The stuff of dreams: archaeology, audience and becoming material

AA Piccini

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book


In 2006, English Heritage commissioned research from the Council for British Archaeology and University of Bristol on audiences of ‘heritage television’. The aim of the research was to provide baseline data on the numbers, social class, gender and ethnicity of viewers to compare with English Heritage’s ongoing ‘Heritage Counts’ research into visits to museums and historic and ancient monuments. Unsurprisingly, it demonstrated the popularity of heritage as a significant niche programming strand. The popularity of antiques and ‘ancient civilizations’ programmes -- particularly those in docu-drama form -- perhaps supports recent arguments that viewers are drawn towards content that provides the ‘affect’ of excitement, the ‘exotic’ and ‘spectacular’ and the possibility of encountering the unexpected (Hill 2005; King 2005; Piccini in press). The large numbers of viewers of programmes that address questions of the local -- eg, Coast (BBC2) and The Lost World of Friese-Greene (BBC2) -- perhaps indicates the impact of the ‘power of place’. This suggests that not only do viewers want their pasts with identifiable dramatis personae, but also the immediacy of spectacle that makes heritage something to welcome into their living rooms. Of interest, too, is the complex social background of viewers. From the research it was clear that both disadvantaged social groups and people without computer access engage with televisual heritage. This significant viewership contrasts with museum and heritage site visiting profiles: the Heritage Counts research itself and academic work in this area has repeatedly demonstrated that disadvantaged social groups are the least likely museum and heritage visitors (eg, Bourdieu, 1979; Macdonald and Fyfe, 1996; Merriman, 1992; Piccini, 1999). What the research undertaken does not do is elucidate the reasons why people watch particular programmes and how those choices are meaningful. There is little sense of how archaeological television circulates through our everyday lives or how specific, material factors shape the affective power of televisual archaeologies. Archaeologists themselves have been guilty of adopting a common-sense approach to what makes good archaeological television. While some very important work has been on the production histories of televisual archaeology (Kulik, 2006) little has been done to respond to the past decade’s important research into audience taking place in the heritage and museum sectors (eg, Macdonald and Fyfe, 1996; Bagnall, 2003; Piccini, 1999; Macdonald, 2002) and in the field of television studies (eg, Ang, 1991; Morley, 1992; 1995). In this chapter I will revisit the English Heritage work to outline future research strategies. The need is particularly pressing given the seismic shifts occurring in broadcast television. With the range of new media tie-ins to programmes – automatic SMS messaging along coastal walks as part of Coast; the hugely popular Time Team internet forum – plus the launch of on-demand television and archaeological video blogging, the boundaries between television and other media are increasingly permeable. Yes, what is the real potential for an even less quiet past to emerge via co-created content and active viewer choice, given the importance of heritage television to people without access to or interest in these newer technologies? Finally, I ask how the material realities of a newly mediated heritage might impact on our understandings of and support for archaeological heritage in its widest context.
Translated title of the contributionThe stuff of dreams: archaeology, audience and becoming material
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationUnquiet Pasts
EditorsStephanie Koerner, Ian Russell
PublisherAshgate Publishing Ltd.
Pages305 - 326
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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