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Kent Archaeological Review extract

The Secretary Speaks.
by .

Recent legislation has strengthened the protection of buildings of architectural and historic interest, providing local authorities with more powers to control the alteration, neglect or demolition of ancient buildings by owners unsympathetic to their merits. Rising population and prosperity in Kent has threatened ancient buildings as land is scarce, and finance is available for lucrative redevelopment. Many town centres, such as Maidstone, have been almost stripped of their ancient buildings, and the surrounding villages are now threatened. Already the latest legislation has proved inadequate in some respects. A recent decision has undermined the operation of 'conservation areas', which could have protected those villages or sections of towns still retaining their original character. Another weakness has been brutally exposed by the attitude of the London Borough of Bromley to the Priory Outbuildings at Orpington. Whilst the legislation applies to private owners, buildings owned by local authorities are not so protected-presumably on the dubious assumption that local authorities have a greater sense of responsibility. Demands have started for amending legislation and, in the short run, there seems no alternative to joining the clan now.

Everyone interested in archaeology must, however, be uneasy about the need to resort to legislation. We get the local councillors we deserve. If the public cared about old buildings, so would councillors. It must be admitted that past generations of archaeologists failed to capture, and benefit from, public sympathy. Denouncing the majority of the public now as materialistic philistines is futile when so little effort has been devoted to gaining public support. This neglect of public opinion must be contrasted with the successful efforts to advance archaeological knowledge and techniques this century, just as the sophisticated motor industry has devoted enormous resources to engineering design and production techniques to make the car a mass product, but completely neglected the question of adapting labour relations to the changed conditions.

Yet the archaeologist now has much in his favour. Television archaeological programmes command large audiences, and large numbers visit excavations, stately homes, ancient monuments and churches. The problem is that most of these people 'interested' in archaeology have not been persuaded to actively support the cause. Despite this large interest in archaeology, many old established societies have hardly increased their membership since 1939, let alone made any effective contact with wider sections of the population.

There are, in my opinion, two explanations of this phenomenon. Firstly many archaeologists publish their work solely by articles in learned journals and lectures aimed at other knowledgeable archaeologists. Speaking to the public finds no place in their work of improving archaeological standards. Secondly, many people regret the passing of the good old days when archaeology was restricted to the socially respectable including the gentry and clergy whose gardeners undertook the occasional excavation; when the membership list of the Kent Archaeological Society distinguished between the Esquires and the Misters; when that Society's Rules could state that Members of either Houses of Parliament, who are landed proprietors of the county or residents therein, shall, on becoming Members of the Society, be placed on the list of Vice-Presidents. Both groups of people find it difficult to come to terms with the fact that the study of the past can, and should, appeal to the majority of the population.

Of course, considerable efforts to increase public awareness of the past are now being made, but much remains to be done and I give a few examples. Press publicity can be increased, schools encouraged to include archaeological material in their syllabus and more facilities granted to the public on excavation sites. Exhibitions, such as those organised by the Lower Medway, Otford and Sittingbourne Groups have been successful as has the winter lecture programme run by the West Kent Group. Some publications can be designed for wide circulation, such as the History Trail pamphlets produced by the Faversham Society and, of course, this Review. As an integral part of the regional survey scheme of the Maidstone Group, members visit the owners of land and scheduled buildings in the parish to speak about the work of the archaeologist, and plan to end the work with a public lecture and village guide book.

Modern archaeologists must devote much time, effort and ingenuity in new methods of communication, to public education and public participation. Only then can we hope that future generations of archaeologists will face a public willing to back their work and plans.

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