Terry Levinthal guest blog: On inventories

927_inv_cover_fullConservation professional Terry Levinthal (Director of Conservation at the National Trust for Scotland & Board Member of BEFS) has been reflecting on Inventories for us:

“Three interesting publications crossed my path today. The first, given to me by Diana Murray, former Head of the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS – now subsumed into the new NDPB Historic Environment Scotland) is called “An Inventory for the Nation” which records the 107 year journey of the Commission to produce a permanent and enduring record of the archaeology and antiquities of Scotland.

The second, which arrived by post later in the day was volume 144 of the Proceeding of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (SocAnt). A good proper academic read if there ever was one, I was drawn to an article by James Scott Pedre titled, “Mingary in Ardnamurchan: a review of who could have built the castle.” It was interesting to see liberal references to some of the RCAHMS’s publications, including the seminal Inventories of Argyllshire.

The third publication (actually the first, if I can call it a “publication”) that drew my attention came from the BBC’s Breakfast newscast, which I enjoy most mornings over the first coffee of the day. James Donal Wales was interviewed on the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Wikipedia, the free, open content, collaborative encyclopedia that would accept contributions from ordinary people. Loved and pilloried by all, I was struck by his mission of democratizing knowledge.

In flicking through An Inventory for a Nation, I was also struck by a quote from Roger Mercer, the Commission’s Secretary between 1990 and 2004, where he said, “Published Inventories have not ever really be a practicable, or, perhaps a desirable proposition.… By their nature, they seek to define, and as a result they tend to fossilise what must inevitably be a subject of constant reassessment”. As essentially a national collection for the antiquities of Scotland, this is an undeniable fact. Collections change; our understanding matures; different perspectives re-define.

However, in returning the Volume 144 of the SocAnts Proceedings, I was immediately struck on the timelessness of the Argyll Inventories and how they remain relevant and essential for modern scholastic purposes. The Inventories were referenced in numerous occasions, as were other works such as MacGibbons and Ross work on castles in Scotland (1889).

In essence, these Inventories provide a definable baseline; a point from which later works can be measured. James Wales spoke about his memory of an encyclopaedia, where as a child he would receive updates from the publisher on sticky labels and with his mother would painstakingly stick these over the corrected pages. These corrected passages never actually disappeared; they simply were hidden from view. Can we same the same about the edits to Wiki pages?

With no such fixed baseline, such as Argyll. An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments, Volume 1, Kintyre and the subsequent suite of other volumes, it would prove more challenging to conduct such a review as James Scott Pedre has done.

As such, it is comforting to have been given An Inventory for the Nation, which at least draws a measurable line from which future historians, scholars and management committees may wish to review in times to come. As our national heritage agencies merge and change in response to new challenges, being able to go back to review progress is more important than ever.

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