Labor Day and the Cultural Heritage Professional

In 1987 I enrolled in my first archaeological field school. The course was taught by the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis at the Fort Ancient State Memorial in Warren County, Ohio, US.  That experience led to Pat serving as my mentor until her untimely death in 1991.  Fort Ancient’s 2000 year old earthen architecture ultimately served as a focus for my doctoral dissertation research.

What I remember most from the 1987 field experience was a need for rigorous field methods and the importance of public outreach.  Pat also posed a challenge that has remained with me 25 years later.  She argued that if you could not justify your research to the public who supported the work through their tax dollars, you might as well stay home.  In answering that challenge in 1987, I could not go beyond platitudes about site preservation, learning about the past, an interest in archaeology, and so forth.  During my graduate school career in the early 1990s I did not think a lot about Pat’s challenge.    In 1996, with a freshly printed PhD in hand, when I was hired as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point earthworks in northeast Louisiana, Pat’s challenge came to the fore again, and has remained ever since.

Today, I can respond to Pat’s challenge beyond general platitudes.  To me, applied archaeology as exemplified by case studies in edited volumes such as Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology edited by Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers or Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement edited by Barbara Little and Paul A. Shackel are excellent responses.  In these case studies cultural heritage is a source for empowering people.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, the creation of the African American Cultural Heritage Exhibit by area high school students is one of our big successes in public engagement and demonstrating the worth of our research.  The basic tenets of the Participatory Museum where the public and museum professionals co-create exhibits that explore cultural heritage are also an excellent response to Pat’s challenge.

Over the past few years I have challenged students with the essence of the question asked by Professor Barry Isaac during my M.A.thesis defense a bunch of years ago.  He asked “Why is your research more important than eating a plate of worms?”  I now reframe that question to something like “As a Graduate Assistant, through taxes the public are paying about $20,000.00 per year for you to go to school and come up with a research project.  I want you to 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 just another example of this wealth transfer?  What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for the  $20,000.00 of their taxes that fund your research?”  As a general statement, today a student’s first response is stating the same platitudes as I did in 1987.

In 1987 when Pat issued her challenge, the economic situation in the U.S. was not rosy, but certainly not as dire as today.  I appreciate that she made her challenge during a time of declining unemployment.  Her challenge was not simply a self-serving call for job preservation.  What I got from Pat’s challenge is that we must remain vigilant and proactive in good times and bad so that value of cultural heritage is not viewed as just another earmark for someone’s pet project.  Rather, the public must be in sync with the cultural heritage professional in demanding that adequate resources are provided to protect and present this part of our country.

On this Labor Day in the U.S., a good exercise is to articulate how our labor as cultural heritage professionals is of value to the public that we serve and who fund our salaries.

Or as Professor Isaac would ask “Why is what we do more important than eating a plate of worms?”

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3 thoughts on “Labor Day and the Cultural Heritage Professional”

  1. A great question, and better phrased than why what you do might be “more important than eating a plate of worms.” Nina Simon has been thinking about this lately too, and I thought that her insights about successful arguments in favor of museums in tight economic times were really helpful. Unsurprisingly, she found the best argument to be: because museums help create a vibrant and thriving community (everyone’s interested in free activities, events, culture in the area where they live or move to, and museums help revitalize communities), and museums help connect community members:

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