Steaming Plant or Steam Punk? Researching Industrial Archaeology in the 21st Century

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In my role as Chair of the Association for Industrial Archaeology I’m keen to revisit the way we approach industrial archaeology in the 21st century. Working on the revision of the North West Regional Research Framework Project for the Historic Environment in England has brought home the huge increase in developer-funded archaeology work in industrial archaeology and the continuing vigour of the voluntary and museum industrial sectors. How to make sense of the huge volume of data generated since 2000 (building surveys, excavations and landscape studies), is one of the major tasks of British archaeology, especially as over 60% of commercial archaeology involves Post-Medieval and Industrial deposits. Meaning, relevance and engagement are also import aspects to consider in the second decade of the 21st century.

I’ve therefore been involved in arranging a series of talks and seminars to kick-start the discussion. This began last year at the Association for Industrial Archaeology’s annual conference Friday seminar (at Moulton College), when I talked about the research impact of developer-funded industrial archaeology. That theme has been developed into a research seminar day this year at the AIA’s annual conference in Nottingham on Friday 31st August on the theme of ‘Steaming Ahead: research strategies and research frameworks in Industrial Archaeology’ – details here https://industrial-archaeology.org/conferences/annual-conference/

The third element of this debate will be a session at the 40th Theoretical Archaeology Conference, December 17-19 at Chester University (#TAGDeva). This will seek to build on the discussion of a decade ago about the role of industrial archaeology and industrial heritage research and fieldwork. This lively debate was captured in the 2009 Horning and Palmer edited volume Crossing Paths or Sharing Tracks? Future directions in the archaeological study of post-1550 Britain and Ireland. There are over 600 independent volunteer-run industrial museums in the UK and nine industrial-themed UK World Heritage Sites, whilst around two-thirds of all developer-funded archaeological work produces post-medieval and industrial period material. Yet how relevant or understood is industrial archaeology and heritage in the second decade of the 21st century?

Oak MillThe TAG session is seeking papers that discuss and challenge the more traditional and newer approaches to these subjects, rather than having narrower talks on sites that have been recorded or conserved. We would encourage papers that consider the following Issues: Are perceptions of the subject barriers to engagement and participation? Whose archaeology and heritage is it we are recording? Are the terms industrial archaeology and industrial heritage still relevant and helpful? Where do the current trends for urban exploring and steam punk fit into our understanding of industrialisation and industrial heritage tourism? Have archaeologists moved beyond simply recording the data to provide explanations for industrialisation? And does it matter than very few university departments have dedicated undergraduate modules or post-graduate courses dealing with the subject?

So if you want to contribute to this debate offer a paper or join the audience. Registration is here: https://tagdeva.wordpress.com/registration/ This is just the start of a debate on the role, practice, and meaning of industrial archaeology in the 21st century. Why not join in?

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