archaeology, confirmed that industry would be the main theme; and it cited the Five Points Site, New York City, to emphasise the potential for studying housing in a notorious neighbourhood as well as the factories. Specifications for investigation were drawn up accordingly by the West of Scotland Archaeology Service and, on behalf of Transport Scotland and the local authorities, the City Council commissioned Headland Archaeology and Pre-Construct Archaeology together to run the excavations and to engage the public. The City Council then worked especially effectively to involve schools and to encourage local industrial and social history in curricula.

By all accounts, work and housing alike were grim in the area. Yet parts of the nineteenth-century public archives were confidently discarded a generation ago; and, by now, most who still remember the old Gorbals and the factories have dispersed, giving way to a new population. So archaeology was needed; and so was oral history; but the social change helps to explain why the Discover Programme could not have been 'community archaeology'. Standing buildings were recorded; up to a hundred professional excavators went to work; and 23 oral history interviews were recorded, mostly with former residents found in various places. There were three main excavation sites: the Caledonian Pottery; a foundry and housing at the Govan Iron Works ('Dixon's Blazes'); and dwellings between Eglinton Street and Pollokshaws Road. Limited results were obtained at six factories and some housing on or near Scotland Street and from a sample of the Glasgow, Paisley & Johnstone Canal. The interviews and other chats added context--and some pathos--to rather bare traces of housing and helped to explain features easily misconstrued on the archaeological evidence alone. …

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