This week’s post is an interview with Kimberley Popetz, the Director of Education at Maryland’s Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. Kim directs an innovative, intensive and engaging volunteer and public outreach program at her Park and Museum. I found Kim’s interview responses very informative on multiple levels. The breadth of Kim’s career path is informative for today’s cultural heritage professional. Kim’s work also exemplifies the interdisciplinary potential of archaeology and museum studies. The Jefferson Patterson program demonstrates the value of long-term development with a diversity of public engagement. And if you want to experience the very essence of a Participatory Museum, read Kim’s answer to the last interview question below!
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your responsibilities at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum?
My goal when graduating from school was to find a job that would let me teach about archaeology outside of a classroom. When looking for that job, a kind soul who interviewed me said that I had more education experience than any other candidate. But, while I had a Master’s degree in anthropology, I had no practical experience in archaeology so they couldn’t hire me. I set out to fix this discrepancy by landing CRM jobs while also working in museums part-time. After working in CRM for many years, I turned my attention fully to the museum world and succeeded in reaching my goal when I obtained my current position.
Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum (JPPM) is Maryland’s State Museum of Archaeology. As Director of Education I oversee the planning and implementation of our public and school programs including our Discovering Archaeology, Tidewater Lifeways and Kids’ Work programs; assist in exhibit development; develop and run long and short-term outreach programs in the local schools; develop and promote our traveling trunks program; assist with public events, speaker series and workshops; and create and run our docent program. Because we have a fairly small staff I also oversee visitor services and do development work to support my programs.
How are volunteers recruited and retained in your public archaeology programs?
Odd as it may seem from the outside, I don’t run the public archaeology program at the museum. The land for our facility was donated because of the large number of archaeological sites contained on it—we have approximately 70 known archaeological sites dating from 9,000 years ago through the early 20th century. Because of this we have someone on staff dedicated to running the public excavations as well of supervising any other sort of excavation on Park land. His name is Ed Chaney and here’s how he answered this question:
We use archaeology volunteers in two different ways, so there are two answers to this question. For our formal, two-month long, annual Public Archaeology Program, we recruit volunteers in many ways. We advertise on our website, in the newsletter of the Archeological Society of Maryland, in local newspapers, and in the outreach material produced for Maryland’s Archeology Month each April. We generate flyers that are distributed at our Visitor Center and the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory (MAC Lab, located on JPPM grounds), at special events, and at local libraries, etc. We get positive word-of-mouth advertising – for example, on home-school websites. As for retaining these volunteers (and really, we think of them more as participants in an educational program than as strictly volunteers), we mainly work at giving them a quality experience. Because the program has been running since 1996, we have developed a core of certain groups – camps, classes, etc. – that return year after year, and this also holds true for some families and individuals. Every year we also have many new participants who join us for a single day to see what archaeology is all about.
During the rest of the year outside of the Public Archaeology Program, the MAC Lab uses a small number of volunteers. That number is kept low because we have a limited amount of work appropriate for volunteer assistance. We recruit these volunteers through announcements in the newsletter of the Archeological Society of Maryland, and through the efforts of the JPPM Volunteer Coordinator. As a general rule, we try to find off-season volunteers who have already done archaeology before, or who are college student working on a degree in an archaeology-related field. For those who don’t meet those criteria, we encourage them to participate in the summer Public Archaeology Program so they can figure out if they really are interested in archaeology, and so we can evaluate if they will be able to help us the rest of the year. To retain off-season volunteers who are doing a good job for us, we invite them to staff events (such as our luncheons and holiday parties) and to the annual JPPM Volunteer Awards dinner, and we try to work with them to find projects that are both interesting to them and beneficial to us.
One of your public archaeology projects involved high school students using curated collections to create exhibits for public libraries and museums. How did you recruit students for this project?
We’ve been working for over three years with a local high school teacher’s archaeology class. Jeff Cunningham’s classes have researched and created three cell phone audio tours for JPPM on topics ranging from the Native Americans that used to inhabit the land along the Patuxent River in Maryland to the War of 1812. Last year he came to me and asked if I would be willing to help him create the content for a class called Historical Investigations. The idea for the class was to pull together a group of students really interested in history who wanted to gain deep knowledge about one or two specific historical moments as opposed to the broad overview they receive in their regular history classes. The students had to be invited to take the class by Jeff or recommended to him by another teacher or guidance counselor.
How has your Museum’s outreach to the general public evolved over the past few years?
More and more we’ve come to recognize that we have to work much harder to involve the local community. We’ve been focusing on creating a wider variety of programs that appeal to a broader spectrum of the public. Our marketing coordinator has really stepped up her efforts to make sure the community is aware of our offerings both by taking advantage of the various social media out there but also by reaching out more to local groups and creating word of mouth advertising. We’ve made large strides in making our facility welcoming and open on a more regular basis than in the past, and we’ve begun collaborating regularly with other community players to create exhibits and presentations that go to the people, instead of asking them to come to us. Lastly, we work hard to listen to what the community needs and wants before creating programs so that we know that we’re filling a gap.
Having said all of this, I think the biggest way we’ve drawn in the wider community is actually through our project based school programs. We celebrate the student’s achievements with openings that showcase their hard work and bring relatives, friends and community members who were involved in the process to our site. Because we’re fairly isolated on a small peninsula, we often get comments at these events about how wonderful the facility and grounds are and how folks didn’t know we were here, but will definitely be back.
What do you consider your most successful recent efforts in public outreach or community engagement?
In a little less than a month, I hope that I’ll be able to say that the final project for the current high school class will be one of our most successful efforts. In October, we presented the students with the opportunity to document and present objects that haven’t been touched since their excavation in 1980. At that time, a new Federal Reserve Bank was under construction in Baltimore, MD. Construction crews began uncovering multiple archaeological features and archaeologists were called in to salvage the information about a Baltimore neighborhood that had long since been destroyed. It was a wet cold February when the archaeologists were called in and they were given no more than two months to save what they could before the construction equipment went back to work. Over twenty features were uncovered and the documentation and artifacts associated with those features has sat untouched until now.
As the state repository for artifacts, we’ve had this collection sitting on our shelves for over a decade (our collection storage wasn’t built until the mid-90s and state collections were housed in multiple locations all over the state up to that point) but haven’t had the manpower to do any sort of research. Patricia Samford, the Director of the MAC Lab, chose one feature, a privy, for the students to examine. They have cataloged all of the artifacts, researched the neighborhood, looked at maps, visited the National Archives for more extensive assistance, mended artifacts and done minimum vessel counts among other things. They have each chosen an artifact or aspect of the site for further research and they will be the authors of the final report on the feature that will be archived along with the collection. They are currently designing an exhibit to share with the community what they’ve learned. The exhibit will be on display in our local public library for 10 weeks beginning in May. We’ll launch the exhibit with a party open to the community, to celebrate what they have accomplished.
How has the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum incorporated social media and a “virtual” presence in public outreach and education?
Two years ago we launched a section of our website devoted to kids in hopes of making archaeology more accessible to people who can’t make it to our physical site but wanted to learn more. We offered prizes to encourage people to offer feedback and make the pages better. We also have a Pinterest page where you can see things related to all different aspects of the facility. In a couple of weeks we’re planning to use the Pinterest page as part of a professional development workshop for teachers by asking them to submit new ideas for teaching elementary students about the War of 1812 that others can use in their classrooms. We use our Facebook page to promote programs and events at our site but also to pass along articles, blog posts and other information we think our followers would find interesting. We love to see the photos that visitors post after attending a program, event, or just visiting the grounds. We also have a Facebook page.
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned over the years with the volunteer program?
I created our 10 week training course for our docents and have found them to be some of the most interesting and enthusiastic people. I have learned so much from them that it’s hard to distill it down to one or two ideas. I would say that museum staff should really take the time to listen to their volunteers. Every year we have a wrap up meeting at the end of our busy fall season. We provide a homemade dinner for all of the docents and then ask them to give us some tough love and let us know what worked and what didn’t work and how we can make the docent program work better for them. We also ask for their input on our programming and events and what they would like to see in the future. Their answers often surprise me and allow me to see what we do in a different light. We try to follow up on as much of their feedback as possible. Some of the ideas they suggest aren’t workable because of various time or physical constraints, but we have had some great successes following through on other ideas.
What do you consider to be the biggest obstacle in developing effective educational outreach?
Finding the staff time and funding to execute a program well. Compared to many small museums, I have a big staff—three full time educators plus myself. But we have a commensurately large program and have been pushing ourselves to offer and do more every year. Making time to find funding that could potentially bring on additional staff is the only way I can see right now to expand our offerings into new areas without cutting some of the programming we already do. We did this recently when we created a new traveling trunk called Through the Perilous Fight—Life during the War of 1812. The funding we received allowed us to hire a curriculum writer to develop the lessons that travel with the objects in the trunk and guided our decisions on what to include while saving us from devoting hours to curriculum development in-house. The trunks are now available for teachers throughout the state of Maryland to rent at a nominal cost, expanding our reach while not appreciably expanding the amount of staff time needed to maintain the program.
None of this is revolutionary in any way. But staying on top of the planning and grant cycles so that we can launch these types of outreach projects is a constant struggle for most educators.
Do you have any words of wisdom for archaeological and museum professionals to enhance their outreach work?
Do as much as you absolutely can to find out what your community wants and needs. If your programming is created because you think it’s a good idea it may or may not work. But if your programming is created to address a need in your community, especially one that has been voiced by community members, it will almost certainly succeed.
Kim can be contacted at kpopetz(at)mdp.state.md.us
A few weeks I posted about how museum professionals and archaeologists can work with volunteers in the analysis of cultural materials and museum exhibits. I raised up a project that we were embarking on with Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS) at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. The launch of the project this past Saturday was a great start. Here is how the first day went and some lessons learned:
- We created binders with about 75 pages of xeroxed readings that included a 1954 article from the Tennessee Historic Society on work that the MAGS performed at Chucalissa in the early 1950s; an Archaeology 101 type article from the Archaeological Institute of America; an introduction to projectile point analysis; a chapter on stone tool analysis from a regional site report; two introductory articles on museum exhibit design; and a glossary of archaeological terms. When we distributed the binders on Saturday we let folks know the readings were not homework but rather an information source as we continue into the project. We expected that either we would provide or the participants would come across other articles and information to add to the binders through time.
- For about half of the four-hour session on Saturday we talked about what we intended for the long-term scope of the project. We toured the repository and noted the materials we curated that had never been analysed or reported to the public. The participants realized that they had plenty of “job security” for this monthly activity.
- We then discussed the 5000 surface collected artifacts from Lincoln County that we proposed analyzing in our first project. I reported on this collection in a previous post. This past week I contacted the Lincoln County Museum in Fayetteville Tennessee to see if they were interested in having an exhibit on these collections. We had a very interesting conversation. I spoke to Farris Beasley one of the directors of the Museum. Dr. Beasley is also the veterinarian who treated the cattle of the farmer, Fred Jobe, who donated the collection to the C.H. Nash Museum in 1981. Mr. Jobe passed away last November. Coincidentally the Jobe farmhouse, built in the early 1800s, was being sold that very weekend. Dr. Beasley noted the farm’s connection to land grants from the Revolutionary War period, that Mr. Jobe had been a minor league baseball player, and then asked “How did those artifacts get to Memphis?” to which I did not have a good response. Our conversation ended with an invitation for me to attend a Museum Board of Directors meeting to discuss installing an exhibit on the Jobe farm artifacts.
- This past Saturday our MAGS group began to brainstorm what such an exhibit might include. They considered the type of information and artifacts to include in the exhibit. What would museum visitors want to know about the artifacts and the prehistory of the area? The MAGS group concluded there is a need to show how the stone tools we often think of as arrow heads were actually used for many purposes. We discussed how different raw materials indicated the Native Americans who lived two thousand years ago on what became Mr. Jobe’s farm participated in a trade and exchange network – and more. We discussed that the exhibit might be limited by the space available in the Lincoln County Museum. The MAGS group also suggested they do some research and create a tri-fold information sheet on the prehistory of Lincoln County. As well, one participant suggested that we could create traveling trunk exhibits from the Jobe farm surface collections for area schools.
- The rest of our Saturday session we spent completing the re-inventory of the collection. Participants were given pads of paper to make notes on interesting artifacts they came across as candidates to include in the exhibit. Some of the noted artifacts included flint tools with sickle sheen indicating their use in agricultural activities. Other artifacts that drew interest included two ground stone discoidals, generally interpreted to be used as chunky stones in games of skill. Participants asked questions like “How can you tell if this artifact was used as a knife or a spear?” and “How would the handle be attached to a knife?”
- We ended our first meeting by discussing where the participants would like the sessions to go in the future. Everyone agreed that the general direction we were pursuing was a good one.
Here are a few of my takeaway points on the experience so far:
- I really enjoy seeing the direction that the MAGS members want to take the exhibit. Too often, museum professionals and archaeologists can get bogged down in typology and other factors of limited interest to museum visitors and forget about that intrinsic wonder that first attracted them to their careers.
- My conversation with Dr. Beasley at the Lincoln County Museum added a sense of engagement that further ties the prehistoric materials to the community memory, linking the historic with the prehistoric.
- Perhaps of greatest importance is recognizing that the hundreds of thousands of surface collected artifacts in our nation’s museum repositories that are only provenienced to a farm field or even a county and judged of little “research” interest can take on a new life. The volunteer work and brainstorming from our small MAGS group this past Saturday demonstrated the very real potential of these collections. Also, think of the value of a small acknowledgement in such an exhibit “that the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society created the exhibit from collections curated at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.” Such an understanding raises the relevance of our cultural heritage institutions in service to the very public who fund these public facilities. I suggest that activities such as our MAGS group meeting this past Saturday are some of the most effective responses to the American Digger type mentality.
How can the surface collections you curate be put to more effective use?
Recently, Nina Simon summarized the posts of several bloggers on the lack of ethnic diversity in the arts. This past week she posted On White Privilege and Museums that explores museums as venues of white privilege. Comments responding to the latter post are plentiful (over 30) and range across a broad spectrum from support to rejection with opinions divided more-or-less akin to a bell-shaped curve.
An important tool for approaching diversity in museums rests in Simon’s model of the co-creative projects she discusses in The Participatory Museum. Simon (2010:187) writes the purpose of a co-creative community project is “To give voice and be responsive to the needs and interests of local community members; to provide a place for community engagement and dialogue; and to help participants develop skills that will support their own individual and community goals.” This nuts and bolts approach was addressed in a recent guest post on Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog - Tools for Partnering With Community Members. This post elicited three brief comments in response. Using amount of feedback as a gauge, the discussion of more methodological approaches for community engagement are of less interest in the museum community than a more theoretical discussion on white privilege.
As a museum director, I am influenced by my discipline of applied anthropology. Writing in the Epilogue to Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology, Erve Chambers (2004:194) notes “What is important to recognize here is that what makes this work applied is not the knowledge itself, which certainly can be relevant to the interests of others, but the act of engagement with others who are trying to make decisions related to particular heritage resources.” This approach is completely aligned to Simon’s co-creative processes. Elsewhere, I liken this approach as moving those represented in museums from the role of actors on the stage to directors of the performance.
Though scholars considered the inherent problems in viewing museums as elite institutions since before the publication of John Cotton Dana‘s New Museum early in the 20th Century, addressing the concern today remains a substantive discussion in museum studies. I am convinced that a strategic long-term commitment to incrementally operationalize and institutionalize steps that consistently address diversity and representation in museums remains critical to demonstrating the relevance and sustainability of cultural heritage venues. Without such a commitment, we should not expect the public to treat us as anything other than modern-day carpetbaggers.
At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa the past five years presented revealing experiences as our cultural heritage venue governed by the University of Memphis launched an outreach program to the residents of the 95% African-American community in which the facility is located. The back story of that process is covered here. Some of the key observations we made from this five-year expereince include:
- We learned about the place of the informal economic institution and community matriarch/caretaker known as the “candy lady” from the high school students who created an exhibit on the cultural heritage of their community at the C.H. Nash Museum in 2010. The youth spoke with ease and knowledge of these women and their institutional role in the community. Neither JSTOR, the first three pages of a Google search, or Wikipedia provide any reference to the role of a community candy lady. This simple experience, and others like it from the summer of 2010, demonstrated that if we do not fully engage community as equal partners and/or co-creators in museum exhibits, the museum staff simply does not have access to the information to tell the story.
- In the spring of 2012 we held a series of focus groups to obtain stakeholder input on the redesign of our main hall exhibits. One of the focus groups was with residents who live in the community surrounding the museum. In the focus group, the residents expressed a modest interest in the exhibit upgrade but were particularly drawn to the current Native American traditional food exhibits. The residents reflected on the traditional foods of their youth and regretted that the community did not have a space for a public urban garden to grow these crops today. Our museum complex has 40 acres of open space, including an unused garden area, so the match was obvious. The community now has a public urban garden, that doubles as a museum exhibit, and provides programming opportunities. The lesson learned is that had our staff brainstormed at length on community engagement, I doubt we would have hit on this need and opportunity of a public urban garden planted, tended, and harvested by the neighborhood residents. In Experience Service Learning, Robert Kronick et al. (2011:23) write that the service relationship is where one “listens to the concerns of the group or person, lets the “other” define the situation, and responds by trying to meet that need. In listening and learning, receiving and giving, the service-learning relationship is horizontal, lateral, parallel. It is not hierarchical.”
- To the extent we have been successful in year five of our community outreach efforts, we were required to complete the first four. That is, had we not gone through outreach projects in years one through four we could not have gotten to year five. This understanding is integral to building long-term sustainable and relevant outreach efforts at diversification.
- And finally, persistence is key, as well it should be. Just because a museum has an epiphany and sees the light on community engagement, there is no reason for the long ignored community to view the efforts with anything more than suspicion. I vividly recall the first community meeting I attended where we academics proclaimed our interest in outreach. One community leader stated “Don’t tell me what the University of Memphis is going to do for my community. The last time you were here for two years doing your research and all we got was a map on the wall.”
Both Simon’s discussion of co-creative experiences and Chambers concept of applied engagement are relevant in creating a mission driven perspective of service to the entire public with a true opportunity to address diversity and whiteness in museums. This approach is wholly in line with the International Council of Museum’s definition of museums as “. . . institutions in the service of society and of its development” (ICOM 2004:222).
I will end here with a plug for an upcoming issue (this spring or summer) of Museums and Social Issues edited by Elizabeth Bollwerk, Natalye Tate and myself. The issue titled “Open(ing) Authority Through Community Engagement” contains a set of case studies on this very topic.
What steps does your institution take to be relevant to the diverse public that you serve?
Today is Museum Advocacy Day in the United States. I have posted before about the critical role that advocacy must play in the life of cultural heritage professionals. I believe that we must be mindful to develop an attitude and consciousness of advocacy in all of our actions.
I am pleased that Patricia Harris, a student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis and a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa is in Washington D.C. today as part of a delegation of six Tennesseans meeting with our state’s elected officials as part of the advocacy activities organized by the American Alliance of Museums. The Alliance also has suggestions for actions you can take locally.
What actions will you take to support the preservation and presentation of our nation’s cultural heritage today on Museum Advocacy Day?
Below is an essay written by Patricia on the importance of museums to our culture.
Museums vital to economy, education
by Patricia Harris
Defining an American museum is not as easy as you might think. Some may respond to this challenge with definitions such as: a refuge for relaxation and renewal; a sanctuary for learning; or, in an increasingly digitized world, one of the last strongholds of authenticity.
But here’s one definition of U.S. museums you might not have thought of: economic engines. Just as American museums of all types – from art museums to zoos and everything in between – are essential elements in our educational infrastructure, museums are also vital cogs in the economy nationally, regionally and locally. But don’t take my word for it.
The American Alliance of Museums notes that in direct expenditures alone, U.S. museums inject some $20 billion into the economy, and employ nearly half a million Americans. Museums and other cultural organizations attract businesses to communities large and small. Museums are also key drivers of cultural tourism, and studies by the U.S. Travel Association found that cultural tourists stay 53 percent longer and spend 36 percent more than non-cultural tourists.
Right here in Memphis, Tennessee there are more than 60 tourist attractions, a number of those cultural heritage sites. More than 4 million visitors go to Beale Street Historic District, making it the most visited attraction in Tennessee. In 2010, over 2 million people visited tourist destinations in Memphis and Shelby County. For every visitor that stayed, ate, visited, and shopped, revenue was generated back into the Memphis economy.
But as substantial as is the impact of museums on jobs and local economies, the contribution of museums goes much farther. As state and local government budgets are continually stretched thin, many museums are taking up the slack, filling voids in our social and community fabric. Certainly museums are critical tools for the estimated two million homeschooled children in the U.S.
Art museums have created programs for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, enabling them to enjoy the benefits of engaging with our artistic treasures. Other museums have led the way in working with children on the autism spectrum, providing a safe, comfortable day out for the children and their parents. Visionary children’s museums have become sanctuaries for families caught up in the juvenile justice system. Museums have served to bridge cultural and ethnic divides in communities, from bringing recent immigrants together to meld their old traditions with those of their new homes, to offering English as a Second Language courses. Many museums have led efforts to help our citizens upgrade their job skills through computer training courses.
Here in Memphis, the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa provides participatory and hands-on activities for school children and community members alike. At a time in our city when the state of our education system weighs heavily on the minds of parents and city councils, we must not forget the importance of the informal educational experience that museums can provide. Chucalissa alone serves many thousands of students a year with over 100 local schools participating in field trips. Through visits to museums such as Chucalissa, children can participate in programs that are designed to meet curriculum standards while at the same time provide meaningful and lifelong learning experiences.
A key part of the mission of museums is public service, and we are constantly enhancing and expanding that service to our local communities. And the public has shown its appreciation via the estimated 850 million visits to U.S. museums annually – more than the attendance at all major league sporting events combined. All we ask in return is that the public let their elected officials know how much they appreciate their local museums, as economic drivers, as educational pillars, and as community assets.
Museum Advocacy Day on February 26 is hosted by the American Alliance of Museums. Along with other museum representatives from across the country, I will meet with members of congress to make the case on Capitol Hill for federal support of America’s museums.
Patricia Harris is a student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis.
A few weeks ago Ennis Barbery wrote here about coproduction with the public in archaeology. In museums, Nina Simon has published on the co-creative process in The Participatory Museum. In an interview, Natalye Tate a former Graduate Assistant at Chucalissa noted, “Our role at the museum is to broker ideas to bring in volunteers who are members of communities, and ask what do you want to see, what do your kids want to see and what’s the direction you want to take this collection . . . our job is not to be the creators, but to make sure the process gets done and gets done well.” These three concepts converge in a direction that we are moving at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa with our “volunteer” experiences. For the past four years a combination of volunteers and graduate students worked diligently to re-inventory the archaeological collections curated by the University of Memphis. Many volunteers were eager for the opportunity to just touch, count, and inventory the prehistoric and historic materials. As well, we are always quite intentional to explain the significance of the specific tasks that volunteers perform. However, we continue to frame the volunteer tasks as preparing the materials for an “other” whether professional or student, who will take the process to the next step of analysis and interpretation.
On March 16th we will begin a process where the “other” will be the volunteers themselves. The aim is for the volunteers to select an unreported or under-reported curated collection from our repository, undertake a complete analysis of the collection and associated records, and create an exhibit based on the materials for an area library or other public venue.
For example, during our Saturday Volunteer Day last week, a volunteer was inventorying a collection of several thousand projectile points and ceramic sherds of a surface collection from Lincoln County, Tennessee. A landowner donated the materials to the C.H. Nash Museum in 1981 from the uncontrolled surface collections made over several decades on the family farm. Like so many of our collections, the artifacts were dutifully accessioned, counted, weighed, labeled, placed in plastic bags, then in boxes never to again see the light of day except during spot inventories every few years.
This past Saturday the collection provided me the opportunity to deliver one of my infamous “Why what you are doing is more important than eating a plate of worms” impromptu ramblings. I noted that although the collection was unprovenienced except to the landowners plowed fields, the projectile points in the collection represented an age range of several thousand years. The Native Americans made the tools from a variety of raw materials that outcrop throughout the Midsouth of the United States. Further the several hundred artifacts typically called “arrowheads” actually included dart points, drills, knives and host of other tool types. Based on their website, the Lincoln County Museum located near where artifacts were collected does not appear to have a prehistoric exhibit. I noted that the collection that the volunteer was inventorying would be an ideal set of artifacts to develop an exhibit that could illustrate many aspects of Native American lifeways in prehistory including stone tool technology, trade and exchange, and settlement patterns.
Nice idea, but how will this happen?
Ten members of the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS) have signed up to volunteer once a month to work on such projects. The first meeting will be March 16. MAGS was actually formed over 60 years ago as a group of avocational archaeologists who conducted some of the first excavations at the Chucalissa site. In fact, Kenneth Beaudoin, an avocational archaeologist wrote the first report on Chucalissa that reported those excavations. MAGS published the report in 1952. Although MAGS evolved over the years to focus on geology, a strong archaeological interest remains.
Each Saturday session will provide instruction on archaeological interpretation and analysis techniques. We will also involve graduate students from our Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program to assist in the construction of exhibits.
There are two important results from the above process. First, our goal is to move closer to the model envisioned by Natalye Tate in her interview of a couple of years ago. That is, the volunteers will take on more of the decision-making in the coproduction or co-creative processes. The volunteers will become more familiar with the collections we curate and their skill set will increase along with their possibilities for taking on a more active role in future projects.
An even more important result is that the C.H. Nash Museum and collections we curate become more relevant to the public who we serve. Consider the added relevance from the above scenario. The donated collection that remained unused since 1981 will:
- Provide members of MAGS the opportunity to take part in a project in which they have an expressed interest as part of their lifelong learning experience.
- University of Memphis students in both archaeology and museum studies will gain valuable applied experience in material analysis, exhibit construction, and public outreach.
- The Lincoln County Museum will install an exhibit on the prehistory of their region to more holistically interpret the rich cultural heritage of their region.
- The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa will become a more relevant institution to all of the above publics that we serve.
How can your collections and practices better demonstrate relevance to the public you serve?
Close your eyes and think about the museum professionals in your life: your colleagues, your friends and your partners in crime. They’re passionate people, right? And driven. And pretty darn smart. However, passion, drive and smarts aren’t all we need in our professional lives. We need fair compensation, feasible (if still challenging) expectations and opportunities for further professional development and enrichment to not only help us navigate our own museum-centric career paths but to also become more effective contributors to our organizations, thus furthering their missions and serving the community at large.
The Small Museum Toolkit, edited by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko and Stacy Klinger and published by Alta Mira Press is the latest offering in the American Association of State and Local History Book Series. The toolkit consists of six 150-page topical volumes each comprised of a half-dozen articles. The six volume topics are:
- Leadership, Mission and Governance
- Financial Resource Development and Management
- Organization Management
- Reaching and Responding to the Audience
Initially, I was reluctant to spend 150.00 for six short volumes covering topics for which I already had several hefty volumes sitting on my bookshelves. However, when I examined the volumes at a recent museum conference I became convinced the set was worth the investment. My change in thinking resulted from recognizing, as the title implies, the set is specifically geared to small museums.
For example, in Volume 1 a 20-page article “DIY Strategic Planning” by Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko provides examples, guides and a general discussion on all aspects of strategic planning. The last page of the article lists eight recommended resources, including the standard strategic planning texts, for further consideration. But important point is this – the article is not a less than, watered down version of what the large museums reference. Rather, the article specifically addresses the needs of the 79% of North American museums that are small. In the remaining chapters of Volume 1, the small museum professional will find discussions of assessment tools for evaluating a museum, the relevance of small museums, the importance of mission statements, along with developing and maintaining a museum board of directors. Each of the six chapters has between eight and twenty references for more information, many of which are available online.
In Volume 5 Eugene Dillenburg and Janice Klein’s “Creating Exhibits: From Planning to Building” is a surprisingly comprehensive introductory guide for creating an exhibit from the “big idea” to conservation guidelines. The resource lists for this chapter include many of the standard exhibit references such as Serrell’s Exhibit Labels and Falk and Dierking’s Learning From Museums.
I also used several of the Toolkit chapters as readings this past fall in my Museum Practices graduate seminar at the University of Memphis. For example, in Volume 5 Madeline Flagler’s “Interpreting Difficult Issues” draws on her first-hand experience of incorporating multiple voices into historic house museums in Hawaii and North Carolina. Again, it would be a mistake to consider Flagler’s twenty-page article as a watered down version of how the Smithsonian tackles a controversial issue. Rather, the article covers several steps and resources specific to a small museum context such as the importance of community input, community relations, and the training or retraining of docents who might have told the story a different way for years.
An added bonus I discovered while writing this post was a Blog based on the Toolkit that seems to publish regularly. A quick scan of the recent posts shows that many of the chapter authors offer further discussions on the topics taken up in the Toolkit.
The Small Museums Online Community of the AASLH is also a superb site for networking with other small museum professionals and gaining access to an abundance of resources.
The Small Museum Toolkit is a resource that would likely be as relevant to the Director of the Field Museum as the new 720 page Third Edition of the Manual of Museum Planning is for the director of a small county museum with a staff of two. That is, both directors will gain useful information from both resources, but as a primary go to resource, the two titles are addressed to different audiences.
If you are a small cultural heritage venue or interested in learning about what it takes to run a small cultural heritage venue, check out the Small Museum Toolkit. I am certain you will not be disappointed (as certain as I am that I get no percentage of the sales).