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Service Learning, Partnerships, and Memory

January 18, 2011

This past weekend a group of Boy Scouts, their families and friends, painted the main exhibit hall at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  This Museum, like many small to mid-size institutions throughout the U.S., benefits from the projects of groups such as the Boy Scouts and  students who perform service hours to complete various requirements.  For example, three years ago, Boy Scouts replaced a decaying road sign that directed visitors to the Chucalissa site.  Another Boy Scout Project replaced a bridge along our nature trail.  In the Fall of 2009, youth from the AmeriCorps cut a trail system at the adjacent T.O. Fuller State Park  and spent several hundred hours at the C.H. Nash Museum processing artifacts, painting residential housing and more.

The AmeriCorps are a legacy of the 1930s New Deal era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  The CCC was quite active throughout Tennessee.  A small museum northwest of Nashville recently opened to celebrate their work.  Of significance, it was a 1930s era CCC that actually  discovered the Chucalissa site while they worked on building a Jim Crow era segregated State Park for the African-American community of Memphis.  While excavating for a swimming pool, the encountered prehistoric Native American artifacts and features.  (A great resource on the CCC including teacher lesson plans is found here.)

A common element to the Boy Scout, CCC, and AmeriCorps experiences is the concept of service learning.  In a recent volume Archaeology and Community Service Learning, editors Michael S. Nassaney and Mary Ann Levine  compiled a set of articles that explore the recent movement by archaeologists to develop more engaged and productive learning opportunities for students and the public.  These activities can develop into sustainable long-term partnerships.

Consideration of the Boy Scout project from this past weekend along with the CCC and AmeriCorps got me to thinking more about how these service learning experiences are an opportunity to lead toward that long-term engagement.  But in five years, our museum walls will need another coat of paint.  We have already repainted and replaced some rotted wood from the three-year-old sign built by the Boy Scouts.  The CCC campsite from the 1930s at T.O. Fuller State Park is now a picnic area.  Or simply put, the visible legacy of these projects diminishes through time.  However, that legacy is integral to telling the story of the Chucalissa site.

One path to resurrecting that legacy is to better highlight and incorporate the contemporary contexts of archaeological sites into the public interpretation.   Whereas there is a rightful knee-jerk reaction against having a dedicatory nameplate on every drinking fountain, footbridge and museum exhibit case, an understanding of how our cultural heritage institutions came to exist and live in their present form is relevant.  When I think of the community service that created what today is the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, that community includes the CCC of the 1930s, the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society beginning in the 1950s, the Friends of Chucalissa, the Southwind Garden Club, Boy Scouts, modern Native Americans, students, interns, volunteers and countless others.

Digital media and the internet are means that lend themselves particularly well for incorporating these communities into the story.  Such an approach cannot be reduced to simple acknowledgement and thanks, like the credits at the end of movie.   Rather, a critical task is contextualizing the modern era on a continuum with past that will lead to the future.  In that way, service learning, partnerships, and memory are joined.  Seems a good rabbit hole to go down.

Your thoughts?

And finally, here is a link to Colleen Dilenschneider’s blog Know Your Bone where she reports on the launching of a new bi-monthly on-line journal OnlyUp that focuses on young adult leadership in nonprofits.  Great stuff.

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