21 April 2013

IfA Conference 2013

This year the IfA Conference took place in Birmingham, at Aston University. The theme ('Making Waves') was about impact, and the sessions mostly addressed various ways in which archaeology relates to the rest of society. Other commitments meant that I could only be there on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday, so sadly I missed a couple of sessions on Friday which sounded very interesting. As ever, this is an entirely personal account of my own impressions, and does not represent the views of any of the organisations with which I am associated.

On the whole I thought this was a great conference. Inevitably there are always minor niggles, but generally the venue, food and organisation were good. The papers were also to a high standard, and - at least in the sessions which I attended - there was thoughtful and useful discussion. The social events (and subsequent activities) were also good fun. The wine reception and dinner at the Hotel du Vin were excellent, although the Rose Villa Tavern was perhaps a bit too small for the party.

Opening session

The conference opened at about the same time as Baroness Thatcher's funeral. IfA Chief Executive Pete Hinton wisely avoided any political references. However Jan Wills (IfA Honorary Chair) did bring her own political views close to the surface: talking about a 'Conservative' government (it is a coalition) and 'cuts to public services'. This was regrettable. Her talk was also quite Anglo-centric. I found this to be a disappointing address, partly for these reasons, but mainly because I felt that it didn't strike the inspirational tone which the Institute needs in this time of internal and external change.

The keynote address was made by Gareth Maeer, Head of Research at the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). He spoke about the HLF's ongoing programme of research into the values and benefits of heritage. Understanding the outcomes of such research was clearly important to delegates: when asked, the vast majority considered such information 'essential' to their work. Gareth demonstrated the very real ability of 'heritage' generally to have economic and social impact on society more widely. Although the ways in which the HLF measures 'values and benefits' could be seen as rather narrow at times (mainly focused on economic value), it is clear that their methodologies are continually evolving and they are open to new ideas. Particularly interesting was Gareth's analysis that 'well-being' policy is still on the UK government agenda despite the pressures of the current economic situation.

Paying dividends

After lunch I (along with, I suspect, the majority of the conference) attended a session entitled 'Paying dividends: securing the impact of development-led archaeological work'. Jay Carver talked about some really impressive outreach associated with the London Crossrail development, John Blair (University of Oxford) and Michael Fulford (University of Reading)described the role of grey literature in enhancing academic understanding of the Anglo-Saxon and Roman periods respectively, and there were some thoughtful concluding remarks by Tim Darvill (University of Bournemouth).

Two papers really stood out for me. The first was Hilary Orange (UCL) describing her survey of how commercial organisations are able to incorporate various types of public outreach into their projects. Despite a technical issue which meant that she had no slides, Hilary nevertheless painted a vivid picture of how it is possible to do effective public engagement with very small actions. She spoke about the value of social media and of websites such as 'academia.edu' in enabling the commercial sector to make the results of archaeological projects more widely known more quickly.

Wendy Morrison (University of Oxford) spoke about an incredibly ambitious project to synthesise several decades of fieldwork by half-a-dozen organisations in the gravels of the upper Thames valley. This is not merely a synthetic overview of sites (dots on the map) but an incredibly detailed GIS-based plotting of individual features. As well as enabling fresh archaeological insights, the project is also delivering useful analysis of archaeological method and practice.

The social benefit of archaeology

On Thursday I was torn between two sessions. Mike Hodder (Birmingham City Council) and Ian George (English Heritage) were running a session on 'urban design and the historic environment'; I gave a paper in their similar session at the IFA Conference in Bangor exactly ten years ago, and it was tempting to revisit the debate. However in the end I chose to go to the session on the social benefit of archaeology.

The session began with Caroline Pudney (Cadw) describing her MORTARIA project. The acronym stands for 'Motivating Offender Rehabilitation Through Archaeological Recording, Investigation and Analysis', and this is exactly what the project is attempting. Working within HMP Parc (Bridgend), Caroline had achieved some impressive results with young offenders, and I found this to be an extremely inspiring project - with relevance to the work which the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust is doing with offenders at Beacon Ring hillfort.

Rob Hedge (Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service) then spoke about work with visually impaired school children; a really nuanced approach involving a wide range of oral and tactile resources. This was followed by an overview of recent community projects in south Wales by Janet Bailey (Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust). The first part of the session was rounded off by a moving film introduced by Tara-Jane Sutcliffe (CBA) on behalf of the Workers' Educational Association. This described work in Yorkshire with stroke victims, and clearly demonstrated the quite remarkable transformative impact which archaeology can have. You can see it here.

John Schofield (University of York) gave a thoughtful and wide-ranging paper describing his own work in Malta and Bristol with marginalised groups and individuals, within the framework of widening participation expressed by the Faro Convention. Having spoken about Faro myself at TAG last year, I found this a very useful contribution. This led onto a lively discussion which explored a range of issues: the importance of place, the different role of public- and private-sector organisations, and the ethics of public engagement.


In the afternoon I joined the tour of the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter led by Simon Buteux. The visit to the Newman Brothers Coffin Fittings Factory was particularly interesting to me as I had led the recording and clearance project on this site back in 2007. Restoration of the now-empty building is imminent; good luck to the Birmingham Conservation Trust in developing a sustainable business involving a mixture of heritage attraction and lettable space.

One very interesting element of the conference this year was the changing demographic. One result of the CBA and IfA bursary schemes has been the introduction of a 'New Generation' of younger delegates at the conference, and I do hope that this continues. Another aspect of this is reflected in the gradual rise of my own generation to more senior positions within the profession, and hopefully this will also make a positive impact in the future.

This conference was also noteworthy for the success of the social media policy. Lots of people were busy Tweeting (search the hashtag #2013ifa for a blow-by-blow account of proceedings). My only regret was that due to WiFi and battery problems I was not able to make much of a contribution on the Twitter front.

It was lovely to meet many old friends, and to make some new ones. Many thanks to the IfA for a highly enjoyable meeting; I am already looking forward to the Glasgow conference next year.

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