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A Thanks to All As I Start a New Adventure

August 28, 2016

Mr. Robert Gurley’s opening comments at my retirement event.

This past Thursday I finished cleaning out my office, had my official retirement party, turned in my keys to the Museum, left Memphis and arrived six hours later at our new home in New Orleans – after nine years as the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa and an Associate Professor in the Departments of Anthropology and Earth Sciences at the University of Memphis.  I have blogged before about the new opportunities I have in my “retirement” years.

The retirement event this past Thursday was chaired by Mr. Robert Gurley, the former President of the Westwood Neighborhood Association.  In his opening comments, Mr. Gurley reviewed the Museum’s relationship with the community over the past 9 years as we moved to become a true social asset.  I have blogged about this issue a lot over the years.  Reverend George Royal presented me with a plaque that recognized that relationship.


Reverend George Royal presenting plaque.

Ron Brister talked about Chucalissa’s direction over the past decade and was extremely gracious regarding my role in that process.  I was surprised and very pleased that Ron presented me with a sediment peel of a postmold from Chucalissa’s excavation trench.  The sediment peels exhibited in the new Brister Archaeology Discovery Lab (BAD Lab) were Ron’s idea and are a highlight for visitors since the renovated lab opened this past spring.

The staff of Chucalissa presented me with a set of excavation  trench photos taken by Katie Maish.  Full-sized version of those images are also on display in the BAD Lab.  The total lab project was the result of the skills and commitments of individuals from several organizations.

I knew that my friend, colleague and former student, Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza could not attend the event because of her PhD program classes at LSU in Baton Rouge.  But I was very surprised when the announced “special presentation” (takes a minute to load so be patient) was a video that highlights our collaborative work in Peru.

My colleague Andrew Mickelson spoke about our relationship with roots going back to archaeological careers in Ohio.  Andrew noted the question I was asked by Dr. Barry Isaac at my M.A. Thesis defense a bunch of years ago, that I continue to ask students today – “Why is your research more important than eating a plate of worms?”  In recognition, Andrew presented me with his drawing of a plate of worms.


Ron Brister presenting sediment peel post mold from excavation trench.

Ruthbeth Finerman and representatives of the Friends of T.O. Fuller State Park also made presentations.

In my comments, I noted that the past nine years were the most meaningful and enjoyable of my entire career – without question.  I owed that in large part to the support the Museum received and continues to receive from its governing authority, the University of Memphis.  As well, our current staff, lead maintenance mechanic John Chando (2010 University of Memphis Employee of the Year); Emily Neal, Administrative Assistant; Melissa Buchner Administrative Associate; and Ron Brister, Collections Manager are each absolutely integral to any success achieved at the C.H. Nash Museum.

I then turned to the aspect of my employment that I found the most meaningful and fulfilling over the years.  During my first archaeological field school in 1986, the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis told the assembled students something very close to “If you cannot explain to the taxpayer why they should support these excavations and this museum then you might as well go home.”  That mandate remained firmly planted in my brain ever since.  In the past decade at Chucalissa, I was able to act on that mandate – in two primary areas.


Andrew Mickelson’s “A Plate of Worms”

First, I had the opportunity to mentor students who came through our museum as both graduate assistants and interns.  They are truly the backbone of our operation.  As I often note to visitors “If you see anything here that is shiny and new, chances are a graduate assistant, intern, or volunteer created the product.”  In fact, the vast majority of exhibit upgrades and new programs over the past decade were created by Chucalissa Graduate Assistants, Museum Studies students and interns, or our AmeriCorps NCCC Teams.

Second, in our community outreach work over the past nine years, we were best able to respond to Pat’s mandate.  In my comments on Thursday, I offered my thanks to all attendees from the neighborhood who trusted in our Museum to truly co-create with the community in addressing their expressed needs, and not what we thought their needs should be.  Co-creation and community relevance were the most consistent themes of this blog over the years.  I cannot find adequate words to express my gratitude to the citizens and civic leaders of Southwest Memphis for providing these lessons to all who have been a part of this process.  The best I can do is to carry what I have learned from this relationship into my future projects both in the U.S. and abroad.


Emily Neal, Chucalissa Administrative Assistant

Career success is often gauged by articles published, accolades obtained, professional positions held, and other forms of recognition.  I have been blessed with all of those markers in abundance over the last nine years.  Success is also gauged by considering if one leaves the place in a better condition than when they came.  Here, I would like to reverse that equation.  Although I believe that I have left the place in a better condition than when I came, I owe that better condition to the education and lessons I received from my students and the community that our museum serves.  Simply, because of the lessons I learned from the Westwood community, students, and staff, I believe that I too am leaving in a better condition than when I arrived in 2007.  The reciprocal nature of relationships at Chucalissa has been a very memorable part of my tenure.  Thanks to all for providing and sharing this wonderful gift.


Recently graduated Graduate Assistants (l-r) Colleen McCartney, Nur Abdalla, Brooke Garcia. Missing is Eli Cruzado, now a PhD student at LSU, Baton Rouge.

An Often Forgotten Practice in Career Development

August 15, 2016

ProfessionalismWhat does it take to have your application stand out from all others when applying for a job, grant, or scholarship? I focused on that question with my graduate student advisees this past spring as they planned for their May graduations and the job application process.  I have posted before on this subject.  I  always recommend two references for building a career in the cultural heritage sector – A Life in Museums: Managing Your Museum Career and The Anthropology Graduate’s Guide: From Student to a Career.  Both books are packed with information that students need to begin acting on early in their academic career.

I offer students suggestions as someone who has hired museum staff, sat on numerous admission, scholarship and similar recruitment committees, and written hundreds of letters of recommendations over the years.  An applicants goal in these processes is for their application to stand out and make the first cut from the other hundred (or hundreds) submitted and then receive more detailed scrutiny from the review committee.  The added attention allows the reviewers to determine the candidates fit for a position leading to the possibility of making it to the short list or interview stage where the applicant can truly shine and detail their fit for the position.  The two references listed above detail many other practices to enhance an applicants possibilities to have their application package rise to the top.

My colleague Bob Beatty at the AASLH reminded me today of another important practice that seems to be falling out of favor these days – the thank you note – not the perfunctory single word of emailed “thanks” which really is nothing more than an acknowledgement of a task completed – but something that requires a bit more effort and expression.  Bob provided the link How To Write a Heartfelt Thank-You Note, Quickly & Easily by Raphael Magana.  From my perspective, a thank you note or update to an advisor or recommendation letter writer is not to have one’s ego appeased.  Rather a thank you note or progress update addresses the following points:

  • Thank you notes and updates set a tone for future discussions.  Everyone typically receives and dislikes the emails or voice messages from folks who only call in time of need.  The same is true for the former professor or employer who only hears from someone when they need another letter of reference, or six.
  • Thank you notes and updates are just a civil part of social relations, showing an appreciation for the effort expended.  In a survey I conducted a few years ago, not giving thanks was third on the list of “rules of professionalism” routinely violated by recent college graduates.  Similarly, a lack of communication is the reason given by over 50% of donors as to why they stopped their financial support to a nonprofit.
  • A thank you note also serves as a mnemonic device to keep the individual’s name and face in front of the faculty member or potential employer.
  • Generally, I find that the students who write thank you notes or send updates are the students who function in a professional manner in other respects and with whom I have the most meaningful conversations on their professional development.
  • And the point I consider most important, a thank you note or progress update simply let’s the advisor know that the conversations, advising sessions, etc. are considered of value by the recipient.  And I repeat, thank you notes must not be viewed as an ego inflation for the person being thanked.  Rather, the amount of time expended in advising, writing letters of recommendation and introduction can consume a considerable amount of faculty member or employer’s time.  Was it worthwhile?  Then let them know. They will be more likely to assist both you and others in the future.

For all the above reasons, like having a digital portfolio, a well-crafted cover letter, and a professional appearance, the thank you note or update, though seemingly a small detail, can make a big difference for those launching their careers, and beyond.  And I thank Bob Beatty for reminding me of this important practice.


The Space of Memory, Tolerance, and Social Inclusion – Lima, Peru

August 2, 2016

LUMFor this post, I start by noting that I am not Peruvian and I have no desire to mess in that sovereign nation’s affairs.  I write from the perspective of a cultural heritage professional. This is my review of El Lugar de la Memoria, la Tolerancia y la Inclusión Social (The Space of Memory, Tolerance and Social Inclusion), located in Lima, Peru.


The role of jailed former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori plays prominently in The Space interpretation of events.

The Space serves as a museum, cultural center, place of reconciliation and reflection on the Shining Path’s reign of terror in Peru from the 1980s through 2000.  Here are some of my takeaways:

  • The presentation is impressive throughout the three floors of The Space.  The story is told principally through panel text and image displays along with a substantive but not overwhelming distribution of video stations.  My three-hour visit allowed a sufficient amount of time to view and absorb most of the exhibits.  My Spanish is good enough to understand all that I was reading.  I assumed, as always, that a museum has its own point of view that excludes other perspectives.  However, when I asked my Peruvian hosts about the potential bias, they believed the presentation was representative of multiple perspectives.  In fact, the very creation of the museum was eclipsed by several years of controversy to maximize inclusion.
  • The Space contains many of the hallmarks of other “museum of conscious” type of venues such as the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.  For example, visitors pick up small booklets that contain information about the lives of those assassinated or disappeared over the twenty-year period.  A memory board allows visitors to comment directly about specific individuals or the relatives of the disappeared.  Large flat screen displays feature the oral histories of individuals impacted by the Shining Path activities.  The second floor leads to a spacious reflection area.  The third floor includes a gallery of contemporary artwork on the period along with walls of mementos brought by families of the disappeared.
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    Mementos from the Disappeared.

    A departure from similar museums I have visited is a free admission to The Space, making the venue accessible to anyone who is able to get to Lima.  I was struck as well that although the museum very effectively tells the story of Shining Path, contextualized within the poverty and oppression of rural Peru, quite clearly, the focus of the venue is as a place of reflection and reconciliation for Peruvians.


Memory Board

I found the experience of visiting the museum quite humbling.  I learned another part of the story of the rural Quechua village where I spend a portion of my summers of late.  I had always known that the community was founded in part based on attempts to escape the Shining Path war, but The Space helped me to better understand and appreciate the lives of my Peruvian friends in both the Andes and Lima.

If in Lima, The Space of Memory, Tolerance, and Social Inclusion is definitely worth the visit for both the story and method of the telling.


Cultural Heritage and the R Word

July 26, 2016
Two generations exploring the Muscatine city map at the Pearl Button Museum

Two generations exploring the Muscatine city map at the Pearl Button Museum

In the face of funding cutbacks, a cultural heritage institution buzzword of late is being “relevant” to the public.  Nina Simon has a new book out on this very topic. Quite often we view relevance from the perspective of getting folks in the door or demonstrating to public officials or other funders why an economic institution should maintain their cut of the economic pie. The short-term flurry of activity after the Florida Governor’s attacks on anthropology or reaction to the various “Digger” shows that have now been cancelled are problematic. Bluntly, our field seems stymied by a focus on self-interest – we tend not to get excited until our own little corner of the universe is attacked, despite our mission to act as public stewards, educators, and servants. I recollect the Art History graduate student in my Museum Practices seminar several years ago who calmly and confidently stated “Art Historians are not interested in what the public thinks.”

I have a dream, nowhere near as lofty as that of MLK Jr., but, my dream is that when cultural heritage funding or other resources are on the chopping block, it is not the professionals who immediately respond in protest, but rather the response comes from the public whose cultural heritage resources are being threatened. I dream that the citizenry would respond to such cuts with “We demand that you provide the professionals who work in our publicly funded institutions that preserve our cultural heritage adequate resources to do the job that our tax dollars are intended for them to do.”

To bring about this dream necessitates not a magical conjuring up of public forces to do the bidding for the professionals. Rather, I believe this dream can be fulfilled as a logical consequence of cultural heritage institutions engaging and sustaining long-term relationships with the public we serve. Or as John Cotton Dana noted 99 years ago “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs” (The New Museum, 1917:38).

What I think that all comes down to is demonstrating relevance to the communities that we serve.  Several years ago I posed the following question to my Museum Practices Graduate Seminar as a final exam question:

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 as 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?

I have posted some of the responses on this blog.  I like this question so much that I now use it as one of the final exam questions for all course I teach and as a question on all graduate comprehensive exam committees on which I serve.

This is a question is relevant because it directly leads to addressing Dana’s mandate of a century ago.  Over the years, I have grilled students to go beyond vague sentiments of cultural preservation, we don’t know anything about this cultural period occupation in this particular region, to further scientific knowledge, and all the plethora of similar answers when responding to this exam question.  Direct responses that directly engage public requests are what I find so relevant as in the Florida Public Archaeology Networks cemetery reclamation program or my colleague Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza’s work in Nivín, Peru that is a poster child for co-creation based on the specific community expressed needs to which she is directly responding.

Hmm . . . this post seems like a rehash of many similar entries I have written over the years on the R word, here, here, here, here, etc.  But once again, this issue raises it’s head.

How is your institution/project relevant to expressed needs of the community that you serve?


Desert Pete

July 21, 2016

I remember this song from back in the early 60s or so as a pre-teen when the Kingston Trio sang it on Hootenanny or some similar TV program of that era.  I came across it in a book of inspirational something or the other a few years ago and like much I recollect from that earlier era, today the lyrics take on a whole new meaning.

Desert Pete


I was travelin’ west a buckskin on my way to a cattle run
‘Cross a little cactus desert under a hot blisterin’ sun
I was thirsty down to my toenails, stopped to rest me on a stump
But I tell ya I just couldn’t believe it when I saw that water pump
I took it to be a mirage at first, it’ll fool a thirsty man
Then I saw a note stuck in a bakin’ powder can
This pump is old, the note began, but she works so give’er a try
I put a new sucker washer in ‘er, you may find the leather dry

You’ve got to prime the pump, you must have faith and believe
You’ve got to give of yourself ‘fore you’re worthy to receive
Drink all the water you can hold, wash your face, cool your feet
Leave the bottle full for others, thank you kindly, desert Pete

Yeah, you’ll have to prime the pump, work that handle like there’s a fire
Under that rock you’ll find some water I left in a bitters jar
Now there’s just enough to prime it with so dont’cha go drinkin’ first
You just pour it in and pump like mad, buddy, you’ll quench your thirst

You’ve got to prime the pump, you must have faith and believe
You’ve got to give of yourself ‘fore you’re worthy to receive
Drink all the water you can hold, wash your face, cool your feet
Leave the bottle full for others, thank you kindly, desert Pete

Well I found that jar and I tell ya nothin’ was ever prettier to my eye
And I was tempted strong to drink it, ’cause that pump looked mighty dry
But the note went on have faith my friend, there’s water down below
You’ve got to give until you get—I’m the one who ought to know
So I poured in the jar and I started pumpin’ and I heard a beautiful sound
Of water bubblin’ and splashin’ up outta that hole in the ground
I took off my shoes and I drunk my fill of that cool refreshing treat
I thank the Lord and thank the pump and I thank old desert Pete

You’ve got to prime the pump, you must have faith and believe
You’ve got to give of yourself ‘fore you’re worthy to receive
Drink all the water you can hold, wash your face, cool your feet
Leave the bottle full for others, thank you kindly, desert Pete

Drink all the water you can hold, wash your face, cool your feet
Leave the bottle full for others, thank you kindly, desert Pete

lyrics by Billy Edd Wheeler

The Florida Public Archaeology Network: A Decade of Success in Community Engagement

July 18, 2016

fpanThe past several years have witnessed broad cuts in cultural heritage programming in the United States, particularly on the local and state levels. At the same time, several cultural heritage programs are, if not thriving, at least sustaining their presence and activities. A program that has sustained and even expanded its presence over the past decade is the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN).  I have long been a fan of FPAN and the many resources they provide for all forms of community outreach.

In a recent article “Lessons Learned Along the Way: The Florida Public Archaeology Network after Ten Years” (Public Archaeology, 14:2, 92-114), William B. Lees, Della A. Scott-Ireton & Sarah E. Miller present a summary on what has worked and what has not worked for the organization over the past decade.

The article begins in noting that:

The Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) is a new direction for public archaeology programmes, dedicated to the express purpose of preserving the state s heritage through public education and engagement. It differs from other programmes, past and present, because it is focused solely on archaeological preservation through public engagement and because it is not housed within a larger programme with other research or heritage management responsibilities.

Here are some bullets that highlight my takeaways from the summary article:

  • FPAN was initially envisioned to expand on Dr. Judith Bense’s community archaeology in downtown Pensacola, taking the program state-wide.
  • After state legislation established the program, the University of West Florida provided funds to launch a steering committee and put meat on the bones of the legislation.
  • The legislation gave the steering committee a good bit of latitude in developing a program that was not a part of an existing organization. The steering committee was careful not to create a program that duplicated the efforts of existing organizations in the state. Ultimately they proposed a model where local universities or organizations would host or sponsor an FPAN regional center.
  • FPAN intentionally excluded “traditional archaeological research” as a major goal of regional centers. I find this exclusion particularly compelling as a means to focus public archaeology on a community’s needs and not on a regional directors interest, or even archaeologically driven “traditional research” questions.
  • Like most community based cultural heritage organizations, budgetary constraints over the past few years required restructuring at FPAN. But for “the public there is little change as we (FPAN) retain the same geographical regions and maintain offices and staff in each.”
  • FPAN also prides itself in becoming more proactive to meet Florida’s varied educational needs.   Of importance FPAN centers revise and repackage individual tools they create for other programs or regions of the state – and from firsthand experience I can attest FPAN’s products serve as models outside of Florida, across the Southeast, and beyond.
  • FPAN also delivers workshops and programs that address expressed community needs for a true co-creative experience. Sarah Miller’s article “Cemeteries as Participatory Museums: The Cemetery Resource Protection Training Program across Florida” published in Advances in Archaeological Practice is an excellent example of this process.
  • FPAN also plays a strong advocacy role for archaeology on a regional and statewide basis and serves as a national role model for our discipline. (See Sarah Miller’s SAA webinar on advocacy, archived for SAA members).
  • To be accountable to the taxpayers who pay for the programs, FPAN also sees “. . . outcome assessment . . . as the next essential step needed to ensure and evaluate FPAN s contribution to archaeological preservation in Florida.”

As noted, a unique role FPAN plays is that their sole responsibility is public outreach and education in archaeology. They are not subject to soft money generation through CRM projects or driven by quantification of “traditional archaeological research.” In this way public archaeology is not a department within FPAN, public archaeology is FPAN, making quite clear the function of the organization. For FPAN, public outreach is not something that gets snuck in on the side, or if a staff member is particularly interested in community engagement.  Public outreach is the reason for FPAN’s existence.

In this way, the organization does not keep two sets of books so to speak – one which it produces for the professional community and one for the lay audience. Both books are the same. This approach seems the strongest way to demonstrate relevancy and build community support for the cultural heritage disciplines.

Your thoughts on the FPAN approach?

Leaning Into Another Transition

May 31, 2016

rails to trailsI really dislike when blogs I read regularly just go away without explanation.  And, as I have become more absorbed by other processes, I have posted here a lot less regularly – so let me explain.  I am winding up this phase of my career as I get ready to retire later this summer as the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa and an Associate Professor at the University of Memphis.  After some 300 posts over a six-year period, I will continue to post here but much less and possibly in different forms.  I am going to enjoy a number of new and continuing projects, some of which will include a lot of digital content.  Some of my ongoing stuff will include:

  • My colleague Beth Bollwerk and I just turned in the ms for an edited volume to Rowman and Littlefield Press that will hit the streets by November or so of this year.  The volume, Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset: A Practical Guide, will feature a substantive online resource guide to support the 20 plus chapters and case studies of the volume.  The resource guide will develop as a stand alone website and ideally evolve into a substantive online presence for engagement and co-creation of communities and their museums.
  • As the new President of the Advocates for Poverty Point, I will work to develop that organization’s website, blog, and newsletter, along with other tasks in support of the only prehistoric UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Southeast United States.
  • My colleague Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza and I are very excited about launching a public archaeology project on the north coast of Peru.  We anticipate developing a host of social media tools for this work as well.
  • I am also anxious to play a role in the community outreach projects of Whitney Plantation.  I am particularly interested in working with the Whitney staff to carry out applied archaeology projects along the lines of what we have done at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa over the past few years.
  • And, I am most excited to spend more time with my wife, Emma working in her shop, Uptown Needle & Craftworks on Magazine St. in New Orleans.  Stop by and visit!

So, I am certain that some of all that will turn up in this blog too, on an irregular basis.  I have thoroughly enjoyed writing this blog over the years.  The folks I have met in the virtual world, and for many of them, never yet in person, have been instrumental in my learning process over the past decade.  Thanks to everyone for reading, sharing, and providing me with so much good stuff to think and learn about!

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