Foyles’ new flagship bookstore is an impressive sight. Just 100m down the road from its previous location, it is big, airy and the scent of wood polish hits you as soon as you enter.
With high hopes, we rode the escalators up three floors to the archaeology department. Excitedly, we looked about. Sandwiched between prehistory and anthropology, the archaeology section amounted to just one case of books.
Disappointing. And not just because given the ‘Grand Opening’ we had come for, it was so tiny, but because the selection of books available was such a random mix of technical tomes that could only appeal to specialists; there was little for those with an interest, but no specialism, in the study of our ancient past.
Except… two entire shelves (out of the 10 available) given over to authors like Eric von Daniken and Graham Hancock. These were the only titles that a non-archaeologist interested in the rise of civilisations could reasonably be expected to pick up whilst browsing. What a shame when there are some really fantastic books available.
When I asked a member of staff who had been responsible for the selection, I was informed it was no one in particular; they’d just been moved over from the old shop. Clearly, staff are still unboxing (we found Che Guevara biographies in the Prehistory section) so perhaps it will improve in time.
And yet, this was the ‘Grand Opening’. Foyles had been proud to announce that the travel section had been opened by Michael Palin, History & Politics by Mary Beard, Crime Fiction by PD James, Art by Grayson Perry, Food by Yottam Ottolenghi.
So I was taken aback when the I was told with equal pride that in 20 minutes, Graham Hancock would be arriving to ceremonially slice open the big red ribbon and declare the archaeology section open. Claiming that Hancock was the “obvious choice”, the Events Manager said “[Foyles] have always encouraged debate about different subjects… we are happy to have that debate… we do encourage people to debate different things and and to not just always have a particular line on things”.
Fair enough, I suppose, given that the programme was meant to be revealing Graham Hancock’s top ten selection of archaeology books, but this never actually happened. Instead, Hancock gleefully spoke at length about the outraged reaction of the archaeological establishment to the news that he would be opening the department, about how “archaeologists had it almost 100% right… up until about 5,000 years ago” and, if we want to appeal to a wider audience, that we need to open up our minds to “alternative views of the past”.
Maybe archaeology does need to fight harder to make our work more interesting, more accessible and more engaging. Maybe we do need to do more to help people explore the big stories of how civilisations came to be.
But to do that, we need the support of booksellers like Foyles who claim to cover “every specialism”. The confused selection of titles on the archaeology shelves gave me the impression that, even at the ‘Grand Opening’ nobody really cared – the books available were just the first that came to hand and their selection of ‘popular’ books perpetuates the view that pseudo-archaeology is the only side of archaeology that challenges the ‘status quo’.
All in all, I left Foyles feeling confused and disappointed. And while we did manage to speak to Graham Hancock, THAT is another story.
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