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Archaeology and Open Authority

November 26, 2012

The guest post below is written by Elizabeth Bollwerk.  I met Beth a couple of years ago in the session “Reimagining the Engaged Museum” at the Society for Applied Anthropology Meetings.  In that session she presented on using the Omeka web publishing platform for engaging communities in museum exhibits. A recent graduate of the PhD program at the University of Virginia, Beth has continued her work in this area.  Below she reports highlights of the 2012 Museum Computer Network Conference especially as related to archaeology and community outreach.

I recently attended the Museum Computer Network (MCN) Conference in Seattle, Washington. For those of you who aren’t familiar, MCN is an organization whose goal is to “support the greater museum community by providing continuing opportunities to explore, implement, and disseminate new technologies and best practices in the field”. In this post I will discuss some of the issues that arose during the conference that pertain to Archaeology, Museums, and Outreach.  I should note one of the great things about MCN is that a lot of the conference content is online. MCN videotaped all of their sessions and these will be available via their youtube channel in a few weeks.  In the meantime I have linked to some of the relevant slideshares, blogs, and twitterfeeds throughout this post to help provide more context for my discussion.

At the Ignite program that kicked off the conference Lori Phillips introduced one of the issues that resonated with me and many others: the question of open authority and museums.  This question was revisited throughout the conference and was widely acknowledged as being one of the underlying themes.  Although open authority is relevant for a wide range of disciplines, Lori’s presentation dealt with the issue of balancing curatorial/expert authority with the broader goal of making museums more open areas of learning and idea sharing, i.e. forums not temples, bazaars, not cathedrals.  As readers of this blog are well aware, there has been a substantial movement to make museums into forums or bazaars where information is not simply disseminated from experts to the public but is actively created through the sharing of ideas from both sides. The question of where “experts” and “scholars” fit into these projects has been somewhat controversial.  While some have argued that curators aren’t needed as gatekeepers, Lori took a more balanced perspective, arguing that we need to make museums both temples and bazaars.  It’s not that crowd sourced or curated projects don’t need scholarly curators, it’s that curators need to share authority, knowledge and expertise in a constructive way AND be open to how the public’s knowledge can broaden our understanding of a subject.  (Those interested in the subject can follow on twitter at #openauth.)

While I think this is a relevant question for any museum, my background in archaeology made me ponder how open authority could impact the discipline and its role in museums. Archaeology has been shifting towards embracing open authority since the post processual movement in the 1980s.  The incorporation of descendant communities has opened up new opportunities for integrating different perspectives.  Additionally, a growing movement in support of public and engaged archaeology has incorporated the public into field and lab projects.

However, open authority is more than just encouraging experts to share their skills and knowledge with a wider audience. One of the aspects of open authority that I find so promising but simultaneously challenging is finding productive ways to integrate “audience” knowledge that can help advance research. One session at MCN that highlighted some projects accomplishing that challenge was the Open Science, Citizen Science – Unleashing the Power of Community Collaboration to Create New Museum Science.  (you can follow the conversation from the session on twitter #mcn2012sci.)  This session focused on crowd sourcing projects that draw from the knowledge of amateur naturalists, astronomers and hobbyists to crowdsource data analysis or data correction.  Arfon Smith in particular discussed the Old Weather and Milky Way projects, which use citizen scientists to transcribe and organize data for researchers. This work helps researchers get through the initial sorting process which otherwise might take days or weeks.  However, curators/researchers are not removed from the process.  Instead crowdsourced entries and cataloged items are tagged as “unchecked” until a curator can double-check the assignment. These activities add value to museum collections, particularly the research collections that are often not on public view.

Another big take away of the crowdsourcing session was from a survey that asked project participants what their motivation was for engaging with these projects.  Overwhelmingly, responders said they participated because they loved knowing their work and knowledge was helping push research and science forward. Clearly these projects seem to be beneficial for both “experts” and “amateurs” alike.

This made me wonder, can we do something like this in archaeology?  No archaeologist is blind to the fact that the internet and social media have opened a number of forums for individuals to exchange information about artifacts.  There is clearly a large audience who has an interest in the material culture of the past and wants to participate in researching and analyzing it.  It is also clear that many of these “amateurs” have a great deal of knowledge about the material culture they are interested in.  In my experience public projects nearly always benefit from volunteers because of the new perspectives and varied expertise they bring to the project. But these projects also need good leaders who are familiar with the material to keep everything running smoothly, hence the need for both the temple and the bazaar. 

Unfortunately not everyone with archaeological interests has time to volunteer at archaeological sites or labs.  This makes me wonder if there’s some way for archaeologists to harness the wider public interest in archaeology into virtual projects where they can work with citizen scientists.  Today there is more archaeological information available to the public on the World Wide Web than ever before. Digital archaeological archives such as The Digital Archaeological Record, the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery, the Chaco Research Archive, and the Comparative Archaeological Study of Colonial Chesapeake Culture, are just a few examples.  These projects have made archaeological information that was once hidden away in museums and archaeological repositories available to scholars and increasingly to archaeological graduate and undergraduate classes.  But can we take another step and engage the public with these databases? There is no question that making collections available for teachers or allowing individuals to learn about sites and artifacts is valuable, but can we open the gates to ensure the knowledge sharing goes both ways?

A great non-digital example of such a project is the Archaeological Metal Detector Training Course led by Matthew Reeves at Montpelier earlier this year.  I think this statement from the Society for Historical Archaeology blog best sums up the potential for projects like this: “At the end of the week, we had a dozen metal detectorists who not only understood how site integrity can be attained through the use of metal detectors, but they were devising new techniques for how this process could be improved.” Incorporating these individuals into discussions of archaeological techniques not only improves their understanding of our methods but their expertise can help improve our methods.

So while archaeologists are taking steps towards open authority on the ground, I’m wondering how can we also make online spaces both temples and bazaars.  I welcome any thoughts or ideas.

Elizabeth Bollwerk can be contacted at eab7f(at)virginia.edu

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