Review of the Activities and Effectiveness of the Royal Archaeological Institute
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Founded in 1844, the Archaeological Institute, which became the Royal Archaeological Institute (RAI) after being incorporated under a Royal Charter in 1961, is considered the historic home of research into the archaeology and heritage of the UK. For over a century, the RAI enjoyed a prominent position in the development of archaeological scholarship. The Institute’s support, via grant-giving, for fieldwork and research, its signature publication - the Archaeological Journal, alongside numerous lectures, meetings and events, contributed to the study of every time period and region of the UK and helped establish the discipline of archaeology as we know it today. In recent decades, despite the achievements and ongoing dedication of the RAI’s largely voluntary staff, membership numbers and impact have begun to wane. This is the result of rapid technological, employment and cultural change within the discipline of archaeology and society at large with which the Institute has not always kept pace; a situation which is mirrored across many of the UK’s similar learned organisations.
Fortunate in possessing well-managed capital reserves, the RAI was in a position to consider some well-judged additional investments in order to re-establish relevance and value in line with 21st century archaeological challenges and opportunities. Thus, in 2020, aware of the need to modernise, the RAI’s Council commissioned an independent review of the organisation’s governance and activities. The review aimed to assess the Institute’s role and function against its Royal Charter commitments, Statutes, and status as a charity, and to consider whether its resources were being used as effectively as possible. Interviews with past and present Council, consultation with sector-leaders, membership surveys and public questionnaires, alongside in-depth document-based research, provided evidence that the RAI no longer engages early and mid-career archaeologists in the way it used to and that its identity and purpose are poorly communicated. While it became clear that the logistical processes of the Institute function well in terms of delivering core activities, the data revealed that the Institute has an ageing demographic and that the majority of members do not participate in the membership offer beyond reading the Archaeological Journal and Newsletter. Many working within the archaeological sector expressed little or no awareness of the RAI, its membership programme and wider charitable giving. As a result, the RAI has become increasingly distanced from mainstream archaeological activity and the heart of modern research, which has limited the Institute’s ability to deliver public value and meet its charitable aims to best effect.
While the RAI faces challenges, the consultation also provided clear recognition, both from within the membership and across the wider sector, of the Institute’s strengths. These included the RAI’s respected name and history, the potential to build on its unique multi-period, UK-wide research remit, the skills and experience held within the membership and its value as a partner for other organisations in the sector. Thanks to the RAI’s financial stability, the multiple opportunities for reform and collaboration that emerged from these strengths as part of the wider consultation process can now be considered.
With an understanding of the Institute’s internal dynamics in place, alongside insights into perceptions of the RAI and the future of the sector from the wider archaeological community, the next step in the review process was to draw on consultation responses to provide proposals for innovation. Many of the recommendations put forward had already been identified by Council in recent years and the review provided strong evidence to support arguments for such change. The recommendations focused on enhancing governance models and diversifying Council (trustees), improving capacity to implement change through the recruitment of new staff, and modernising communication and activities in order better to achieve the RAI’s core objectives and reach a wider audience. Each suggestion built on the quantitative and qualitative data generated through the consultation, was categorised by theme, e.g. administration, grant-giving, Journal etc., and was ranked by level of priority to indicate the changes that the RAI MUST, SHOULD and COULD make. The priorities were also linked to the urgency of each initiative. For example, a short-term focus on the essential changes the RAI MUST make to ensure its survival, the medium-term changes the RAI SHOULD make to strengthen its future position, and the longer-term initiatives the RAI COULD consider once essential changes are in place. The proposals were based on practical, achievable and fully-costed steps that would enable the RAI better to fulfil the needs of both practising archaeologists and enthusiasts today, with a view to securing a meaningful role for the Institute in the future of UK archaeology.
It is important to emphasise that the proposals, and the need for modernisation, do not mean removing or curtailing the RAI’s current activities and membership offer, which the review also revealed to be highly valued by existing members. Instead, it means building on the RAI’s offer – meetings, grants, lectures, publications etc. – to develop strategic partnerships with relevant archaeological organisations and to forge links with local societies. In addition, the approach aims to draw on the skills of willing members to help others – particularly early career archaeologists – and to offer the membership new ways of engaging in research and synthesis, both through the Spring, Summer and Autumn Meetings as well as through new member-led projects. The review recommendations, therefore, promote innovations that balance the RAI’s traditional offer with the demands and opportunities of 21st century archaeology. This approach will enable the RAI to widen membership streams, strengthen its public benefit and enhance its relevance in line with its aims, objectives, Statutes and Royal Charter.
The Options Review Report details the review’s findings and recommendations. A brief summary of the recommendations includes:
- Redefining the RAI’s Purpose, Aims and Strategic Objectives in order to project a clear identity and unique selling point (USP)
- Reviewing current governance models, documentation (including the Charter and Statutes) and organisational policy
- Reconsidering the number of Council members (including Vice Presidents) and range of Officer roles
- Clarifying the roles, responsibilities and succession procedures for Officers, Trustees, Committee members and staff
- Recruiting new Officers to Council to fill existing gaps in both skill and demographic representation
- Carrying out a skills audit to understand, and make better use of, members’ expertise both within the organisation and the wider sector (e.g., providing mentor support and/or opportunities for young and early career archaeologists, as well as enthusiasts, where willing)
- Reviewing the Institute’s finances in order to release all available funds from a recent bequest to support the essential changes the RAI MUST deliver to secure its future
- Increasing the capacity of the Institute to implement change by employing a new member of staff on a temporary basis
- Opening discussions with the Society of Antiquaries of London about the future relationship between the two societies and the situation at Burlington House
- Reaching out to local archaeological societies and other archaeological organisations with complementary aims/resources to start discussions about potential mutually beneficial partnerships that will aid the wider sector and enhance the RAI’s visibility and ability to implement change
- Restructuring the Institute’s essential member/public engagement methods by developing a strong publicity and digital strategy and by adding new membership classes
- Innovating within the existing membership offer to both sustain and enhance the core activities of the RAI for members and the wider public to increase the visibility, reach and accessibility of the Archaeological Journal, Lecture Programme, Grants, Meetings and
Newsletter (e.g., building links between the Spring/Summer/Autumn Meetings and the latest archaeological excavations and research, increasing the remit of the lecture series, providing opportunities for members to contribute to new archaeological data synthesis, developing mentorship opportunities, providing new grant models etc.)
These recommendations are not absolute but are open for Council and the wider RAI membership to consider and implement as they see fit. It is envisaged that many of the suggestions will also be of benefit to the wider sector, particularly to similar learned societies. Decisive and prompt action is therefore essential, alongside a clear strategic plan, to ensure that the RAI does not duplicate initiatives that already exist but instead works alongside organisations with complementary goals to add resilience to the whole sector.
The Institute is very fortunate to be able to contemplate the modernisation programme envisaged by the Options Review as a result of a most generous legacy of £180,000 from a former member, Mr Talbot Green.
If successfully implemented, the recommendations would enable the RAI to become more outward-looking and collaborative, and foster active research opportunities for members and the wider public. A greater focus on disseminating not just research but research experience and skills would also demonstrate the RAI’s value as an organisation investing in the archaeologists and heritage supporters of the future, and strengthen the subscription base and uniqueness of the RAI’s membership offer. All these elements would enable the RAI to address some of the challenges facing archaeology in the UK today: skills gaps, obscure routes to employment, lack of synthesis, and low public value related to the intellectual and scientific contributions of archaeology to modern life (beyond digging/discovery). In addition, the RAI would be able to add its respected voice to relevant matters of political or cultural concern and help contribute to a more united approach across UK archaeology. By investing in change in this way, the RAI would be able to re-establish its key role in promoting and supporting research, and reassure itself that its resources were being used as effectively as possible to address the 21st century needs of UK archaeology and its diverse audiences.