Originally posted on Middle Savagery:
I understand the temptation. You want to show the mundane, you feel that there is too much Hollywood glamor attached to the profession. So you begin your article, or your Introduction to Archaeology course, or public lecture with some variation of the following:
I know you all think that archaeology is all whips and snakes, Indiana Jones, and Lara Croft, but it is actually a set of methods that can involve long, boring episodes in the lab, counting things, and general tedium.
STOP. Stop this now. Take it out of your lexicon. Not only is it one of the most lazy, overused introduction strategies, but it actively works against the profession and is terribly bad form in science education.
Check out my guest post this week Museum Studies Programs and Small Museums, a Win-Win Collaboration at the American Association of State and Local History blog.
Flowing from last week’s post, I thought a good bit about engagement and the questions posed by Jordan and Allison in their reading journals for my Applied Archaeology and Museums class. They asked about what if the public does not respond to a museum’s attempts at engagement. I had a bit of an “aha” moment in my response when listening to a MOOC lecture from The History and Future of (mostly) Higher Education given by Cathy Davidson who teaches at Duke University and co-directs the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge. In a lecture titled Teaching Like it’s 1992 Dr. Davidson noted that on April 22, 1993, the Internet went pubic and became commercially available, yet teaching in higher education largely remains locked in a pre-Internet mode of operation. The top down model where a student sits in a lecture room of 50 – 300 and listens and takes notes as a professor delivers Powerpoint lectures and administers scantron tests is simply an inefficient use of everyone’s time and money. That same information is very likely available on-line through a MOOC or other resource.
I like to joke that in 1992 if I hurt my elbow, I would go to my doctor and find out why my elbow was hurting so much. Now I go to ihurtmyelbow.com, and find out what everybody else who’s hurt themselves says about the best way to treat it, what I might do, and if I’m going to go to my doctor, I now go armed with lots of information. In fact, last year, the AMA did a study and found out that 75% of American doctors say that they now ask their patients what they’ve learned online before they begin their treatment.
This approach to engagement and knowledge is important to archaeology, museums, and community outreach. For example, one week ago I visited the Morton Museum of Collierville for the first time. My purpose was to discuss a student project to install a small exhibit on the prehistory of Collierville. Housed in the 1873 building of the former Collierville Christian Church, the two-year old museum has a very impressive on-line collection available for viewing. Visitors who walk through the doors of the Morton Museum for the first time may have a good feel for what they are going to see, and know quite a bit more about Collierville from visiting the website first. When I spoke to Museum Director, Ashley Carver, she made clear the Museum’s decision to invest in a digital and on-site future.
There is a core issue that ties the Morton Museum back to Dr. Davidson’s Teaching Like It’s 1992 example. The issue is not the technology but the paradigm of operation. I liken this to a model of teaching engagement from Parker Palmer’s book The Courage To Teach. He illustrates two models: a linear hierarchical model where the point of engagement is focused on the teacher and an interactive model where the engagement is focused on the great thing under consideration.
Now the curmudgeon might respond that what the Morton Museum is doing is nothing new. Public libraries have been around in the U.S. since Benjamin Franklin donated his books to a facility in 1778. The Morton Museum is doing nothing more than putting their collection online. The curmudgeon’s observation is key. I often quote, from Clay Shirky’s book Cognitive Surplus, where he (2010:98) writes:
Interpretations that focus on technology miss the point: technology enables those behaviors, but it doesn’t cause them . . . no one wants e-mail for itself, any more than anyone wants electricity for itself; rather, we want the things electricity enables.
Today, the Morton Museum of Collierville has not chosen to digitize a large portion of their collection simply because they can, rather, leaving preservation issues aside, they are betting that the folks of Collierville and beyond, already interested in the history of that town, have a desire to access their curated information through an online search. The virtual visitor will also find out about the beautiful space of this cultural heritage venue occupies, along with the exhibits, programs, and resources they offer on-site. In so doing, the Museum becomes more relevant to the public who pay the taxes to fund the institution.
As a small county/town institution, I don’t think the Morton Museum is unique but part of a growing trend. I am quite intrigued that from small institutions like the Muscatine History and Industry Center in Muscatine Iowa to monster-sized places like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis with their Open Field, cultural heritage institutions such as the Morton Museum are leading the way in engaging and being relevant to the communities that they serve. These institutions seem the best shot at having cultural heritage venues also function as third places.
Museums like the Morton Museum in Collierville provide an excellent and direct response to the questions of engagement that Jordan and Allison posed.
This semester I am teaching one of my favorite classes of all time – Applied Archaeology and Museums. The course is in part a glomming together of much of what I hold dear in cultural heritage studies. Students come to appreciate that archaeology is more than just digging up stuff and that museums are more than places to look at things and be given definitive explanations – but not touch or otherwise engage. The course description goes like this:
The course explores the intersection of Applied Archaeology and Museums through the representations of cultural heritage in a broad array of public venues. Topics that comprise the exploration include repatriation, cultural patrimony, cultural resource management, civic engagement, rights and responsibilities of stakeholders, public involvement in museum representations, performance, education, culture and memory. The course is applied in focus. Students will be challenged to transform concepts contained in readings to real-time applications through class projects and written assignments.
Here is a copy of the syllabus if interested.
One of the class readings this past week was from the book Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by Bill Adair and others (reviewed here). The article “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations” by Kathleen McLean presents the case for greater visitor engagement in the museum exhibit/program creation process. I cleverly, by my estimation, presented a Powerpoint slide with a quote from McLean’s article:
It’s not as radical as it might sound. Increasingly, museums are employing visitor research and evaluation to better understand how their programs and exhibitions affect their end-users. (p.72)
McLean, K. 2011. Whose Questions, Whose Conversations? In Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by B. Adair, B. Filene and L. Koloski, pp. pp. 34-43. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek.
and a nearly 100 year-old quote from John Cotton Dana:
Museum purposes and methods change daily, as do all other community enterprises in these days. Therefore, do not try to develop a museum after a plan. Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs. (p. 38)
Dana, John Cotton. 1917. The New Museum, Elm Tree Press.
My intent was to show that it is not “radical” at all to engage the community in such discussions, but the idea has been around for 100 years.
In their reading journals, two students raised interesting questions about McLean’s article:
Jordan Goss, an undergraduate with an interest in anthropology and geoarchaeology wrote:
Since I have not gotten the chance to physically carry out the concept of Applied Archaeology just yet, I’m not sure if this is an appropriate question or simply meaningless. But what would happen if you wish to create ways for the public to participate in museum activities yet the public refuses?
Allison Hennie a PhD student with a background in architecture, anthropology and museum studies wrote:
As part of the Museum Studies Certificate Program, there seem to be never-ending supply of readings about how museums need to change. So, why haven’t things changed yet? Are museums forcing engagement or do all visitors really want to engage?
Both excellent observations. The student responses bring to mind a couple of my own experiences at the C.H. Nash Museum. Our “Hands-on Archaeology Lab” contains artifacts and exhibits to provide a highly tactile visitor experience. As well, through regular programs, and on request we also offer visitors the opportunity to throw darts with an atlatl. Most visitors are thrilled with these opportunities. Others just want to pay their admission and be left alone to wonder the exhibit hall and the earthwork complex. ”No” they politely respond – they don’t want to go into our lab or throw darts.
But here too is a reality. No one at our Museum ever asked any visitor if they wanted us to create a hands-on archaeology lab or develop an atlatl program. Our staff created the activities on our own initiative and basically, we guessed right. Both are very popular activities and provide an excellent opportunity to engage and educate around our mission.
We are now take a different approach before creating exhibits and programs. We hold focus groups and conduct surveys with our existing and intended visitors to see what they want us to create. I do not think this means becoming all things to all people. In answering the above questions posed by Jordan and Allison, as public servants, we must be proactive in finding the appropriate level and type of visitor engagement that is consistent with our mission. As Dana noted in 1917, that is often simply a matter of asking the community of their needs – not having cultural heritage staffs attempt to second guess those needs.
As a small Museum we have incredible opportunities to fill a variety of public need niches. For example, in our Art for Voice program last summer, we had several families with autistic children who participated and wished for more offerings suitable for their special needs. This morning I came across an Archaeologists for Autism Facebook group that aims to support greater inclusion of special needs children in cultural heritage programs. This seems an excellent example of how our museum can engage with our public in a way envisioned by John Cotton Dana in 1917 and Kathleen McLean in the 21st Century.
How do you answer the questions posed by Jordan and Allison?
A great collaborative project in applied archaeology with students from Memphis and Peru.
Originally posted on The Ancash Advocate:
by Robert Connolly
This past summer was my first to visit to Hualcayán, Peru as a part of the PIARA Team. I am an applied anthropologist with a focus in archaeology and museum studies at the University of Memphis (UM), Tennessee, USA. I am also the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum located on the grounds of the Chucalissa archaeological site, a Mississippian culture temple mound complex. What first caught my interest in Hualcayán was the post of an interview I had with PIARA Co-Director Rebecca Bria three years ago. In that interview Rebecca described an archaeological research and community outreach program in Hualcayán that was very similar to one carried out by the C.H. Nash Museum in Memphis. Both programs envisioned that the communities surrounding the archaeological projects must have an active role in developing their cultural heritage resources. Further, that development must not be done for the community but with the community.