Collecting, conservation, and conservatism

Late twentieth-century developments in the culture of British geology

Simon Knell

Abstract: The last three decades of the twentieth century saw a transformation of the place and influence in British society of two cultural themes: environmental conservation and the values of political conservatism. These are here used to examine cultural change in the science of geology at two levels of resolution. First, the micropolitics of the science are revealed through a study of collecting in an era of conservation. Here the scientific hegemony confronted the more populist and commercially-driven wings of geology. This was a period of campaign and conflict, leading to the eventual accommodation of opposing views. The second section examines the macropolitics of the science’s institutional infrastructure through a study of a science in a period of recession and under the control of an ideologically motivated Conservative government. The challenge for science was to acquire appropriate government patronage. Here patterns of decline and growth in the science are revealed, driven by supposedly ‘external’ factors. Both perspectives show how the notion of accountability became critical to the science at all levels, and how, in an era which saw the revolutionising of mass communication, language became fundamental to the political progress of the science.

Key words: site conservation, fossil collecting, NERC, British Geological Survey, Nature Conservancy Council

This paper is an exploration of geology in the last three decades of the twentieth century—a period of rapid cultural change. In terms of ‘major developments’, its theme asks how a science adjusts to its changing socio-political context. Here, that theme is explored through an examination of two further ‘major developments’ which act as indicators of change: geological site conservation and the impact of political conservatism on the science’s major institutions (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Simplified diagram of the culture of late twentieth-century geology. Four groups are distinguished and ranked in terms of power and influence within this culture. These are economic and political (government), strategic (companies, universities and similar organisations researching in this field and employing geologists), academic (researchers and communicators), and popular (essentially the private and amateur geologist and the public at large). The three arrows conceptualise three types of development and bring together their participants; other types of development may be distinguished. These arrows should not be read as indicating a coincidence of direction or that strategy alone gives cultural change in a particular direction.  Each arrow conceals conflicts and agreements that result in change. The two themes explored in this paper can be viewed as operating within two of these areas of development: scientific (conservation) and strategic (conservatism). Together they act as indicators of wider social interaction and cultural change.

The first of these is a high-resolution study of the micropolitics of geological conservation, as exposed in the tensions which surrounded the issue of fossil collecting. In a recent monograph, I used collecting as a key to understanding the social politics which drove geology forward in its early years (Knell 2000). While no longer a practice at the very heart of the intellectual development of the science, collecting still forms a critical interface between different interest groups: academics, collectors, dealers, amateurs, curators, cognate agencies and the wider public. The development of geological site conservation in the 1970s challenged established patterns of collecting and participation in geology, and thus provides a topic through which changing group relationships and the distribution of power can be understood. In contrast, a macro-view is taken of the science’s institutions in order to understand the impact of conservative ideology, particularly during the 1980s. A central tenet of this ideology, as espoused by the Conservative governments of the 1980s, was the responsibility of the individual both in terms of action and accountability. This was an ideological opposite to the then socialist Labour party’s visions of combined action and the shared responsibilities of society, which were so often embodied in policies of nationalisation and central control. (By the end of the century, however, a redefined ‘New’ Labour party would adopt these ‘conservative’ values). In this paper, corporate plans and institutional restructuring become useful indicators of the science’s response. Conservation and conservatism were, in their separate ways, key elements in the cultural change that occurred in geology in the last three decades of the century. While these words and concepts have similar roots, they emerged from opposite ends of the political spectrum and not infrequently pull in opposite directions. They are here treated quite separately, and while I allude to the impact of conservatism on conservation it is not the purpose of this paper to deal in depth with the interplay between the two. Here, they become separate centres of focus, for different ‘scales’ of analysis, the scale and perspective of the two investigations being necessarily contrasting. Both, however, are permeated by desires for possession and control: critical aspects of the culture of geology in the early nineteenth century, which re-emerged as key attributes in the period currently under review. 

Set in the context of a volume which principally talks about the development of new approaches, methods, and ideas in geology, the perspective and methodology applied here perhaps demand a little further explanation. Rather than accept development as something entirely within the purview of intellectual ideas and technologies, this paper demonstrates that it is also the result of cultural forces outside this core, and indeed that science can be viewed more broadly as a changing cultural entity. Many scientists and some historians of science still reject the role of power, authority and construction in the development of scientific knowledge and, indeed, do not welcome notions of science as a cultural entity. In the 1990s these waters became increasingly muddied as scientists did battle with cultural theorists in the so-called ‘Science Wars’. It was a clash which encouraged scientists to adopt polarised views of postmodernist thought, suggesting it to be ‘anti-Enlightenment’. I prefer historian Georg Iggers’ (1997, p. 16) interpretation: ‘The postmodern critique of traditional science and traditional historiography has offered important correctives to historical thought and practice. It has not destroyed the historian’s commitment to recapturing reality or his or her belief in a logic of inquiry, but rather it has demonstrated the complexity of both.’ This paper also makes use of the thinking of modern philosophers and sociologists of science (such as Barnes 1974; Callon 1986; Latour 1987; Shapin 1992), but I make no attempt to slot this study into a particular school of philosophy. 

As Iggers suggests, in dealing with the culture of a science, the historian expects complexity, and rejects simple cause and effect relationships. Key or dominant forces may be located, but they tend to operate in combination, and with subtlety. Cultural change then becomes something nebulous, rooted in reality but also in constructed readings of reality (which I shall demonstrate). Consequently a paper such as the present one does not simply deal with planned or intended outcomes, or even accidents, but rather with the product of a multitude of forces, sometimes beyond easy articulation or definition. This paper is, then, predicated on the notion that even if science remained unchanged in terms of its beliefs and methods (which it never has or does), change in its cultural setting inevitably results in new meanings, new emphases, new tensions, new methods, new directions, new developments. Our perceptions of a science will develop and change, irrespective of change in that science. This will happen whenever we change cultural setting, whether by moving geographically or temporally. For example, in China, peasant power replaces a Western mechanical excavator, while in India, palaeontologists are, we are told, less inclined to talk to each other (Whybrow 2000). Similarly, if we could travel back to the early nineteenth century, we should find geologists attributing entirely different values and meanings to the science (Knell 2000). Therefore having a specific focus in time and place is essential to the kind of analysis undertaken here (Porter 1977, p. 218; Knell 2000, p. xii). Though this idea has long been central to modern historiography, it runs contrary to many histories of science, which project backwards modern perceptions of a particular science or hold onto a notion that science is a universally agreed concept in time and space. This paper explores cultural change over the period of three decades, from 1970 to 2000. It focuses specifically on the British context, though for the purposes of cultural contrast reference is also made to practice and thinking in other countries.

Science in an era of change

It is hard enough for someone in his fifties to come to terms with the speed with which his hair has whitened, his face has lined and his frame has thickened; to grasp how utterly almost everything on earth has changed in only thirty years is a great deal harder still.

(John Simpson [1998, p. 16], BBC World Affairs Editor)

The last three decades of the twentieth century saw rapid and striking social change, from which few countries were immune. What Britain in the 1960s saw as ‘Americanisation’ was by the 1990s a process of ‘globalisation’ (Simpson 1998; Scholte 2000). The post-war era was typified by the rise of liberalisation and democratisation. This was manifest not only in constitutional change but most spectacularly in the unleashing of the voice of youth, of social idealism, of civil rights, sexual equality, nuclear disarmament and antiwar protest, so prevalent in the 1960s and early 1970s. The background to science in this period reflected this social and intellectual idealism–of society undoing the shackles of class, economic inequality, social authority, and so on. However, by the early 1980s these ideals were being tempered by the political conservatism of government. At its birth, geology had known similar social transformation as new wealth created an increasingly powerful middle-class for whom the new science was a means of cultural expression and identity (Knell 2000). 

Science was not immune to the social changes taking place around it. Prominent in the late 1960s were growing concerns for the environment, which exposed a rift between popular desire and established political agenda. These were awoken by marine biologist Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962), which portrayed the extended and unforeseen effects of pesticides. The new environmental reality fully entered the public conscience in December 1968 when NASA’s Apollo 8 looped the moon and beamed back pictures of a finite planet Earth alone in the darkness of space (Ward & Dubos 1972). In 1970, the US celebrated its first ‘Earth Day’, when twenty million people rallied to raise awareness of environmental issues. That year also saw the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency. Bookshops everywhere becamefilled with paperbacks exhorting readers to save the planet. The breadth of the perceived problem was enormous: agrochemicals and sustainability, lead levels in children and the proliferation of the car, the consequences of nuclear power and the social costs of coal extraction, industrial disease and the use of such materials as asbestos and heavy metals, population growth and problems of food supply, and much more. All brought a sense of a coming apocalypse which, however, had all but been forgotten by the late 1990s. Such fears created a natural union with protests for nuclear disarmament. In the Cold War tensions of the 1970s many felt that if environmental degradation did not finish mankind, ‘the big one’ would. There were prophecies of a new millennium of social turmoil and deprivation.

Science was at the heart of these controversies. No longer, it was claimed, ‘could the activities of scientists themselves be constructed as floating free above the economic and social base, the abstract accumulation of knowledge about the world, a polite academic interchange of Popperian conjectures and refutations. Science and its practitioners were locked into the social order’ (Rose & Rose 1980). Science was now ‘incorporated’, ‘industrialised’, ‘a factory’. The perceived marriage between social and scientific progress had broken down and geology was implicated, along with the other sciences. A single issue of New Scientist in 1980, for example, revealed a public enquiry into the proposed sinking of new coal pits in the unspoilt Vale of Belvoir in Leicestershire, initial test drilling to bury nuclear waste in the rocks of Scotland, and planning for two polluting ‘super brickworks’ in the Oxford Clay fields of Bedfordshire. 

This was not just ‘rage against reason’ or a ‘rage against science and scientists’, as some have suggested (Hacking 1999, p. 61). Rather it was about ownership and control, for science was also necessary to locate evidence and arguments against such developments, to determine solutions, to provide an ‘alternative’. The establishment’s scientists were often portrayed, or liked to portray themselves, as men with exclusive knowledge and consequently exclusive power. Lord Todd, President of the Royal Society, wrote: ‘It is, I fear, often the case that the stridency of the protesters fanned by the public media of communication, permit them to exert an undue influence at the expense of the experts’ (Todd 1980). Such statements claimed that expertise was value free, that science came without moral or political baggage, that progress would be opened to us through scientific discovery alone. Todd’s words also indicated a growing fear, amongst some members of the scientific community, of irrational forces. But, if he was correct, then the fault was also with that same scientific community, as it had failed to communicate effectively with a public that saw such statements as arrogant.

It should be no surprise, then, that in the early 1980s the Royal Society became the parent to a worldwide movement known as ‘The Public Understanding of Science’. Its intentions included a desire to ensure that the public used their democratic powers in an informed (i.e. pro-scientific) way. It reflected a line of reasoning more than a century old, which could have been found, for example, among the middle-class supporters of mid-nineteenth-century mechanics’ institutes. Whether or not it was an attempt to inform or control (if it is possible to distinguish between the two), the movement was certainly wedded to a notion of cultural orthodoxy sustained by science.

However, by 1980, Britain was beginning one of the most radical economic and political transformations of the twentieth century. The previous decade had seen the first of a succession of post-World War II recessions. The old strategies of Keynesian economics and the goal of full employment, which had formed the mainstay of British politics for thirty years, were, in 1979, replaced by the new, harder, ideological conservatism of Margaret Thatcher. The economics of the ‘New Right’ turned policy on its head. Now a single political objective, price stability, dominated all thinking. Driven by a philosophical desire for strong authoritarian government and a free marketplace, the Prime Minister committed Britainry to suffer the short-term consequences of high unemployment and falling output in a way never before seen as politically acceptable. If campaigners wished for interventionist politics to turn the tide on environmental degradation, they would not find them here. New political desires sought to redirect individual freedoms away from social liberty and into re-invented Victorian self-sufficiency and the capitalist imperative. The decline and chaos of the 1970s were, in the eyes of the new Conservative administration, a product not just of oil-driven recessions but also of permissiveness, weak but interventionist governments, and strong unions (Booth 1995; Green 1989; Healey 1993; Overbeek 1990; Smith 1984). The earlier Conservative administration of Edward Heath had wished to deliver similar hard-line policies in 1970, but its nerve failed. By the time of Thatcher’s fall in 1990, the country had been transformed. So much so, that when the Labour party emerged from its wilderness years, to return to government in 1997, socialism no longer appeared on its agenda. Rebranded as ‘New Labour’, it now preached a new kind of ‘caring conservatism’. 

Establishing the conservation hegemony

It was against this background, of society shifting from 1960s environmental idealism to 1990s ‘conservatism’, that geological site conservation can best be understood. A new and narrowly conceived idea in 1970, its journey is one which reflects the cultural changes the science underwent more generally. Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) officer, and one of the subject’s chief protagonists, Bill Wimbledon, later referred to it as the ‘opinion-ridden art of site conservation’ for it exposed a conflict between the desires of a growing and diverse community of private geologists and the perceptions, and actions, of authority (Wimbledon 1988, p. 41). The aim here is not to give a full account of the development of site conservation but rather to examine its cultural implications. Various NCC officers have given ‘official’ histories of these events (for example, Duff 1979; 1980; Ellis 1996; Wimbledon 1988; NCC 1990).

In the 1960s and 1970s concern for the world’s natural resources reflected the egalitarian or ‘common ground’ politics of ownership and responsibility, which had developed from the political Left. Sustainability became the raison d’etre of the conservation movement a quarter century before politicians gave notice to it at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. In geology, conservation concerns, which reflect this sense of shared ownership, can be traced back to its earliest years (Knell 2000). However, site selection and protection in Britain really only began around 1945 (Duff 1979; 1980). Inevitably it took on new significance in the 1970s, then under the leadership of the geological section of the Government’s independent agency, the Nature Conservancy Council. By 1973, this organisation had established several hundred geological Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), a small fraction of the 3,500 SSSIs then covering ‘nature’ more generally. In 1977, with the number of geological sites at 1300, the Council’s geological section became the Geological Conservation Review Unit which had the aim of publishing a ‘“Domesday Book” for geological conservation in Britain’ (Wimbledon 1988, p. 42).

The real challenge for the NCC, it seemed, was to change the accepted order, a way of doing geology that had evolved over nearly two centuries. In 1970, conservation in geology was barely discussed outside a small body of activists in the mainstream of the science, who could see the damage being done to some classic localities. Inevitably, as the momentum of the movement grew, these rather restricted perceptions of the need for conservation, and of the causes of damage, held sway. Like other aspects of a science that had once been open to anyone who chose to pick up a hammer, collecting and fieldwork now came under bureaucratic scrutiny, management and regulation. Preaching a new kind of evangelical puritanism, the NCC questioned the established and sacred collecting-based culture of a science of leisure, education, and commerce. A reader of the geological section’s widely distributed Information Circular now found that, in the conservation establishment’s (i.e. the NCC) view, collecting was synonymous with ‘misuse’, or so it seemed. The ‘god-fearing’ amateur worried about a total ban on collecting, knowing that there were many in the conservation fraternity who would welcome such a move (Cotton 1984). The NCC had also roundly castigated educational parties for their unthinking activities, stating that, as a result, access to some sites was now in jeopardy. But here was the nub of the problem. In an era of strident conservationism, and widely adopted values of a shared heritage, the NCC had seen protection as its primary goal. The issue of access was a lower priority and one that it was ill-equipped to address (Doody 1975). However, by 1976, perhaps realising that its confrontational tone was causing alienation, the organisation’s Circular played down the misuse issue by placing all ‘threats’ in a broader ‘Site News’ category. Another section, ‘Co-operation in Conservation’, indicated an awareness that only by making this a shared issue could a hoped-for consensus be found and NCC targets met. Language here became the key. The NCC was undoubtedly the engine driving forward this ‘new way’. It had cultural authority but little direct power over landowners or geological practitioners. In nearly all its dealings its use of language was measured and carefully applied. Although geologists viewed its activities as essentially practical and scientific, its success (or otherwise) relied much on the art of persuasion and ambassadorial diplomacy; ambiguously defined and understood, conservation remained a contested issue.

However, as the 1970s progressed the implications of the NCC’s lack of actual power became all too apparent. At the heart of its problems lay the inadequacies of the SSSI system, which merely required planning authorities to notify the organisation of planning applications affecting sites of scientific importance. This allowed developments to be opposed if the scientific integrity of a site was threatened. However, not all potentially damaging operations required planning permission and, as a consequence, sites were sometimes destroyed by agricultural or other activity. In addition, the NCC’s reliance on diplomacy meant that landowners often seemed to be calling the shots, with the agency only too ready to oblige them. There had been successes, such as the prevention of coastal defences at Barton-on-Sea in Hampshire, where property was at direct risk from coastal erosion (for location of key sites, see Fig. 2). But there were also embarrassing failures. One concerned the building of a row of houses across the only entrance to a Permian fossil locality, leaving it virtually inaccessible (Doody 1975, p. 213). However, the great advantage of SSSIs for government was the low cost involved, as it was unnecessary to acquire ownership. But now there were serious doubts about the effectiveness of the system. 

Fig. 2. Map of locations of key sites mentioned in the text.

By 1979 there was a widespread feeling that geological conservation was in crisis, and a London conference, ‘The Future Development of Geological Conservation in the British Isles’, was organised by the Geological Curators’ Group (GCG), in the hope of identifying and resolving the key issues (Clements 1984). The meeting exposed a preoccupation with the problem of collecting. Wimbledon (1988, p. 48) later recalled the themes: ‘There was then much talk of the need for new legislation: to deter collectors, to prevent the export of “priceless fossils”’, and so on. George Black, head of the NCC’s geological section, was unequivocal on this matter of policy: the ‘advance of geology’, he said, was not served by ‘excessive hammering and purposeless collecting’, by the use of research localities for educational work, by the use of ‘difficult’ localities for ‘parties of low academic level’, or by antagonising landowners (Black 1984, p. 7; see also Long & Black 1975). The qualifiers used in these arguments were an application of the necessary vagaries of ‘political speech’. Who could say what was or was not ‘excessive’ or ‘purposeless’? Certainly, the academic, amateur, and commercial collecting communities did not have a common view on the matter. In the NCC’s view, the removal of fossils from an SSSI constituted theft. However, it was the owner’s responsibility to pursue this, and few had been willing to do so. 

A widely perceived cause of destruction was the massive increase in the student population since the 1960s, and the consequent increase in fieldwork programmes. In 1980 it was suggested that the annual number of student field days had risen from nearly 19,000 in 1963−1965, to just over 34,000 in 1971−1972, and almost 55,000 in 1977−1978. NCC research also indicated that the potential threats to some sites might well have been greater than even these figures reveal. The number of sites used had not increased substantially, but in the different survey periods particular localities were favoured, with a temporary move to Scottish sites being detected in the early 1970s (NCC 1980a).

But even those universities that were not active in the field found themselves in a difficult position. The Open University, for example, replaced a planned mailing of 4000 real fossils, to its distance-learning students, with plastic replicas, ‘as the University is aware that it would otherwise be liable to deplete seriously the country’s stock of fossils’ (Anon. 1973).

It was clear that without action to increase the number of available localities and control fieldwork at some sites, conflict between the needs of education and conservation could only worsen. In 1975, the NCC had met with the newly-formed GCG and soon afterwards the two organisations brought together proposals for what became the National Scheme for Geological Site Documentation. A pilot NCC investigation in Surrey showed some 3,500 historical records of sites, of which 30% had survived. It was thought an estimated 100,000 potential field localities existed in Britain (Long & Black 1975). The GCG’s scheme was to locate and document these for future educational use. However, tensions subsequently developed between these two organisations when the NCC was seen to have reneged on its promised financial contribution to the 1979 conference, leaving the GCG financially embarrassed. With the country now in recession, the NCC’s geologists clearly did not have sufficient financial autonomy, and having been talked into taking on site documentation, the GCG now found grant-aid also drying up. The NCC’s own geologists were also showing signs of discontentment with a resource base that was inadequate for the task before them. Outside commentators complained about the slow progress, but there was little that the NCC geologists could do about it.

The organisation’s difficult position with regard to its powers–too weak for the radical lobby, too interventionist for the more conservative landowners–appeared to be resolved with the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) (Smith 1986; but see Caufield 1984). Under this legislation any ‘Potentially Damaging Operations’, or PDOs, could be opposed and, if successfully, compensation paid to the landowner. Unfortunately, for the act to be enforced, owners of SSSIs had to be renotified, a process that caused further delay in site identification and designation. By the middle of that decade, with politics tilting firmly towards the Right, the conservation movement in general began to look for new politically acceptable rationales. Thus, the economic argument was increasingly used, even to justify the preservation of species. With the political landscape transformed it was vital that the NCC was seen to be a pragmatic organisation with the economic well-being of the country in its sights. To the Thatcher Government, science held no special status. Like every other cost to the taxpayer, it too needed to justify its worth. The NCC’s purpose had to be re-cast, it was now ‘cultural’, where culture referred to ‘the whole mental life of a nation’: ‘the proper role for NCC . . . is to practise nature conservation according to a definition of purpose which is primarily cultural, that is the conservation of wild flora and fauna, geological and physiographic features of Britain for their scientific, educational, recreational, aesthetic and inspirational value’ (NCC 1984, p. 75). Dominant amongst these values, however, were the needs of science, which when labelled ‘cultural’ became imbued with notions of wider social benefit. It was a manipulation of language and meaning that geology had long known, but one in which it needed to become even more adept as the century progressed.

Ownership and the field

For all its debate, the 1979 ‘Future Development of Geological Conservation’ conference did little to change opinions about collecting. Where once the hammer had been an essential tool, without which geology could not be practised, in the new conservation-aware science it became an ‘offensive weapon’. This was most profoundly symbolised by the removal of hammers from the badge of the Geologists’ Association (GA) in 1990, where they had proudly sat as an emblem of amateur activity for more than a century (Green 1990; Knell 1991) (Fig. 3.). In the 1980s, there was a widespread feeling, derived from the views of the conservation establishment, that to collect was wasteful of a limited resource, and that commercial exploitation was repugnant to any right-minded geologist. The amateur and commercial collector saw a scientific elite taking possession of what had been, to all intents and purposes, a public resource. The NCC’s group of largely doctoral geologists, who determined policy, had decided that fossils were principally a resource for science, and that science was to be prosecuted by bona fide researchers. The NCC felt it was protecting a scientific heritage.

Fig. 3. The Geologists’ Association badge, before and after removal of the hammers in 1990 (reproduced by permission of the Geologists’ Association).

Tensions were most overt where the amateur or professional came up against the world of the commercial collector. While there was a tacit understanding that commercial collecting was really only a problem where it affected vulnerable and important sites, received wisdom was that such practices should be discouraged. Any possible benefits of commercial extraction were overlooked, despite the reverence paid to Mary Anning and other early practitioners of this art. Rather than see the benefits of mass collecting as a means to reveal rarities, the only product was thought to be shops crammed with dataless and abused specimens, useless to science. The wider cultural implications of constraining collecting or the sale of specimens were overlooked, forgetting that it was here as much as anywhere that members of the public got their first taste for the science. During the 1980s and 1990s geologists frequently complained that theirs was becoming a Cinderella subject, and that the popular media ignored them. It seemed that practical geology was becoming an exclusive activity too. The cultural authority of academic or professional science, which was bound up in the contemporary view of conservation, though understandable, was simply over-riding the perceived rights of a much wider group of participants. During the 1980s challenges came from various quarters and ultimately turned these perceptions on their head. The decisive battles took place in Scotland and on the south coast of England.

In 1977, local evidence suggested that German dealers had been using power tools to ‘pillage’ fish localities in the Orkneys and in Lesmahagow, near Glasgow. Small-scale collecting had been the norm here and not opposed. As Ian Rolfe, geologist at the Hunterian Museum in that city remarked: ‘as a museum man I am not opposed to keen collecting, simply to the illicit collecting currently on the increase’ (Rolfe 1977). Commercial dealerships had grown in numbers throughthe 1970s as interest in amateur collecting had increased. But at the end of the decade there were still estimated to be only seven or eight professional collectors in Britain, perhaps twelve importers or wholesalers, and a small but diverse group of rockshop operators. There were also a considerable number of amateurs who were not averse to selling fossils (Harker 1984). Contrary to establishment views, the commercial collecting community was not homogenous nor could it be easily defined. Similarly, the amateur community was beyond simple definition in these terms. However, the Lesmahagow incidents alerted the NCC to the risk of future site damage, and in the most publicised case of the decade it oversaw the arrest of two German collectors at the famous Devonian fish locality of Achanarras Quarry, near Thurso, in the far north of the Scottish mainland, in June 1979. In the first conviction of its kind in Britain these two collectors were merely ‘admonished’, but it was felt at the time that an important warning had been given to others (NCC 1980b). 

The position of the commercial collector took a new turn in 1981 when the University of Glasgow contracted Stan Wood, a local amateur who had found Namurian (Carboniferous) fish in a stream-bed near the housing estate where he lived, to oversee a fossil dig at the site. The excavation at Bearsden became one of the great British palaeontological stories of the decade, revealing, amongst other things, remarkable new fossil sharks. Partly supported by the NCC, the excavation also delivered fine educational outcomes for the Hunterian Museum. It demonstrated the potential of amateur and educational involvement in a strikingly novel way that seemed to run counter to many NCC preconceptions. A few years later Wood rediscovered the East Kirkton Limestone near Bathgate in West Lothian, a remarkable Lower Carboniferous lacustrine deposit containing terrestrial and amphibious animals, including the famous ‘Lizzie’ (Westlothiana), then thought to be the earliest known reptile (more correctly, ‘amniote’) (Rolfe et al. 1994). Stan Wood’s discovery of two new Carboniferous vertebrate localities had, it was claimed, caused a ‘quantum leap’ in knowledge of this fauna (Unwin 1986). He was given much media coverage when his discoveries toured the country in 1986−1988 in the exhibition, ‘Mr Wood’s Fossils’, and the Scottish ‘amateur’ soon became, amongst the British public at least, the best-known palaeontologist of the decade. However, in June 1987, finding no opening for ‘a fossil hunter’ in the academic or museum world, he opened his own fossil shop.

In this same period, the West Dorset District Council in southern England gave consideration to new by-laws to prohibit the removal of fossils from the cliffs around Charmouth and Lyme Regis, the British stronghold of commercial collectors since the birth of the science. There was a local belief that their collecting activity was increasing erosion rates and required control. The NCC and the Geological Society offered to support this move if the local council ensured that bona fide geological researchers and educational parties would not be adversely affected. Plans were put in place for licences to control the type of collecting, the size of hammers, and so on. All would pay and be controlled except ‘researchers’ who would remain completely unregulated beyond the requirement of a free licence. Commercial collectors would retain some access but would require a licence to excavate and might be required to involve a scientist in their activities. Here the NCC had most clearly shown its colours, something the commercial fraternity would long remember. However, it was the collectors who eventually won the day by demonstrating that coastal erosion was not affected by their activities; and the Secretary of State ruled against the local council (NCC 1982; 1983; Taylor 1988). 

It was against this background that Stan Wood, in 1985, came out against geological conservation. Desiring a renaissance of interest in palaeontological exploration, and using the Bearsden excavation as a model, he suggested that old sites should be opened up for public participation in collecting, with tools for hire and a caravan on site with a fossil advisor. For him, conservation was the antithesis of this: involving a preservation of the past rather than prospecting for the future, and a ‘shading in of no-go areas on geological maps’ (Wood 1985). His temper had earlier been aroused when the two Germans, whom he knew, had been prosecuted at Achanarras Quarry. Under the regulations, collectors required a permit and could only take away two fossils despite the presence of fish in their tens of thousands (from 1984 the number that could be collected was raised to ten). In response, Keith Duff (1985) of the NCC stated that only 10% of designated sites (about 150 in all) suffered similar limitations or restrictions, and that future exploration was ultimately a goal of conservation. He quoted Benton and Wimbledon (1985) who had recently expressed an aim: ‘to encourage and participate in the systematic use and excavation of sites (but not their total removal) by professionals and responsible amateurs and to promote proper recording of finds and taphonomic information’. Using evidence of the devastation of sites resulting from the commercial emphasis on the perfect and the rejection of the incomplete, he vigorously opposed the encouragement of a commercial market in vertebrate fossils. As so frequently occurred in these kinds of arguments, both sides could offer convincing examples to support their case and both could pounce upon the weaknesses of their opponents. No one felt the need to recognise their opponents’ more positive qualities. There was no incentive to compromise. 

At this point eleven senior vertebrate palaeontologists weighed in in support of conservation. But here at last was a hint that times were changing, that old assumptions, which had caused so much heartache, were beginning to crumble. Mike Benton, Bill Wimbledon, and others, believed that few sites were non-renewable, that site vandals were a rarity, and that over-collecting was not the threat it was purported to be. Development was the real bogey. In their view, restrictions at Achanarras had been a mistake: ‘an over-reaction by some conservation enthusiasts to the threat of foreign collectors pillaging the site. We can hope that such restrictions will never be applied again’ (Benton et al. 1985). Yet some geologists felt a contradiction in site conservation ‘only to have it slowly “destroyed” by fossil collectors’ (Cleal 1987).

Still criticised in the geological press for its slow rate of progress and publication, its ears ringing over the Achanarras affair, and with domestic problems arising from the summary transfer of staff from Newbury to Peterborough, the Geological Conservation Review Unit (GCRU) began to break up, and ‘a rather shadowy organisation calling itself the Association of GCR Contributors’ appeared on the horizon. The watershed came in October 1987, when, in a second London conference organised by the GCG, the Geological Society and the Palaeontological Association, ‘The Use and Conservation of Palaeontological Sites’, the geological community appeared to shift en masse to a new consensus which echoed the thoughts of Benton and friends. In the run-up to the conference the GCRU moved to the NCC’s new Peterborough headquarters, and following a period of some confusion the team was strengthened to a level comparable with biology, and a final push made towards completing site notification in line with ‘corporate objectives’. 

During the conference, the former NCC man George Black, and a few others, launched the British Institute for Geological Conservation (BIGC) ‘in an atmosphere of unconcealed contempt for the supposed failures of the Nature Conservancy Council.’ Geology Today reported: ‘The plain fact is that geological conservation in Britain is in a shambles, with no general agreement on either aims or priorities’ (Anon. 1988a). The statement, however, was incorrect, as the conference demonstrated that the geological community now endorsed a more pragmatic (rather than ideological) approach to conservation, which was responsive to, and respected, the needs of other groups. It rested on a notion of responsibility and an increasing emphasis on use (Crowther and Wimbledon 1988). Commercial collectors were reclassified as part of the geological community, with a general realisation that categorising and stereotyping had, in practice, done little to advance conservation. 

With lines redrawn, a certain amount of repositioning began. What had been entirely acceptable to the conservation establishment prior to the conference now appeared to be a kind of heresy. It was as if the reconstituted culture demanded a witch-hunt for those who had led geological conservation along an erroneous path. Rolfe, for example, who had expressed concerns over the destruction of Silurian fish localities at Lesmahagow now revealed that he had acted in the interests of pacifying a distraught landowner. Never against collecting, he was now ‘in favour of the use of heavy equipment and explosives for controlled excavations’. Techniques once largely the preserve of the commercial collector were now being used by his museum at East Kirkton (comment by Rolfe, in Taylor [1988]). The NCC team also had to find excuses, though they were inclined to see (or represent) themselves as mere instruments: ‘In the past, attempts have been made (by NCC) to restrict collecting at some fossil sites following vocal and written pressure from palaeontologists, only to find that in later years published opinions have almost totally reversed’ (Norman et al. 1990, p. 92). Staff tried to distance themselves from the recrimination over access agreements and particularly Achanarras. These were now ‘historical’. At Lesmahagow and Achanarras, measures had been introduced in ‘direct response to pressure from a small number of geologists to curb activities of professional collectors who were thought to be damaging the sites’ (Norman & Wimbledon 1988, p. 194). The language was carefully chosen, ‘actual’ damage had now become ‘thought to be’, the hammering damage which caused complaints from owners, to which the NCC had responded so quickly and termed ‘misuse’, was now merely ‘perceived’. The Achanarras prosecution was no longer a triumph of conservation but a symbol of Draconian measures. In this new enlightenment, the NCC were to be more cautious, to maintain a watching brief, to discern the ‘extent and impact’ of collecting. In contradiction to its earlier Dorset stance, it came to the view that the sea did much more damage than the collectors. Most remarkable of all, commercial collectors were now re-drawn as ‘gifted’ and without whose activities academic and museum geologists would be the poorer (Norman & Wimbledon 1988). 

As Wimbledon (1988, p. 47) had come to realise,

Recent years have seen too much attention being paid to the role of the collector and collecting and too little to the real priorities. Arguments have raged over the value of fossiliferous scree, over fossil collecting quotas, the rights of the professional geologist to collect, and whether professional [i.e. commercial] collectors are a “good” or “bad thing”; yet all are insignificant in comparison with the problems of saving sites from the damage and loss that comes from development.

Earlier calls for legislation and control were, it was conceded, based on poor knowledge of the resource. The ‘stop collectors’ controversy had only served to divert attention from real needs and real threats. ‘Fossils, especially invertebrate fossils, are a renewable resource’.

However, while the perspective of the conservation establishment seemingly to changed overnight, the mistrust and suspicion that had become polarised into different camps over the previous two decades would not be readily dissipated; ‘geological conservation’ had been branded. ‘The legacy of panic induced by the Caithness [Achanarras] and Lesmahagow experience is still with us’, Wimbledon (1988, p. 48) admitted. Remarkably, he also questioned earlier underlying assumptions: ‘Geologists should remember that “their” favourite research sites may have other uses, and that scientific use may have no more validity than any other . . . is scientific exploitation the only valid use of the palaeontological resource?’ (Wimbledon 1988, p. 41). This was a fundamental shift in thinking: an admission that assumptions concerning the cultural authority of science in relation to the fossil resource could not be universally justified.

The NCC had also been taking an interest in site conservation in other countries, and the 1987 conference provided opportunities to compare practice at home with that elsewhere. Rupert Wild’s (1988) explanation of protection in Germany, where fossils could be designated as ‘cultural monuments’, caused much interest. However, it was developments in the US that most closely echoed the new British consensus. Here, in 1985, the National Research Council had established the Committee on Guidelines for Paleontological Collecting (CGPC), a panel of thirteen individuals from various sections of the geological community, which was to resolve the long-running issue of fossil collecting on public lands. Some sixty federal agencies had responsibilities in this area and a number of cases of quite harmless activity had been pursued in the courts. The same faction-centred issues as affected conservation in Britain were also present in the US, but the committee saw past them with great clarity of purpose. The report arising from its deliberations was published in 1987 just before the ‘Use and Conservation of Palaeontological Sites’ conference in London. It came down unequivocally on the side of collecting in all its guises: ‘In general, the science of paleontology is best served by unimpeded access to fossils and fossil-bearing rocks in the field . . . . Generally, no scientific purpose is served by special systems of notification before collecting and reporting after collecting because these functions are performed well by existing mechanisms of scientific communication. From a scientific viewpoint, the role of the land manager should be to facilitate exploration for, and collection of, paleontological materials’ (Committee on Guidelines for Paleontological Collecting 1987, p. 2; Pojeta 1992). It found that in general the fossil resource was renewable and that ‘Fossils are not rare’. These conclusions reasserted a view taken by the Paleontological Society in 1979 (when, it will be recalled, the British were again in conference and then in the depths of a collecting crisis [Clements 1984]). The recommendations permitted all groups to participate in fossil collecting while simultaneously ensuring scientific protection. The only need for permits was for commercial extraction where the involvement of scientific oversight was necessary (as the NCC wished to see in Dorset). In the States the guidelines became a vital working document for many land managers but they did not achieve their stated aim of simplifying and standardising access arrangements across the country. Amongst its other recommendations was one to establish a National Paleontological Advisory Committee that would identify localities of national significance, much as had been achieved by the GCR.

The era of responsibility

In 1990, at a high profile launch in the heart of Westminster, London, the NCC revealed its first five year plan, Earth Science Conservation in Great Britain: A Strategy, which showed both an integrated understanding of user needs and a new, tiered, approach to conservation which also recognised that funding for conservation was unlikely to improve. A new Regionally Important Geological/Geomorphological Sites (RIGS) scheme was unveiled, with the intention of democratising conservation and giving local groups the means to protect and use sites, not just for the research community or to satisfy the requirements of government, but to meet the local needs of educationalists, museums, amateurs, and collectors. No longer was conservation a bureaucratic imposition by Government, it was now in the possession of local interest groups; the sense of responsibility placed upon the geological community was being matched by increased opportunity for participation. And with an estimated 1,200 active earth science researchers, and a total of around 6,000 working earth scientists and 3,000 geology students in Britain, there was no need to dress geological conservation up as culture in order to sell it to politicians (NCC 1990). Indeed, it had become increasingly important to raise the profile of the science, to talk up its utility and its place in national life. In 1990, the idea of conservation was easier for governments to accept, as it now meant something different. The earnestness of 1970s radicalism had mellowed and conservation was by this time beginning to enter the mainstream politics of even the most conservative thinkers. 

The Strategy also revealed NCC’s ambitious plans to publish its now 2,200 geological sites in a 51 volume work (this was later revised to 42 volumes and 3,000 sites as publication began). However, as the organisation at last began to celebrate progress, it found itself broken up into country-based units: English Nature, the Countryside Council for Wales  and Scottish Natural Heritage. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee coordinated activity across Britain. 

As Wimbledon predicted, collecting as a conservation issue, which seemed to have been resolved a few years earlier, did not go away. Late in 1990 the NCC received the first challenge to its more relaxed attitudes as farmers began to complain about numbers of visitors, including fossil collectors, to Lesmahagow. Its response was to instigate a system of permits but only so as to inform farmers of the timing of visits; this was not regulation. Two years later a commercial excavation for trilobites at Builth Wells, in Wales, met with local opposition whereas the Government’s conservation geologists expected the site to be improved by the activity (Kennedy 1993). However, large-scale illegal excavations at a Carboniferous Shrimp Bed in East Lothian reaffirmed old tensions. In the amateur community it would take a while for the new reality to sink in, as one article in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association demonstrated. Here the NCC’s ‘bureaucracy’ and its attempts to control collecting were ‘insufferable’ (Wright 1989, p. 296). What the writer feared was not over-collecting but under-collecting. The geological staff of the NCC responded en masse to defend their activities, listing the threats and benefits in a way that gave little overt indication of how radically the organisation had changed. They made this clearer in the Geologists’ Association Circular: ‘If palaeontological sites are to continue to have scientific relevance (rather than becoming a collection of historically interesting locations), further collecting of geological specimens and their study MUST be made possible. . . . Fossil collecting per se cannot, in most circumstances, be considered an undesirable activity, whether it is for scientific, educational or commercial purposes’ (Norman et al. 1990; Norman 1992, p. 255; Knell 1991, p. 106).

The 1990 Strategy saw the impact of fossil and mineral collecting as a key area of activity for the NCC’s new programme of applied research. However, it clearly stated that for most sites damage could be avoided if collecting was carefully planned and carried out. Even on unique fossil sites: ‘In most cases, responsible and scientific collecting for research, education and commerce represents a valuable activity and one of the reasons for conserving the site. In a limited number of cases, however, restrictions and agreements over intensive commercial or education collection may be required’ (NCC 1990, p. 41). By 1992, English Nature was ready to publish a fossil collecting code. Now the word ‘responsible’ had become a universal qualifier for ‘collecting’, reformulating the fossil resource into something shared and giving the collector a sense of obligation (Knell 1991; Norman 1992; English Nature 1992; Ellis 1996, p. 90; Larwood & King 1996). Here the language returned to terms such as ‘fossil heritage’ or ‘national natural heritage’. This was not to convince Government or the public of a need for support but to promote a sense of responsibility among collectors of all persuasions by imbuing rocks with a shared trusteeship that countered notions of ownership and exploitation, or that fossils were simply the property of the scientific establishment. Indeed by the end of the century geological conservation had been rebranded as ‘Earth Heritage’. More than a marketing exercise, the use of language once again became a means to transform perceptions, to distance a largely remodelled activity from the more controversial past which had spawned it.

‘Responsible collecting’ thus became a linguistic step along this path. The only remaining problem was that of interpretation, for each participant might define the word ‘responsible’ differently. Certainly an English Nature position-statement of 1996 redefined the term in such a way as to enshrine the rights of science whereas the conference of nine years earlier recognised a larger community: ‘Irresponsible collecting delivers no scientific gain and is therefore an unacceptable and irreplaceable loss from our fossil heritage’. Tensions remained between different factions and came to a head in an exchange of views between a few English Nature officers and commercial collectors during the cutting of a bypass at Charmouth in Dorset in 1989−1990. It was a temporary hiccup which did not reflect a change of policy, but the old distrust resurfaced. The problem of the market in fossils was not going away, and no one doubted that it had its ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides. Wright (1989, p. 296) was certainly not alone in his feelings when he wrote: ‘Like many others I deplore the idea that fossils have a money value’. It was logical for geologists, particularly those outside the mainstream of conservation, to look for models in species, habitat or archaeological conservation, to desire the exclusion of fossils from the marketplace. But in the eyes of the academic and conservation establishment the resource was now, in the main, renewable. Taylor (1988, p. 129) even went so far as to suggest that the low financial value attributed to fossils affected how they were valued as cultural items and ultimately the care they received in museums. 

The arguments of the past twenty years continued to be recycled, but English Nature and the other conservation agencies were embracing a sense of social purpose essential to the survival of public bodies by the 1990s. Collecting remained on the agenda, and two models became frequently cited in the conservation literature. English Nature’s excavations of Coal Measure material at Writhlington had given amateurs an opportunity to collect fossil plants and insects and possibly contribute to science, while commercial fossil excavations into the Lias Frodingham Ironstone at Scunthorpe, in collaboration with the local museum, transformed what was known of its fauna and extended access (Robinson 1988; Knell 1990; 1994; Larwood & King 1996) (Fig. 4 & 5).

Fig. 4. The Scunthorpe collecting agreement enabled commercial collectors to gather fantastic ammonites which were often stripped of their shells and polished for sale as some of the most expensive invertebrate décor fossils on the market. These now scientifically useless specimens fetched prices in excess of £1000 in the early 1990s. However, the agreed by-product of this activity, which was at a site actively exploited for hardcore, was the rescuing of one of the best starfish faunas of the decade (which also proved the presence of obrution deposits in the Ironstone for the first time). Intensive excavation has long been known to be the best way to locate rarities, and during this period of collecting  the first articulated crinoid and fish fossils were recovered from the locality, together with many new ammonite species. These were all placed in the Scunthorpe Museum. In two years, and after 150 years of collecting, this activity made the most significant contribution to our understanding of the fauna of the Lower Jurassic Frodingham Ironstone. Here commercial collectors Trevor George and David Sole excavate an Upper Lias site at Roxby Mine, Scunthorpe
Fig. 5. Geologists’ Association members and other amateurs take advantage of fossil collecting opportunities in the vast Lias exposures of Crosby Warren Mine, Scunthorpe.

By the end of the decade, local agreements were beginning to resolve long standing collecting issues. In 1998, the stretch of coast most intensively exploited by commercial collectors–that around Lyme Regis–became the subject of one such development. The language was now more flexible and reflected the realities of the collecting community: it made no distinction between commercial and non-commercial collectors. Collecting was now to be ‘responsible’ and ‘sustainable’. Collectors were to register important finds for which ownership was to be transferred to the collector. No longer was the professional collector ostracised or vilified for needing to make an income. Formulation of the agreement involved many of the same collectors who had negotiated the Scunthorpe agreement, which itself owed much to German practice. It too established two tiers to collecting, ensuring that the needs of science, conservation, leisure and commerce were not in conflict (Jurassic Coast Project 1998). 

Some three years earlier, the anonymously authored booklet, Guidelines for Collecting Fossils on the Isle of Wight, actually issued by the island’s geological museum, had sought to resolve similar local tensions. In 1999, research was commission by Scottish Natural Heritage to locate ‘consensus fossil collecting sites’. In the same year, negotiations were begun along the Yorkshire coast to establish a policy on collecting as part of the Dinosaur Coast Project. 

The 1990s also had its conference on collecting and conservation: ‘A Future for Fossils’ in Cardiff in 1998. While this meeting demonstrated that some fundamental tensions remained this was no re-run of the conference of 1979 or 1987. The fact that the conservation establishment’s magazine, Earth Heritage, contained a report on this conference that pictured fossil shops as part of the local economy, shows how far the geological establishment had shifted its thinking in thirty years (Anon. 1999). 

While the last decade of the century can be viewed as one in which British conservationists built upon the major culture shift of 1987, American opinion on the matter seems to have retreated from its similarly liberal consensus of that same year. Again the issue of commercial collecting formed its most controversial element. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) had, in 1973, adopted a resolution opposing the sale of fossils to the public. In the 1990s it became one of the most influential lobbying organisations in the science: ‘Worldwide, amateur and professional paleontologists recognize the damage that recent commercialisation has done’ (Vlamis, Flynn & Stacky 2000, p. 56). Stimulated by the greatest collecting controversy of the century, that of ‘Sue’, the South Dakota Tyrannosaurus (which left one man in jail, provoked a Government raid and went to a museum for $8.4 million), two bills aimed at regulating collecting on public lands entered Congress. These were the Vertebrate Paleontological Resources Protection Act (‘Baucus Bill’) of 1992 and the Fossil Preservation Act of 1996 (Pojeta 1992; Catalani 1997, p. 8; Fiffer 2000). Campaigning under the banner ‘Save America’s Fossils for Everyone’ (SAFE), the SVP successfully opposed the commercial possibilities enshrined in the 1996 bill. In a public poll it believed it could demonstrate that ‘the American public are overwhelmingly against commercial collecting on Federal public lands’ (Poling 1996). The Association of Science Museum Directors also came out strongly in support of the SVP position. Neither bill became law, but the problem of collecting on Federal Lands did not go away.

The issue culminated in a forum at the US Geological Survey offices in Virginia in 1999. Here the same irreconcilable perceptions were again rehearsed: fossils were to some a renewable resource, while to others they were not; for some a weathered fossil in context was better than one saved in a collection, but others disagreed; many saw fossils as abundant while others thought they were rare; commercial exploration of mineral wealth was fine but of fossils it was not. In some respects the views of particular groups were predictable, but others sat on the fence, and some (such as amateurs) were divided (American Geological Institute 1999). In May, 2000, Fossils on Federal and Indian Lands, a Report by the Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, was published. This recognised the ‘complexities’ of fossils, their competing interests in science, leisure, commerce, and education, and their differing meanings in the setting of Indian and Federal Lands. Here, fossils were, once again, and in contradiction to views across the Atlantic, a non-renewable resource and ‘relatively rare’. Commercial collecting activity on public lands had been successfully opposed: ‘Two major professional paleontological societies, representing more than 3,000 members, issued a joint statement in October 1999, agreeing that, “because of the dangers of overexploitation and the potential loss of irreplaceable scientific information, commercial collection of fossil vertebrates on federal lands should be prohibited as in current regulations and policies”’ (US Department of the Interior 2000, p. 25). The Government, which expressed a sense of custodial responsibility for collected materials, was taking moral possession of the nation’s palaeontological resource, re-establishing Allosaurus, Deinonychus and their kin as unique and powerful national icons. The ‘heritage principle’ was now central to the US administration’s view of geological conservation, but in pursuing this principle the Americans had, so it seemed, since 1987 travelled in a direction counter to that taken by the conservation movement in Britain where the drift had been towards consensual accommodation and away from strict control by the scientific hegemony. In the US, the more conservative views of the scientific hegemony prevailed; this was no consensus view. But this report was not the legislation for which many on both sides had been calling: the issue of collecting on Public and Indian Lands remained unresolved and the debate was set to continue (Reed & Wright 2000). 

Ownership of the science’s material culture

To what extent were the events in geological conservation indicative of wider trends in the culture of geology and in society at large? The debate over commercial collecting centred on sites as fossil repositories with conflicting opinions on their purpose, size, renewability, and rights of access. It should not surprise us that similar beliefs also extended to collections. It does not take a massive leap of argument to see the fear of site pillaging by foreign collectors as also reflecting beliefs that particular individuals, groups, or countries have preferred rights of ownership over certain fossils. The NCC had discovered that geologists acquired a sense of ownership over a site that was local or of particular research interest to them. This mirrored the NCC’s own early assumptions that science itself had superior rights of ownership over the fossil resource. Many amateurs evidently felt they had a higher ‘moral right’ to collect than those who exploited fossils for financial profit. 

Yet, many stood opposed to any sense of ownership of scientific material (other than the rights of science itself). As university curator Roy Clements told the 1987 conference: ‘As a science, palaeontology knows no national boundaries; its materials represent a ‘world heritage’ and should not be protected on nationalistic boundaries’ (comment in Wild 1988, p. 189). This echoed a point enshrined in museum ethics: their role as one of ‘trusteeship’; ‘rights of ownership’ remained problematic. Clements was not alone in his views. David Norman (1992) of English Nature similarly stated: ‘The ideal result for the scientist is that the specimens should be adequately curated and available for study in a recognized institution–no matter in which country that might be’. These sentiments were echoed in the States by Pojeta (1992, p. 11), amongst others: ‘In the past few years, a chauvinism, perhaps jingoism extends to smaller and smaller political entities’.

Once again, however, the purity of scientific ideology was running counter to the cultural makeup of scientific production (i.e. the diversity of factors that determine the outcomes of scientific endeavour). In 1980s West Germany, science benefited from fossils being ‘cultural monuments’, yet such designations automatically superimposed nationalistic values as Clements detected. These notions were enshrined in international law: a UNESCO Convention sought to protect the material culture of a nation from illegal export; it included palaeontological material within this definition (UNESCO 1970). Nor could science trample over an emerging sense of nationhood as countries and peoples sought to define themselves in what cultural theorists refer to as the postcolonial era (though those colonised object to the term [Green & Troup 1999]). In the 1990s, the new National Museum of Australia was asking ‘Who are Australians?’ The material culture of that country was developing new meanings and increased significance. If Aborigine headdresses were transformed from colonial loot into a means of cultural understanding and bridge building, so fossils provided a link back into the depths of that country’s history. 

History is critical to nationhood. Collections, as entities which cross time, are not simply products of that history, they also symbolise it. They contribute to identity. They were, in the language of the 1980s, indisputably ‘national heritage’ (see, for example, Anon. 1996; Stone et al. 1998; Taylor 1991). Science was never nationless, it always had nationalistic overtones, and in the conservative socio-political settings of the late twentieth century it was vital that this was so. This sense of nationhood, bound up in science, became strongest in those countries that once felt subjugated or colonised. Canada and Scotland possessed desires similar to those that emerged in Australia in the latter decades of the century. The National Museums of Scotland, for example, rushed to acquire Stan Wood’s ‘Lizzie’ not just for its science or for its tourism potential but also because it had become a Scottish icon, a symbol of status (Knell 1999, p. 11; Gagnon & Fitzgerald 1999; Taylor 1999). Similarly, a sense of local ownership coloured those collecting agreements that sought to keep part of the fossil wealth for a local museum (Knell 1994; Taylor 1999). 

This sense of ownership was not without its problems, however. Martin (1999) has shown how, since 1970, museums and science have struggled to deal with illegally exported fossils. Chinese dinosaur eggs, containing unhatched young, flowed into Europe and North America from the Southeast Asian black market, while fossil fish from the Santana Formation in northeast Brazil found their way into every fossil shop in the West. These two countries had adopted legislation which sought to control fossils as their own ‘heritage’; most of those arriving in the marketplace had been illegally exported. The UK was not a signatory to the major international conventions on this illegal trade, but its museums had voluntarily adopted the conventions as an ethical and legal principle. Those specimens which found themselves exported but excluded from public collections were then in a scientific limbo. If they did not enter the public domain they could not be published, despite holding information at the frontier of knowledge (Martin 1999). 

Even within nations, geology was indicating ethical and preferred repositories. Driven by the palaeontological research community, the NCC and English Nature frequently made reference to the desirability of placing collected materials in a public museum. This embodied the science’s view that such materials must be available for research. It extended a rule which had been in operation for sometime: editors of scientific journals required ‘published fossils’ to be lodged in an appropriate public institution. However, the conservation fraternity visualised museums as extensions to the process of conservation in the field. This had nothing to do with an archive of published fossils or with the process of transfer during publication. It could be applied to just about anything collected and which thus might hold scientific potential. The fear was that important specimens might remain in private ownership and therefore inaccessible to science. Of course, the realities were more complex. The ‘responsible collecting’ the wider conservation fraternity (the NCC, amateur societies, academics in charge of field parties, museum curators, and so on) promoted was open to interpretation. Did it mean data-rich collecting from a measured section, collecting restraint, or the gathering of ex-situ material only, as was frequently recommended to amateurs (Knell 1991; Larwood & King 1996)? The latter is usually regarded as being of little use to  museums, even though most museums lack geological curators and are thus not in a good position to assess material. Nor could museums collect on the scale that these recommendations seemed to suggest. Indeed, just as site conservation found itself in turmoil so the museum world discovered its own crisis (Fig. 6). 

Fig. 6. Lady Anne Brassey and Edward Charlesworth material rescued from the below sea-level basement storeroom of Bexhill Museum where it had been pack away for some 60 years. This was typical of the rescue curation undertaken in the 1980s. 

In 1980, Philip Doughty shook the Museums Association conference with accusations of ‘mismanagement’ and ‘neglect’. His report on the state of geological collections in British museums, published a few months later, and his tireless campaigning, pulled geological collections into the professional conscience for the first time in perhaps fifty years. Utilising a wealth of evidence, it argued that the archive to one of Britain’s greatest scientific achievements was rotting, disorganised and unloved in the country’s museums (Doughty 1981a; 1981b; Knell & Taylor 1991; Knell 1996). Doughty was a key member of the highly influential GCG, which sought to reverse decades of neglect. The group also began to pioneer reinvigorated research into the history of these collections, searching for lost specimens, and adding a new dimension to their value. Seeing the attention geology was attracting, other disciplines soon demonstrated a keenness to show that they too had been abused. But what this represented was not recognition of a new problem, for the problem itself was 150 years old (Knell 1996), nor an interdisciplinary battle for resources, but a substantial leap in the professionalisation of museum work. Driven by a rapidly expanding and increasingly youthful workforce, in an era when cooperation, direct action, conservation, and a sense of responsibility for heritage were in the public mindset, it too was an important reflection of cultural change. However, as the remaining years of the century passed, with crisis after crisis in public funding, wavering political support, and local government and university reorganisation, no professional group had the power to control the fate of museums and collections. While many professionals added new management tools to a previously weak armoury, such as those needed to deal with forward planning and managing change, others saw the only answer in financial autonomy, something welcomed by Thatcherite politicians.

Ownership of the science itself

Like contemporary conservationists, Doughty in 1980 used the term ‘culture’ so that science could be understood in the bigger picture: ‘Government recognition of the place of science in the cultural life of the nation is still awaited’ (Doughty 1981b, p. 14). Such Government recognition was not to come, at least not in a way scientists wished. The monetarist policies of the Thatcher regime failed to solve the economic difficulties facing the country. A political desire to reduce direct taxation meant inevitable cuts in public spending, which hit the scientific establishment and the museum community hard. With only temporary respite around 1987, further economic failure followed. The sense of crisis continued to deepen. 

By the mid-1980s forward planning was widely adopted in the commercial and public sectors. In the form of ‘corporate plans’ it inevitably involved institutional self-evaluation and redefinition. These plans were more than bureaucratic devices to generate a sense of responsibility; most institutions saw them, literally, as a means to survival. The 1986 plan of the British Museum (Natural History) (BM[NH]) was typical of the period: it was ‘permeated with a sense of crisis’ (Anon. 1986). Unable to maintain its scientific programme in the current financial year, and forecasting annual cuts of 3% year on year, its future looked bleak. Though director Neil Chalmers took the brunt of the criticism for the changes this report heralded, his predecessor, Ronald Hedley, had already overseen the planning and imposition of that great abhorrence to the British museum profession: the admission charge. By Chalmers’ arrival in 1988, the crisis had grown acute. Finding all but 2% of funds spent on salaries, he took drastic action to rescue the institution from what he saw as impending disaster. Some 15% of scientific posts were axed. With expertise consequently lost or redirected, some collections were put on ‘care and maintenance’ only. Re-branded ‘The Natural History Museum’, the institution repositioned its research into applied areas: biodiversity, environmental quality, living resources, mineral resources, and human health and human origins. ‘But’, as one commentator noted, ‘pressure to appear “useful” has made research in areas such as palaeobotany and bird systematics all but extinct’ (Culotta 1992, p. 1271). The fifty-one job cuts announced in 1990 caused a furious response from the scientific community, while the apparent repositioning of the institution’s research sparked a House of Lords enquiry into the state of systematics. This latter ultimately led to a short-term injection of some additional funding (£5 million over five years) (Anon. 1990a; 1990b). In the future the Museum was to move to using externally funded postdoctoral workers to undertake much of its research, an approach which led to an overall increase in staff. Its financial position also moved rapidly into the black (Gee 1998). 

Museums and university departments around the world endured similar rationalisations. Commentators saw these organisations withdrawing into applied fields, just as the Natural History Museum had done, and in the case of museums, pumping money into profile improving front-of-house activities (Allman 1992). In Britain, the body responsible for grant-aiding research and research institutions in geology, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), was also in crisis. Its five-year corporate plan for 1985 proposed staff cuts of 30%, which were to come mainly from institutes such as the British Geological Survey (BGS). One early casualty of these changes was the demise of the Survey’s Geological Museum–in effect British geology’s national museum. The building was transferred and incorporated into the BM(NH), while its collections moved with the Survey staff to a rather inaccessible site near Nottingham. Doughty exclaimed to the British Association in Belfast in 1987: ‘It is broadly the equivalent of moving the National Gallery to Holmfirth and burying the Rembrandts and Renoirs’. Leaked two months in advance of publication, NERC’s plan for reorganisation suggested that the Survey’s directorate might also be abolished (Anon. 1985).

Having suffered annual funding reductions of 3.5% for the previous four years, NERC was already all too familiar with the current economic and political climate. The central strategy of the present plan was to reposition itself, to shift funding to the university sector. Inevitably, many university geoscientists welcomed the change, but in the main the Survey’s cuts were widely condemned. Geology Today referred to it as the most severe attack on the geological community in two hundred years: correspondent Ted Nield saw support for science as a tottery edifice with geology trapped in its basement (Nield 1986). 

Towards the end of the decade, the Nature Conservancy Council also faced cuts and a complete organisational shake-up. Its Chairman, Sir William Wilkinson, bemoaning the influence of Government, reflected on a post-war dream of cultural change driven by eminent scientists: ‘Science assumed an almost sacred status during these first years. This belief in the power of science within the Conservancy may look naïve now, aware as we are of the way in which scientific understanding can be subservient to political objectives. However, it carried great political clout then and because of global considerations it may again’ (Wilkinson 1990, p. 7). Indeed, Wilkinson saw some salvation in being a ‘piggy-in-the-middle’ organisation, for without the loud voices of public protest, the NCC’s independent status would surely have been compromised by political interference.

With public spending suppressed, the Thatcher Government pronounced that where industry would benefit, industry would pay. It was a policy that was to affect science profoundly. Where once science was an unquestioned cultural element of national identity, it increasingly became a service industry for the marketplace. With the dawning of biotechnology and other inherently practical, yet new and fashionable, sciences, geology was being pushed to the fringe. Sir Clifford Butler’s working group on the future of the BGS reported late in 1987 and reaffirmed the importance of its core survey work. At the suggestion that such a conclusion should be taken as read, Professor James Briden, NERC Director of Earth Sciences, claimed that this would be a ‘dangerously complacent attitude . . . we have a commercially-minded government that will need to be fully convinced of the value to the nation of geology survey’ (Anon. 1988b). A year later NERC was introducing compulsory redundancies and sweeping cuts to its programme, which included the BGS. It planned a cut of more than 100 staff per year for the foreseeable future. Having suffered much criticism from the scientific community for not resisting this erosion to the nation’s science base, it, at last, began to make representations to government. In April 1989, NERC removed a further one hundred and sixty posts, but planned several high priority ‘Community Projects’.

A decade of cuts had also taken its toll on the Survey. Having begun with forty palaeontologists (mostly micropalaeontologists), by the end it had just one curator and eight palaeontologists (Doughty, unpublished speech, BAAS, Belfast 1987; Doughty 1996, p. 14). One hundred and fifty years earlier the place of the Survey in Government bureaucracy was also much debated. In the late 1980s, it was still not secure, and in the following decade found itself the subject of further cuts and reorganisation.

Science in the private sector also suffered similar economic and social upheaval. In the recession of the late 1980s the petroleum industry underwent savage cuts as producers withdrew from exploration to focus on proven reserves. In the US, the high costs of domestic production combined with greater environmental stringency and overproduction by OPEC countries resulted in the catastrophic combination of low prices for crude oil while debt costs remained high (Leffingwell 1994). The response was ‘downsizing’ and ‘out-sourcing’ in an attempt to achieve ‘increased shareholder value’. A consequence was a collapse in the world population of micropalaeontologists. By 1994, palaeontologists in all institutions seemed to be fighting to justify their positions. Two years later the US Geological Survey axed approximately a third of its palaeontological staff. Even where the science was applied there was a new emphasis on ‘research that produces products that directly fill a societal need’ (Brewster-Wingard 1996). The result for the oil industry was to look to collaboration or ‘out-sourcing’ for research, collection management, or database support. Conveniently this came at a time when universities and museums were looking for this kind of link-up with industry (O’Neill 1994). Previously, oil companies had attempted to internalise their business and especially their commercially sensitive scientific data. 

Museums, which permanently exist in a world of under-investment, were also realising their potential as information repositories in the new electronic information age. Such thinking was at the heart of the Natural History Museum’s development of a number of consultancy areas. In 2000, these were: analytical facilities, environmental assessment, fossil replicas, petroleum, waste management and habitat restoration, biodiversity, collections management, biomedical, mining and training. Such activities had not been part of the core business for museums, or the natural sciences, two or three decades earlier. In similar fashion, the Survey attached itself to the Thatcher Government’s belief in the rising promise of new technology and of the saleability of information. In the late 1980s the Survey was resold to Government as the National Geosciences Database and impressive mockups were promoted to gain support from funders and partners. In 1989, the Government took the bait and began to pump in additional funding (Anon. 1989), and eleven years later the Geoscience Data Index went online. But by this time the BGS was once again shedding staff and demonstrating the insecurities that had dogged it since its birth. 

In contrast, Geology Today claimed American science was much better at selling science to government (Anon. 1991, p. 83). But it too was undergoing transformation. In 1994, reflecting the wishes of the Senate, the National Science Foundation devised key strategic areas for its funding programme: ‘advanced material and processing, biotechnology, environment, global change, high performance computing and communications, manufacturing, science, math and engineering education and civil infrastructure’ (Bourgeois 1994, p. 2). While basic funding for the earth sciences remained, palaeontologists were encouraged to think in terms of how to pigeonhole their activities into this framework. It was suggested that ‘global change’ might provide an opening. Palaeontological researchers were then to ask themselves: ‘How will this research help policymakers in understanding and projecting future climate change, on a human timescale (decades to centuries)?’ It made clear divisions between what was perceived as cutting edge and vital, and that which simply increased understanding. Reflecting the short-termism of political cycles, it sought to put in place a quantifiable and politically accountable system of expenditure. While the strategy showed pragmatism and responsibility, it also meant that politicians could make statements relating expenditure to socially important outcomes. NERC adopted a similar policy in the early 1990s. Having long ago pursued thematic research, it now chose to remodel this idea and present it in lay terms to politicians. Contemporary reports suggested these themes were only administrative pigeonholes, not intended to influence the areas within which people work. Geology Today’s response was to see this as a rather purposeless exercise, but in doing so it had rather missed the point. What NERC was doing was exactly what its counterpart in the US would do: construct a shared language as an interface between politics and science. Each side could allot its own meanings but the language itself acted as a flexible coupling of two worlds which had not seen eye-to-eye for decades. Now science could achieve its ends while politicians could claim the achievement of their electoral pledges; both were applying quite different interpretations to the same outcome. In this light a USGS press release of 7 February 2000 takes on new meaning. It claimed the budget increases it had been given would enable it to meet the ‘critical needs expressed by communities, stakeholders, government agencies and other organizations.’ The USGS core programme now had four ‘over-arching initiatives’: ‘safer communities’, ‘livable communities’, ‘sustainable resources for the future’, and ‘America’s natural heritage’. Social (and therefore political) meaning ensured funds: ‘the relevance of USGS science to improved understanding of the changing world’.

Science had learned to talk the language of politicians rather than the jargon of science (though ironically lly politicians in this period had borrowed many geological terms: ‘seismic shift’, ‘fault lines’ and so on). With developments in publishing technologies, science progressively transformed its language and means of communication in these latter decades of the century. Output from the BGS and NCC provide useful examples. In the 1950s, the annual Report of the Geological Survey Board looked little different from the sheet memoirs the Survey had been producing for a century. With its formality and assumption of value, it talked the language of science. In the 1980s, the reports took on corporate styling but still talked in technical language. By the late 1990s the technical language was still present but there was now a sense that the organisation was demonstrating its worth to a new audience. Through this decade the covers of its reports showed landscapes, then maps, and then buildings; rocks―the stuff of Survey work―were conspicuously absent. In the Annual Report for 1989−1990, the Director introduced the Survey’s work with talk of geochemists, groundwater, and radionuclide migration. Six years later his language had changed, and he now talked of ‘science and the market economy’, ‘the public face of the Survey’, and ‘the public good’. In the report for 1996−1997 much of the Survey’s work was framed under ‘Geology and the Community’. In 1999, the purpose of the Survey was to ‘support the decision making by public and private bodies at national to local levels on broad issues relating to resources, land use, geohazards and the environment. A small, but key element of the Core Strategic Programme is the promotion of the public understanding of science’. In the process its reports had been transformed from technical manuals into full colour expositions of mission. The NCC’s geologists followed a similar path. What was formerly a photostat Circular, which contained unquestioned assumptions concerning the legitimacy of its conservation perspective, became, through a series of metamorphoses, the full colour magazine, Earth Heritage, which in its style, language, title, and support spoke of ‘shared values’. 

The dynamics of late twentieth-century cultural change

In the late twentieth century who ‘owned’ geology? Was it the servant of government, the possession of the academy, or in the ownership of a broader cultural group? The reality was that it was all these things, though few individuals necessarily saw it as such. The field of geological conservation moved from a predominantly academic hegemony of the 1960s to become something much broader, both in terms of concept and participation. This was no simple shift of belief but something driven by campaigns, rhetoric, dispute, and debate. But it was also a reflection of its cultural setting as society shifted from the conservation of protest of the late 1960s to the conservation of responsibility and accountability of the late 1980s. In this area of conservation as in others, in twenty years it had crossed the political spectrum, as only by this means could its ends be achieved. In Britain, it was attached to the NCC, a scientific organisation that was more successful than most in retaining its funding during the financial and political stringencies of the 1980s. But like other institutions, it too had to change, and to rethink its role, and this too impacted upon the way conservation in Britain developed.

In the wider geological community there were other upsets, as geological provision in universities underwent radical ‘rearrangement’, and the sector as a whole expanded rapidly at a time of financial stringency. Throughout this period campaigns erupted, whether to save collections, the Survey, or the very status of the science. If Government answered these protests, which it rarely did, it never did so as the protestors wished. There was never a restoration of lost funding. Change inflicted in times of recession, whether due to ideology, mismanagement, or the vagaries of world trade, resulted in a new, increasingly ‘useful’ science. Both research and geology as a broader cultural field (in museums and conservation, for example) became judged by their social relevance. Such pressures changed the very nature of geoscience and its institutions. When the boom returned, society had moved on. Old limbs were not regrown, but new ones budded from the reconceived science. A new period of scientific diversification begins. It was a curious kind of evolution where fitness to survive in terms of intellectual value did not always play a part in selection.

The late-century campaigns concerning the ‘ownership’ of the science differed from those better-known battles where geology confronted ‘scientific creationism’, disbelievers of Archaeopteryx, or cultural theorists. In these latter debates, science’s sense of reality and its application of empiricism became its most valued weapons. But in campaigns about ownership and control these were rarely useful. Here discourse relied upon the vagaries of ideology, meaning and value, which each party constructed. In the year 2000, the official view of a vast nation on one side of the Atlantic was that fossils are rare and irreplaceable; on the other side of this ocean its small and more densely populated neighbour considered them renewable and, in most cases, not rare.

Perhaps the greatest change in all areas of the science, as in wider society in Britain, was the development of a culture of accountability. The pervasive sense of a Britain in decline, which followed the boom years of the 1960s, forced governments to consider financial efficiencies and instil a sense of accountability and responsibility. But these notions went far beyond the performance measurement of industry. Even in the private worlds of the commercial and amateur collector it became a necessary creed, though one brought to them by a government agency. Accountability had entered the mindset of the country and thus became a tool to be applied wherever it had value.

A science, which feels unloved by government, which faces on-going cuts, which is situated in an era of accountability, has to shift its focus. It must prove its worth against the reconceived values of the day, even when these have evolved from political ideology. As the opposition parties fell into disarray in the early 1980s, the Conservative government appeared unstoppable. It had an ideological strength unseen in the post-War period, unfettered power and a desire to use it. To public institutions, and to science, it was clear that a new era had begun and one that was vastly different from anything science had previously known. The institutional establishment rapidly sought tools that would facilitate its survival, but some took even more radical steps, so apparent in the then highly criticised Natural History Museum in London. Having been amongst the most conservative of all institutions, museums were by the early 1990s battling for their very survival. The Natural History Museum underwent radical transformation in an attempt to take greater control of its finances; Government was not going to let it do otherwise. But few museums were able to do this, so they took another course: to increase their public profiles, to ‘democratise’, to identify with, and respond to, their audiences and in so doing became some of the most socially adjusted and progressive organisations in the country. There were all kinds of knock-on effects of these cultural changes from ‘dumbing down’ and ‘hyping up’ to redefining and restructuring workforces. What seemed at times like culture in chaos was really one undergoing rapid change.

For science, survival in the 1990s relied on communication. Where once universities, research institutes, museums and scientists talked the language of science to their financial masters, they were increasingly learning the language of politics. The language of the Government and its institutions had long been measured, as any slip could result in litigation or unwanted media attention. Thus the NCC’s officers could claim late on that they had never come out overtly against collecting, and indeed there was relatively little evidence that this had been the case. Yet the success of such claims relied upon the change that had already taken place, and the forgetting of original context and emphasis. It was a game politicians often played; if it wasn’t unambiguously expressed on paper it did not happen. But there was a more radical change in the very words science used. Not just in terms of ideas but in the accepted codified language of politics. Politicians had long played with the ambiguity of language, they were notoriously difficult to pin down (Edelman 1977; Pfeffer 1981). Publicly funded organisations learnt that if they used the terms politicians understood–less plate tectonics, more ‘safe communities’–both Government and science would understand each other. This understanding was not actual but political. The scientists could continue with their science, with motive and conclusion redrawn, and the politicians could claim their successes and socially relevant decisions. By this means at least, and although radically transformed, scientists could retain ownership of their world. 

Acknowledgements and final note

I should like to thank my two referees, one of whom was Phil Doughty (Ulster Museum), for many useful suggestions and comments. I would like to thank the Geologists’ Association for permission to reproduce its badge. I am also grateful to John Martin (Leicester Museums), Roy Clements (University of Leicester) and Mick Stanley (former NSGSD co-ordinator) for valuable conversations. However, the text here is entirely my own reading of this period, and not necessarily theirs. There are obvious difficulties in writing such a recent history especially if one has also been an actor in that history, however minor one’s role may have been. History, in these circumstances, can be misread as critical commentary. While I recognise that histories are personally constructed I have attempted to discern the assumptions, developments, and arguments by understanding the various sides of the debates that I have examined.


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Source: Accepted manuscript version of Simon Knell. Collecting, conservation and conservatism: late twentieth century developments in the culture of British geology, in David R. Oldroyd (ed.) The Earth Inside and Out: Some Major Contributions to Geology in the Twentieth Century (London: Geological Society, Special Publication 192, 2002), 329–351. When citing this paper please refer to the published version which will differ slightly.