Save the national collection: blog it

Bracer book

Northampton Borough Council sold its Egyptian statue for huge profit. It’s been criticised, but it really doesn’t seem to care. What next? If I lived in Northampton, I’d be worried that my museums might sell off more stuff that I didn’t know they had. And who’s to say this will stop at Northampton? Which council will be next?

Part of the case for raising money this way is said to be that if the public don’t ask to see something, they don’t want it. David Mackintosh, leader of Northampton Borough Council, told the BBC that the Sekhemka statue had “not been on display in Northampton for over four years. Nobody’s really come to us and asked for it to be on display or to see it.” (I like that “really”. Really?) Commentators on news stories sometimes repeat the point. “Before all this kicked off,” goes one, “Can anyone tell me the last time they wanted to look at this statue? Last time they enquired about it?” (That got 13 votes against, 7 for.)

So here’s what we do. Tell people about the hidden gems in our museums.

At any one time, the bulk of any reputable museum or gallery’s collections is not on display. Most of what’s in store is known about only to a handful of specialists. If a museum has no qualms, it could slip things out onto eBay hoping no one would notice (over the years, it’s not unknown to hear of things that have disappeared behind the scenes for one mysterious reason or another). Many museums publish catalogues, of course, detailing all they have, a professional responsibility. But not all do, or have catalogued their entire collections. And, like the stuff itself, these publications are typically seen only by specialists.

So if you are such a specialist, and you know of something that is particularly interesting or important to you, but which is probably known to few others, tell the world! Let’s hear about those things that nobody really asks to see because they don’t know they’re there. Let them know. See off the vandals.

Here’s my bit. Stone bracers.

These are really interesting little things, usually found in male graves and often by the wrist, from which they are generally assumed to be archer’s bow-string guards (such graves often have little flint arrowheads too). They were in use around 2500–2000BC. A very fine one lay by the arm of a man buried at Stonehenge.

Ann Woodward and John Hunter recently published a detailed monograph, cataloguing all the known specimens – they found 161 in Britain and Ireland. They concluded their discussion with an entertaining, if not totally convincing idea that the objects may have had nothing at all to do with archery, but instead were associated with falconry. Robert Wallis has just looked at that from the viewpoint of a falconer, and dismissed it. So it’s back to archery – though we’re still not clear exactly how they worked. More research needed.

WAllis 2014

And what do you know? My colleague Rob Ixer happened to tell me that Northampton Museum & Art Gallery has a couple of these bracers (he worked on the petrology for the cataloguing project). We wouldn’t wish those to slip out to the best bidder, so here are their entries.

bracer Duston

bracer Upper Heyford

There’s another one, excavated at Raunds in Northamptonshire. It’s currently, so the entry says, in an English Heritage store in Hampshire, but in due course we would expect to see it find its way to its local museum. English Heritage would have a good reason now to think about that, but you never know. So here’s that entry too.

bracer RaundsSo if you see any of those on eBay – you know where they came from.


An Examination of Prehistoric Stone Bracers from Britain, by A Woodward & J Hunter (Oxbow 2011) (reduced to £9.95)

“Re-examining stone ‘wrist-guards’ as evidence for falconry in later prehistoric Britain”, by Robert J Wallis, Antiquity 88 (2014), 411–24

8 thoughts on “Save the national collection: blog it

  1. Thanks! Amazing blog. Great to get members of the public more interested in museum collections. There are so many amazing objects that are never seen. Although of course museums do their best to show off their collections with temporary exhibitions, store tours, outreach events and online exhibitions. I have a similar blog myself:

  2. I think that the Museums Association Code of Ethics used to prohibit the sale of museum collections for profit. Their Code of Ethics currently states that is acceptable to sell art from public collections for profit under certain circumstances. This really needs to be changed, as it gives councils an excuse to start seeing museum and art collections as disposable assets that can be sold. How can curators lobby council members to prevent the sale of collections, if their own code of ethics states that is acceptable?

    This is the extract from the Code of Ethics:

    Code 6.14 Consider financially motivated disposal only in exceptional circumstances and when it can be demonstrated that:

    • It will significantly improve the long-term public benefit derived from the remaining collection

    • It is not to generate short-term revenue (for example to meet a budget deficit)

    • It is as a last resort after other sources of funding have been thoroughly explored

    • Extensive prior consultation with sector bodies has been undertaken

    • The item under consideration lies outside the museum’s established core collection as defined in the collections policy.

    Museums Association Code of Ethics (

  3. Thanks for the great research. I remember reading your blog posts about Ernest Griset when I was working on the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser’ Exhibition at Bromley Museum in 2011.

  4. Dear Mike,

    Many thanks for this. I am the chairman of the Higham Ferrers Archaeology and Research Society and in February I took the Northamptonshire County Council to task over staff cuts to the Heritage and Archive Service at their budget meeting. I was determined to have my three minutes worth as they seem intent on destroying our entire historic and archaeological heritage!

    Best regards,

    Olwen Mayes (Mrs)

    P.S. how are the pigeons?

    1. Thanks Olwen. Good work! The squabs are getting fat. This is all new to me, when I was a child pigeon’s were things you shot. I remember my granny gutting a bird for stew in her kitchen sink after she’d shot it out of a tree, and my dad slitting open a gizzard to show me how it was solid full of fresh grain from a field of wheat. I’ll post another round of photos when they leave the nest.

  5. I worked at Bromley Museum for four years. In the last year that I worked there I had to battle with Bromley council over staff cuts. They got rid of the museum security guards, which left the museum with not enough staff to open every day. It also exposed the beautiful grade II listed Priory building to vandalism on a daily basis. I set up the museum’s volunteer programme, to keep the museum open. I was lucky to have the support of members of the local community, and local groups, such as Orpington District Archaeology Society, who stepped in to help. Some curators may not be able to speak up against councils for fear of losing their jobs.

    Research from the Museum’s journal shows that between 2002 and 2012, 43 museums closed all over the county. It is the small local authority museums that are hit the hardest. And it is up to volunteers, and community groups, to step in to save our nation’s heritage. Once a museum has closed, or a collection has been sold, that history is gone for ever.

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