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Students as “Irregular” Museum Staff

February 13, 2012

The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa is a small facility with a full-time staff of four, supplemented by three graduate assistants each semester and the occasional temporary employee.  Perhaps the theme I write about most in this blog is the role of the interns, volunteers and students who are crucial to our Museum Mission that mandates we offer “exceptional educational, participatory, and research opportunities” to both the University of Memphis community and the public.

For our annual Volunteer Appreciation Day dinner, I always do some quick computations to report the important role of volunteers in our operation.  For example, I noted that in 2010 the number of hours expended at the Museum by what I refer to as the “irregular” staff composed of graduate assistants, interns, and volunteers nearly equals that of the four regular staff members (6750, 7850 hours respectively).  When I walk through our Museum, I quickly fill a legal size page enumerating the projects completed by this irregular staff.

I recently reviewed the last three years of our student projects.  Without even including the considerable contribution of Graduate Assistants, we hosted:

  • 7 Graduate and 11 Undergraduate Internships
  • 13 Graduate Level Projects through the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program
  • 3 Masters Level Practica
  • University of Memphis students who routinely take part in Volunteer Day activities
  • Class visits & projects of the Governor’s School, Fresh Connections, and the Departments of Earth Sciences and Anthropology
  • Student researchers using collections curated at the C.H. Nash Museum curated

These types of interaction are crucial for developing organic links with our governing authority, The University of Memphis.  Developing and sustaining these links takes a substantial investment on the part of the regular staff .  However, I am convinced that these relationships are precisely how we can be most relevant to the University.  In so doing, we move beyond a bricks and mortar expenditure to engage with students as an integral part of  the University Mission.

The engagement is often simply a matter of taking advantage of opportunities in the University setting.  Here are two examples – this semester I am teaching an Applied Archaeology and Museums undergraduate/graduate level course.  Enrolled students will complete one major and two minor projects.  For the major project, students will collaborate with the Public Education Committee of the Society for American Archaeology to update and redesign the Society’s public education webpages.  The webpages were created several years ago and are in need of a thorough revision.  For one of the minor projects, students will create a proposal to promote the prehistoric and historic cultural heritage of Memphis’ DeSoto Park that contains Mississippian era mounds and Civil War era structures.  Currently this city owned facility does not offer any interpretation of the built environment other than a single National Historic Register marker.

I believe that such projects are critical to educate students in service learning.  As archaeology and museums continue to grapple with how to demonstrate their relevance and involve the public in meaningful participatory experiences, engaging students directly in those projects is an incredible opportunity to take the classroom beyond the campus walls to educate those who will be the policy makers of tomorrow.  And then there is the bottom line question – does it work?  Can we take students from classes or as interns and create quality products for museums and other professional settings?  The total of my experience over the past few years strongly suggests that, with a commitment to mentoring, yes we can.  Stop by the C.H. Nash Museum to see if you agree!

What opportunities do you see for engaging students in your work?

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