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More on Funding Museums with the “Publics” Dollars

December 15, 2014

As I noted in my last post, for the past few years, half of the final exam in my Museum Practices graduate seminar in the Museum Studies Program at the University of Memphis consists of responding to the following:

Put yourself in the position of John or Josephine Q. Public. In the current economic chaos, the bank is foreclosing on their home, they have lost their jobs, and the city just reduced their public services. In referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the House Budget Committee recently argued that “The activities and content funded by these agencies…are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” Isn’t your research or the position you aspire to a museum professional just another example of this wealth transfer? What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars that fund your research/position?

Brooke-Garcia-HeadshotAnother excellent essay was written by Brooke Garcia a graduate student in the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at the University of Memphis.  Brooke is also enrolled in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program and is a Graduate Assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. Drawing on her own experience at Chucalissa and the Third Place concept she provides an excellent response to the essay challenge.

What the Publics Get From Museums

by Brooke Garcia

I would venture to generalize that a good portion of people still view museums as the ivory tower[1], a repository of artifacts only accessible to the wealthy elite. However, more museums today recognize this stereotype and are taking steps to change this misguided, outdated perception. At least in theory, museums reflect the needs of their community, and as discussed previously, if they do not change to reflect these needs, museums will cease to exist. One of these needs is to be affordable in difficult economic times and provide more than just exhibits. Museums need to be an experience, and despite the hardships John and Josephine Q. Public have endured, they should still be able to participate in museums. It is their space, a third space, for the community to utilize, learn from, and enjoy.

For the sake of this paper, John and Josephine Q. Public live in Southwest Memphis, and their local museum is the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. As a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum and a student at the University of Memphis, their tax dollars help fund my position. But what do they receive in return? The C.H. Nash Museum strives to be transparent, and their educational and economic impact statements tell Mr. and Mrs. Public what their taxes pay for. Their taxes fund staff, who in turn help create new exhibits and education resources, such as the African-American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis exhibit, Medicinal plant sanctuary, resertification of the arboretum, and the Hands-on archaeology lab.[2] Their children,   Joseph and Johna Public, visit the museum with their elementary school and benefit directly from the graduate assistant and staff-led tours, education programs, and crafts, which include Mystery Box, Native American Music, Pre-history to Trail of Tears, Talking Sticks, Simple Beading, and many more.[3] As a family and for regular admission price, the Publics can participate in Family Day programing on every Saturday plus some weekdays in the summer.

But how can they benefit more? Given their economic hardships, even paying regular admission prices could be difficult for their entire family. Perhaps the C.H. Nash Museum needs to consider offering free days to locals or two-for-one ticket deals once a month. I also think providing free, open to the public, academic lectures about the prehistoric and historic Chucalissa site would benefit the museum greatly. These lectures could also be a platform to display artifacts usually not on view. The Publics could enjoy these lectures with their children without worrying about their hardships and learn even more about the site or other special topics than even a regular visitor would. This situation exemplifies what we as researchers and museum professionals can do for the public that shows museums are not a wealth transfer, they are a place to exchange information and a third space for the community.

As defined by the Center for the Future of Museums blog post “Experience Design & the Future of Third Place”, the third space includes spaces “not home, not work public-private gathering places” for the community.[4] The third space is “for people to have a shared experience, based on shared interests and aspirations [and] open to anyone regardless of social or economic characteristics such as race, gender, class, religion, or national origin.”[5] Furthermore, these spaces are “often an actual physical space, but can be a virtual space, easily accessible, and free or inexpensive.”[6] Examples of third spaces include: coffee shops like Starbucks, public parks, malls, chat rooms, fairs, and even museums. In exchange for their tax dollars, the Publics have access to government-funded third spaces like museums and parks. However, what separates museums from these other third spaces? Museums are a place for learning and entertainment. Instead of coming away with a new dress or a Frappuccino, museums visitors (hopefully) take away new information, or at the very least, a new experience. At the C.H. Nash Museum, the Publics can learn about the prehistoric Native American site, but also the past and contemporary history of their community. And they can also participate in community events, such as the local Black History Month celebration.[7] Even with hardships, they can take advantage of their museum as a third space.

Museums today are not a space just for the wealthy. More and more museums strive to provide a place for their community to gather and learn. No longer are museums just about artifacts, but now, in my opinion, their true mission should focus on education, in all forms for all ages. Education through exhibits, programs, activities, crafts, etc.; in other words, museums are a third space, focused on passing on new information to their visitors and providing for the needs of their community, whether that includes Richie Rich or John and Josephine Q. Public.

 

 

 

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Ivory Tower,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation Inc., last modified December 10, 2014, accessed December 10, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivory_tower

[2] C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, Educational Impact Statement, 1, accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.memphis.edu/chucalissa/pdfs/chuceduimpact.pdf

[3] Some of these mentioned in C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, Economic Impact Statement, 1, accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.memphis.edu/chucalissa/pdfs/chuceconimpact.pdf

[4] “Experience Design & the Future of Third Place,” Center for the Future of Museums Blog, April 3, 2012, accessed December 10, 2014. http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2012/04/experience-design-future-of-third-place.html

[5] California Association of Museums, Foresight Research Report: Museums as Third Place, Report for Leaders of the Future: Museum Professionals Developing Strategic Foresight (2012), 5. http://art.ucsc.edu/sites/default/files/CAMLF_Third_Place_Baseline_Final.pdf

[6] Ibid.

[7] Chucalissa, Economic Impact Statement, 1.

Why Fund Museum Professionals with Public Dollars?

December 11, 2014

For the past few years, half of the final exam in my Museum Practices graduate seminar in the Museum Studies Program at the University of Memphis consists of responding to the following:

Put yourself in the position of John or Josephine Q. Public. In the current economic chaos, the bank is foreclosing on their home, they have lost their jobs, and the city just reduced their public services. In referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the House Budget Committee recently argued that “The activities and content funded by these agencies…are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” Isn’t your research or the position you aspire to a museum professional just another example of this wealth transfer? What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars that fund your research/position?

DStarkThis year, Deanna Stark a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology wrote a particularly compelling response that contained many excellent talking points and examples.

Why Should Governments Fund Museums?

by Deanna Stark

It is not the role of government to fund only those things that provide a return on investment; government must also fund things that provide quality of life. This basic tenet of the Keynesian approach was the prevailing thought prior to the emergence of neoliberal policies. Even in the current SRI budget model talks here on campus, President Rudd acknowledges that not every department makes money for the university. But those things—like the library—make us a university, and he has pledged to continue them. This is an excellent model from which to begin.

As a former teacher, I know with absolute certainty that cultural experiences outside the everyday routine are vitally important. They show children that there are so many possibilities in life beyond what they currently know. One of my favorite events was taking the children of Kingsbury Elementary School on a field trip to hear a symphony performance at the Cannon Center. To hear the discussion on the bus was both endearing and heartbreaking. “Where are we going?” “Are we in another state?” “Is that the ocean?” These kids, who live in Memphis, had never even been downtown to the Mississippi River.

When we walked into the Cannon Center, they were enthralled by the reflective metal sculpture outside, and had a wonderful time seeing themselves differently. Going inside was like visiting a castle; the audible ooh-ing and aah-ing was quite dear. But when it was time to get everyone to the restroom before the performance began, I understood that this was more than just a field trip. You see, the restrooms are really nice, and the children were concerned that they weren’t allowed to use them. They didn’t think they belonged there.

They reminded me of myself as a sophomore whose university choir was on tour in Western Europe. I couldn’t believe how busy Munich was or how beautiful the sound in Salzburg’s Dom Platz Cathedral was or how moving it was to actually visit the Anne Frank House. It made me truly aware of another whole world, and shaped my educational goals. Fifteen years later, I was in Germany doing research for my dissertation. Without that first experience, though, I doubt I would have really believed it was possible for me.

Later, as a mom to a brown son who was interested in dance but not in being bullied for it, I looked for ways to tend that flame. When the Alvin Ailey Dance Company came to town, I saw my chance. He saw handsome strong brown and black men dancing in a way he’d never seen before. His posture was magnificent for almost two weeks!

When my Dad got sick, he had to live in a nursing home. It was a terribly difficult time for me, but it was devastating for him. Luckily, he lived in a place with wonderful staff members who planned interesting activities for every single day of the year. The activity directors were a teacher’s dream; they presented a different theme each month, and planned all sorts of real and virtual activities. When it was France’s month, the residents got to take a virtual tour of the Louvre. (This, admittedly, wasn’t really my blue-collar Dad’s style; but the point is that it was a meaningful experience for many other people.)

Museums are unique among cultural experiences in that they teach us about human history. Immigrants who visit the Tenement Museum understand that they’re not alone. People who visit open-air museums like the Pink Palace Crafts Fair or even Colonial Williamsburg learn how things were made in the past—by hand. When visitors go to the National Civil Rights Museum or the United States Holocaust Museum, they understand a bit of what people endured.

Museums bring us great joy, allow us to wonder, and fuel our ambitions. I’ve seen children’s eyes light up when they figure out how something works at a children’s museum. (The Anchorage Museum has an amazing children’s section that spans two floors.) And if you’ve never been around an entire class of 6th graders at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, you have missed the delight of seeing a young girl realize that she could really truly be an astronaut like Dr. Mae Jemison. Does anyone ever go to the Field Museum and not have a Jethro-in-the-big-city moment upon seeing the T-Rex skeleton?

I’ve spent an hour staring at the intricacy of the border surrounding George Seurat’s Sunday in the Park with George in the Art Institute of Chicago, and I’ve marveled at the beauty and strength that Diego Rivera was able to paint in his large Mexico City murals. Seeing so many Van Gogh paintings in one place was a highlight of my last trip to Europe. (I know the Dutch Masters are more high brow, but Van Gogh’s paintings, especially some of the darker, starker works, appeal to me much more.) I’ve also been absolutely mesmerized by both Georgia O’Keeffe’s clean-lined cityscapes and her intricate floral paintings.

For me, the reason tax dollars should pay museum salaries is a simple one: museums enhance our quality of life. Whether they inspire us, cause us to reflect, make us laugh, or light the spark of lifelong learning, museums cannot be replaced. If museums are not good investments in a country’s population, I can’t imagine what would be.

Deanna Stark can be contacted at dmstark(at)memphis.edu

Public Access to Artifacts: A Problem or Opportunity?

December 1, 2014
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Hands-On Lab in 2008

We are doing a major exhibit upgrade at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  Here is a story – in the Spring of 2008 we launched our “Hands-on Archaeology Lab” drawing on some of my experiences over the years in community outreach.  We used deaccessioned or never accessioned educational collections curated at the Chucalissa to provide visitors with a tactile/sensory experience with archaeological materials that are usually visible only behind glass.  Since 2008, we have made minor changes and additions to the lab.  The exhibit proved a big success based on teacher/visitor informal and formal evaluations.

In 2013 we conducted focus groups and surveyed visitors and staff on what worked and what didn’t work in the Lab to decide how to improve the experience.  Based on those responses we came up with a proposal to upgrade the Hands-on Archaeology Lab into the Brister Archaeology Discovery Lab (BADLab).

In the fall of 2014, the River 2 AmeriCorps NCCC Team began the upgrade process.  The six-person all women team gutted the lab, moved the map cases to a new location, tore out the sinks and cabinets, and laid a new floor.  (River Two Team member Chelsea Crinson (who was voted NCCC Team member of the year for the Southern District Go Chelsea!) designed and supervised the painting of one wall to approximate the covered excavation trench at the Chucalissa site.  For safety reasons, we no longer permit public visitation of the trench that was originally excavated in the 1950s.  Our idea was to mount actual size digital images of portions of the trench (e.g., buried living floors, evidence of basket loading, postmolds,) at the appropriate locations on the wall Chelsea designed in the BADLab.

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Transition to BADLab with AmeriCorps painted wall trench.

Then we stepped back and looked at the incredible work the AmeriCorps Team had done and began rethinking the project.  Ron Brister, who first worked at Chucalissa in 1966, and for whom the renovated BADLab is named, made a suggestion – what if instead of mounting digital photographs to the BADLab trench painting, we mounted sediment peels from the actual excavation trench.  In this way, we could bring the actual excavation trench into the BADLab exhibit.

Ron’s suggestion got everyone thinking more.  We wanted to highlight the contribution our museum could make to cultural heritage in the Memphis area that complemented but was not redundant with offerings at other venues.  Bringing the excavation trench inside was one such contribution.  A second opportunity was expanding the use of the thousands of unaccessioned and unprovenienced prehistoric and historic cultural artifacts we curate in our education collection.

I wondered – could we use a curated educational collection in the BADLab to tell the complete story of an artifact from the field to the museum.  Such a hands-on exhibit would allow us to explain the importance of provenience, the time period and function of the occupation, and so forth – and we could use a 20 foot section of wall and counter space to tell the story.  I considered the Fred Jobe collection of artifacts from Lincoln County, Tennessee, that I have posted about before and how they might fill this role.  Since their accessioning in 1982, these 3000 artifacts had remained in our repository unused.  But since 2012, the collection has been the subject of 3 student projects, volunteer day activities and a temporary exhibit at the C.H. Nash Museum.  I was particularly intrigued because the Jobe farm artifacts are reportedly collected from part of a Revolutionary War land grant.  As a minor league baseball player turned farmer, the recently deceased landowner, Fred Jobe, was a human interest story to go along with the 3000 unprovenienced cultural materials he donated to Chucalissa in the 1980s.

circa 1960s Residential Ridge Excavation Exhibit at Chucalissa

circa 1960s Residential Ridge Excavation Exhibit at Chucalissa

My thinking correctly raised the eyebrows of several of the graduate students at the Museum:

  • Brooke Garcia, our Graduate Assistant who works with collections noted that the Fred Jobe collection was in fact accessioned and our Collections Management Policy did not allow for accessioned collections to be used for hands-on educational exhibits.  Nor did the Policy allow for the deaccessioning of materials for such purposes.
  • Our Graduate Assistant Nur Abdalla, who worked with the Jobe artifacts and created the temporary exhibit expressed concern about the security of the collection in the BADLab.  She also noted that we had offered to install the revised exhibit in the Lincoln County Museum in Fayetteville, Tennessee, near the Fred Jobe farm.
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The Hands-On Lab at the C.H. Nash Museum in 2008

Nur and Brooke raise important questions:

  • The accession vs. deaccession point is important.  We all agree that today, given the same information about the Fred Jobe collection we might only accept and inventory the artifacts for use in educational projects.  Today, we would not accession the collection.  (Without the detail, we assume that the collections are from the Fred Jobe Farm, but we do not have any direct paperwork that support that case.  The filed site forms do not list the cultural materials noted on the accession forms.)  We do have provisions in our Collections Management Policy to deaccession materials that do not fit our Collection Plan criteria.  The Fred Jobe collection falls into this category.  In fact, we have other collections that were accessioned in the 1970s and 80s with absolutely no provenience information.  We could deaccession these materials as well.  Related, Robert Janes considers this issue from a perspective of museums lack of sustainability in part through unlimited collections growth.  Should we deaccession all such materials, including the accessioned prehistoric vessels curated in our museum with provenience information listed only as FOP (found on premises)?
  • Since 2008, we are aware of perhaps 5 projectile points that have gone “missing” from the hands-on-lab exhibit.  I suspect at least an equal number of ceramic sherds have been pocketed or lost.  This low number is attributed to our official policy that the visitors to the hands on lab must be accompanied by a museum staff.  None of the missing artifacts were accessioned or have any provenience information.  We have hundreds, if not thousands, depending on artifact type, of unaccessioned/unprovenienced artifacts from our educational collections to replace the missing pieces.  Is this loss a reasonable exchange for the thousands of visitors who have had a real-time tactile experience with the prehistoric materials?
  • I am attracted to the idea of using this particular collection from the Fred Jobe farm in our upgraded BADLab because there is a compelling and relatable story to tell along with the artifacts.  Alternatively, we could use other unprovenienced/unaccessioned collections to tell other stories.  Should we even be using these types of collections in creating hands-on, or any other type of exhibits?

I will appreciate your consideration, comments, and questions as we grapple with this issue in the coming months.  For the rest of this year, we will be working on the sediment peels!

Shared Earth Installation

November 30, 2014

robertlfs:

If you are anywhere near Monroe, Louisiana, be certain to check out this fantastic exhibition!

Originally posted on Shared Earth - the ancient mounds project:

As promised, I’m finally getting around to posting some photographs of the current exhibit at the Masur Museum of Art in Monroe, Louisiana.  There are thirty prints in the show on two floors of the museum.  Each print was created using carbon pigment inks on Canson Edition Etching paper.  Those prints were then attached (using handmade photo corners) to Magnani Pescia printmaking paper and handwritten notes were added to the paper borders.  The exhibit also includes a large projected still image and a display table with artifacts from Poverty Point World Heritage Site.

The work is installed as a timeline that starts with the Lower Jackson Mound (built around 3900-3600 BC) through Poverty Point (1700-1100 BC) and ending with the Pargoud Mound (built around AD 1100-1540.)

Installation_01

Installation_03

Some of the photos include artifacts or archaeological drawings.

Installation_04

Most of the emphasis of the exhibit is on Poverty Point in celebration of its…

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For My Friend, Mustafa Onay

November 3, 2014
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(l-r) Mustafa Onay, Robert Connolly, Emma Connolly, Hale Onay (Gunn), Hatice Onay

My friend Mustafa Onay died today in Izmir, Turkey.  I met Mustafa in 2006 during a 10-day whirlwind tour through the country sponsored by the Institute of Interfaith Dialogue.  At an evening meal and tour of a local hospital, Mustafa, his wife, and two daughters were a part of the local community who met with our small group of travelers from the Jackson, Mississippi area.  At the dinner Mustafa and I hit it off very well – we were the same age, born just a couple of months apart.  His daughters Hale and Hatice spoke enough English that we were able to make sense of our conversations.  At the end of the evening, we said our good-byes and I assumed that like much of the fast-paced trip, future interactions with the Onays would be restricted to future emails.  That evening I commented to my wife Emma how meeting with the Onays had truly been a highlight of the trip thus far.

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Women from Mississippi, US and Izmir, Turkey at dinner.

The next morning we were off for the site of Ephesus.  As we headed out of Izmir the bus stopped in a residential neighborhood and the Onay family boarded the bus.  I was ecstatic to be able to spend the day with them.  Hale brought a Turkish-English dictionary to help with the communication.  The trip was most memorable.  Besides just visiting Ephesus, two highlights stand out.  First, we again shared a meal that allowed for extensive and the conversation.  Second, I bought a Qu’ran in the vendor’s market just outside of Ephesus.  I had a couple of other copies of the Qu’ran at home, but this one was a more contemporary translation like the difference between the King James and the NRSV editions of the Christian canonical texts.  After purchasing the book, Hatice, kissed the cover, very reverently held the Qu’ran to her forehead and then handed me the book.

Since that 24 hours of interaction in 2006, I have not seen the Onays in person.  However, we have kept in touch through emails, Facebook, and the occasional package sent back and forth. My Turkish still does not go beyond a few words.  Google translate does a poor job with the Turkish language.  But the photos of Hale’s wedding, the birth of her child, the Onay’s wedding anniversary, and other life events are easy to understand in pictures and translated phrases – as this morning finding out about Mustafa’s death.

I have reflected often about that 2006 trip to Turkey and what I learned.  I wrote some of this up several years ago.  Perhaps most important was the sharing of meals and how that experience provided the opportunity for Mustafa and I to form a relationship that continued for nearly a decade.  When coming back to the States sharing a meal was something that my wife Emma and I began to see more as an opportunity to bring strangers together.  Based on that Turkish experience we invited our Turkish and Mississippi friends in Jackson to our home for dinner.  That logic carried through with me my trip to Peru this summer when I invited the local “help” at the archaeological field school to begin sharing the evening meal with the North American field crew.

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(l-r) Hatice Onay, Mustafa Onay, Hale Onay (Gunn) at Ephesus.

How does all of this come back to Archaeology, Museums and Outreach?  A couple of years ago a professor from my dissertation committee commented to someone that I actually believed that anthropology could be used to better society.  That was an interesting comment.  I am not quite certain if the comment was meant as “that naïve fool” or of course that is what anthropology is all about.  But I have learned from reading things like Mauss’ The Gift, the Spindler Anthropology series,  Edward Sapir and Dell Hymes on linguistics, Kent Flannery’s fabulous Oaxaca studies, that we as humans basically do things the same way, have the same needs and wants.  I am interested in aggressively breaking down the silos we put ourselves in to keep us apart and from seeing that reality.

Outreach and interdisciplinarity is where the action is at.  I thank my friend Mustafa Onay for being a part of that lesson for me.

AmeriCorps, Archaeology, and Service

October 30, 2014
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River 2 Team (l-r) Chassie Nix, Cindy Robertson, Tatyana Samuel-Jefferson, Katelyn Tharp, Linda Nag, and Chelsea Crinson

The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa is hosting our 5th AmeriCorps Team through November 12, 2014. I have posted several times in the past about the role these exemplary youth play in cultural heritage and community engagement in Southwest Memphis.   The AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) program is a ten month volunteer commitment for 18-24 year olds who assist in disaster relief and other areas of community service. The River 2 AmeriCorps NCCC Team we now host is an all women construction team based at the Southern Region campus in Vicksburg, MS.  The Team is made up of one team leader and five corps members.

Team Leader Chassie Nix is from Amory, Mississippi.  She has completed higher education coursework in political science with a desire to get into Mississippi politics in the future. She joined AmeriCorps to make a difference in the community and better understand the day-to-day life of people from diverse backgrounds.

Chelsea Crinson is from Sterling Heights, Michigan.  She joined Americorps after feeling the pull to do more after participating in a 2013 project that helped with ongoing Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.  She joined Americorps to continue what she loves. Chelsea is a pastry school graduate, but plans to further her passion for helping people by working for a non-profit after her November AmeriCorps graduation.

Katelyn Tharp is from Knoxville,Tennessee.  She joined Americorps to gain new experiences, meet new people and see the south in a way she never had before. Katelyn is looking forward to starting at Aveda Institute Beauty School after the AmeriCorps program along with getting certified as a Zumba instructor.

Linda Nag is from Portland, Maine.  She joined Americorps to help people in low income communities and to build her resume. Linda became a Certified Nursing Assistant and Medical Assistant during her previous term in Job Corps.  After graduating from AmeriCorps Linda will continue her education by studying for a B.S. in Nursing.

Cindy Robertson is from Kings Mountain, North Carolina.  She came to AmeriCorps  to help in low income communities and be a role model for youth. Like Linda, Cindy is a Certified Nursing Assistant who plans to further her education by going to school for nursing after the AmeriCorps program.

Tatyana Samuel-Jefferson is from New York City, New York.  She joined Americorps to devote her time to volunteer work, make a difference in children’s lives, and to travel and experience people and places she had never seen. Tatyana has an Associates Degree in Education. After her term with Americorps she plans to further her studies in education to become a school teacher.

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The River Two Team is currently performing a complete renovation of the C.H. Nash Museum Hands-On Lab

During their six-week round in Southwest Memphis, the Team will complete a diverse set of projects.  Already they have spent one-week refurbishing trails and buildings at the T.O. Fuller State Park.  In the Walker Homes neighborhood they painted and landscaped the home of a disabled Vietnam-era veteran.  At Chucalissa they completed work on a 30 square foot pergola and built a second rain shelter along our nature trail.  For the next two weeks the team will work on refurbishing our hands-on archaeology lab.

The AmeriCorps NCCC motto of “We get things done” is true in many capacities.  Chucalissa’s AmeriCorps Teams have proven a key component in our Museum’s ability to play a role in the Southwest Memphis community.  In addition to hosting the Teams who contribute their work skills in a variety of community construction and renovation projects,  the young men and women of AmeriCorps participate in volunteer, youth mentoring, and other service projects.  Work with veterans organizations is of particular importance to team members.  Not just in Memphis, but throughout the U.S., AmeriCorps NCCC Teams are increasingly taking part in cultural heritage projects.

For more information about AmeriCorps NCCC Teams visit their website.

The Poverty Point World Heritage Site, a Louisiana First

October 13, 2014
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Nancy Hawkins with plaque presented to her at the dedication.

This past Saturday Poverty Point was formally dedicated as a World Heritage Site of UNESCO. This is a big deal for the archaeology and cultural heritage in the state of Louisiana. Not too long ago I blogged about the dismantling of the Louisiana Division of Archaeology’s State and Regional Archaeology program because of state mandated funding cuts. I concluded that post by noting:

“Though the Regional Archaeology Program may be gone, the 20 years of work by Tom Eubanks, Nancy Hawkins, and all of my archaeological colleagues in the state will surely result in new and innovative directions for the preservation and presentation of the rich cultural heritage of Louisiana.”

The World Heritage designation of Poverty Point provides an unparalleled opportunity to launch such a new direction. The 45-minutes of formal presentations at the dedication on Saturday were suitably nonpartisan and enthusiastic. The proceedings presided over by Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne featured remarks by U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. All spoke passionately about the potential the World Heritage Site designation brings for Louisiana. Special plaques were awarded to Nancy Hawkins of the Louisiana Division of Archaeology and Diana Greenlee, Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point to acknowledge their work in the nomination process.

As someone who watched the process of development unfold at Poverty Point over the past nearly two decades, I was struck by a several aspects of the Saturday dedication:

  • The politician who was and remains the most tireless and consistent champion of Poverty Point, beginning in his elementary school days, is State Senator Francis Thompson.  The Senator was not on the speaker’s platform but was invited to come forward to say a few words. Thompson is a phenomenal orator who combines the best of the stereotypical fire-and-brimstone Southern preacher and politician. His few words, which of course stretched into as long as any of the featured speakers, did not disappoint. Lieutenant Governor Dardenne spoke of the last eight years in shepherding the nomination through the World Heritage Process. Senator Thompson was able to extend and personally speak to that process going back to his childhood.
  • Nancy Hawkins and Diana Greenlee were acknowledged as the individuals who gave the Lieutentant Governor and others the raw material to even launch the process. Nancy and the late State Archaeologist Tom Eubanks were responsible for creating the Station Archaeology program at Poverty Point that ultimately allowed for Diana Greenlee to put together the nomination document.
  • The Native American tribal affiliates in Louisiana were recognized by Dardenne. Had their ancestors not built the earthwork, Poverty Point would be long forgotten today or only the name of an obscure 19th Century Plantation.
  • There were also a bunch of archaeologists and soil scientists present on Saturday such as Jon Gibson, Bob Neuman, Joe Saunders, Thurman Allen and others who provided the very grist for the mill that created the basis for knowing the prehistory of the place. I have posted before about the importance of folks such as avocational archaeologist Carl Alexander to the Poverty Point site. This group of archaeologists was the only set of individuals not mentioned by Dardenne or other speakers from the platform this past Saturday (save Senator Thompson’s brief sermon).   Somewhat fitting to this exclusion is the state funding cuts to Louisiana’s public archaeology program.
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Standing with a treefall on the Poverty Point ridges that are now fully mitigated.

When the celebrations die down and lawmakers get back to the business of out budget cutting each other, as seems quite fashionable in the U.S. of late, Louisiana will be faced with the hard realities of the opportunities in having the 21st World Heritage Site in North America at Poverty Point – and the opportunities will require a commitment of time, energy, and resources.  The state has had some lessons in this fact over the years at Poverty Point.  For example, during my tenure as Station Archaeologist back in 1997, I debated with architects about whether the planned curation facility for Poverty Point needed to be climate controlled.  The architects argued that all we had up there to put in the facility were a bunch of “rocks and those clay cooking balls.”  In a similar way, the World Heritage Site status necessitated the Office of State Parks dealing with the issue of treefalls on the Poverty Point ridges and mounds.  The exposed root mass of a single treefall typically exposed thousands of prehistoric artifacts and cultural features.  Back in 1997, the state considered mitigating these events as a waste of resources.  Ultimately, establishing best practices in both of these issues clearly were preconditions for the World Heritage Site designation.

If the proclamations from the podium this past Saturday of the tens of thousands of international travelers who will be flocking to view this new World Heritage site are true, then the museum and interpretive facility will need dramatic upgrades.  For the most part, museum exhibits remain unchanged from their initial installations in the 1970s and certainly do not include the extensive research program that has taken place over the last 40 years on which the World Heritage Site nomination was largely based. In addition to Poverty Point, the past twenty years research by archaeologists such as Joe Saunders at the Middle Archaic Watson Brake site, arguably the earliest example of monumental architecture in North America, complements the Poverty Point site.  Watson Brake is just some 50 miles as the crow flies from Poverty Point.

The tourism and cultural heritage bump provided by the World Heritage Site designation at Poverty Point could be used as a true launching pad for the region.  The opportunities for the private and public development of the region are outstanding. The state of Louisiana can continue on the trajectory that led to the World Heritage designation and truly organize the resources to bring the interpretive potential of Poverty Point to the World Heritage Site status for which it is now recognized, along with an abundance of other earthwork complexes in northeast Louisiana spanning over 4000 years of prehistory.  This can be the new direction that public archaeology takes in Louisiana and can serve too as a model for the nation as well.

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