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Public Accountability in Cultural Heritage Studies

October 28, 2013
bl hist

U.S. Military Veteran participants in Black History Month Celebration at the C.H. Nash Museum – photo featured in Museums and Social Issues volume

For the past few years I delivered a presentation on professionalism to a proseminar of incoming Anthropology graduate students at the University of Memphis (UM).  In preparing for the first time I gave the presentation, I sent an email to 50 professionals in my address book including those who worked as faculty, corporate and nonprofit administrators, and clergy.  In the email I asked this question:

If you could tell graduate students about one professional standard that is routinely violated but is of critical importance as they embark on their careers – what is that standard?

I was pleasantly surprised to receive 34 responses from a representative sample of careers:  2 Clergy, 3 Government officials, 6 University Professors, 7 University Administrators, 7 Non-Profit Administrators, and 9 Private Industry Administrators.

Now I routinely open the proseminar session by asking the students to speculate on the most common response professionals give to my question.  Typically, students raise issues such as the need to show up on time, wear appropriate clothes, and so forth.  In three years, no student has identified the top standard listed by over 60% of the professionals – Publishing Research Results and Public Accountability.  The responses from the professionals included:

. . . Many ‘academics’ do not give enough consideration to their responsibility to inform the public about their work.   Lip service and a few talks or even fewer publications are given by some, but being esoteric and admired by your colleagues is considered to be so much more important . . .

Despite the mantra of “publish or perish,” . . . far too many professionals fail to finish projects . . .

I will admit to being quite surprised by the priority given in this response as well.  In fact, the 34 professionals responses ranked Being on Time/Prepared and Appearance/Demeanor as 4th and 5th behind Responsiveness/Accountability and Giving Thanks/Acknowledgements, the 2nd and 3rd in their rankings.  Though certainly not a scientific study, the results were quite revealing and aligned with the response from a focus group in which I recently participated.  The College of Arts of Sciences conducted the focus group consisting of area employers who hire UM graduates.  The gist of the focus group was to determine how the College can better prepare students for employment.  Of the ten people in the focus group, the unanimous top response was the need for improvement in oral and written communication skills.

What does all of this have to do with Archaeology, Museums and Outreach?  These results remind me of the need for cultural heritage professionals to remain relevant to the communities we serve.  At the same time we need to demonstrate and share that relevance.  A few weeks ago, I received a surprising comment on this point.  We recently published a paper The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa: Community Engagement at an Archaeological Site.  The paper summarizes and evaluates the last five years of the Museum’s engagement as a participatory institution with the underserved community surrounding the Museum.  The journal Museums and Social Issues published the paper in a thematic set of papers (Volume 7, Number 3, 2012 Opening(ing) Authority Through Community Engagement) based on a session I organized two years before at a professional conference.  As an editor of the volume I received an extra hard copy of the journal and gave it to Mr. Robert Gurley, the President of the Westwood Neighborhood Association, the collaborating partner featured in the paper.  Mr. Gurley read an earlier draft of the paper and was pleased to have the published hard copy.

Mr. Gurley approached me a few days later saying that he showed the volume to other community members and four individuals wanted to buy a copy.  I noted that copies were $25.00 each, but I would be happy to provide pdf copies of the manuscript at no cost.  Mr. Gurley replied that the community members were proud to be featured in the “book” and wanted to have an actual copy.  He also noted that he had read several of the articles in the volume and enjoyed knowing how our type of community/museum collaboration was carried out at other locations in the U.S.

Ultimately, I cut a deal with the press and got 10 copies for 19.00 each.  All ten copies were sold in the community within one week.  I must admit I was quite surprised that ten individuals in this working class community were interested in paying 19.00 for an 18-page article on a collaborative project in their neighborhood.

Flowing from this example, I will return to this theme next week to consider other opportunities to address the Public Accountability and Responsiveness standard considered top priorities by the professional community.

What opportunities do you take to share your research with the public?

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