Baby Steps in Making Museums & Archaeology Relevant

Below is the modified text of a presentation I gave this past Saturday at the Student Committee Workshop on public education and outreach in archaeology at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference Annual Meeting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  

My introduction to public outreach in archaeology occurred in 1986 at the Fort Ancient Earthworks in Southwest Ohio during my first field school experience.  The instructor, the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis, based 10% of our course grade on how we interacted with the tourists/visitors who came to the excavations.  Each day Pat assigned one student the responsibility to answer visitor questions.  Pat was reasonably rigid in all that she did in the field, including how the students interacted with the visitors – you best be able to explain the research questions and your specific task in the excavations. Pat also posed a very interesting challenge to us that year.  She said something very close to “If you cannot explain to the visitor why their tax dollars should go to support these excavations or keep the Fort Ancient site open, you might as well go home.”

That challenge has remained with me to this day.  Over the years it has morphed into questions like the one posed to me during my MA Thesis defense a long time ago by Barry Isaac who asked “Why is reading your thesis more important than eating a plate of worms.”  For a long time the best I could come up with was to respond that the research was interesting and answered many questions about past cultures that we did not know.  That in conducting research at the places like the Hopewell earthwork complexes of the Ohio Valley we could foster a greater appreciation of the complex prehistoric Native American cultures of the region – regardless of the fact that in those years the Native American community was actively protesting against the Ohio Historical Society and their site excavations.

In the years since, those questions or challenges have remained in the forefront of my mind.  Here I will briefly explore some of the responses I have come up with since 1986.  However, I will note that in our training of students in the classroom today, I think we are still not terribly good at getting at this point.  During my questioning of graduate students during brown bags or thesis presentations, I fear that I come off more as the old curmudgeon when I pose my obligatory “plate of worms” or “taxpayer support” question/challenge.  I find that most students today are no better prepared to respond than I was 25 years ago.  I see that as a problem.

Interest and intellectual engagement are certainly important and relevant.  One of my favorite examples in this area was an experience I had with Poverty Point figurines nearly 15 years ago.  Past conventional wisdom had it that these 3500-year-old artifacts may be fertility symbols and that they all represent females.  But for a whole bunch of reasons, today we know that dog won’t hunt.  During show and tell classroom visits, I often posed this question to grade school students – What do you think these figurines are all about?  The answer I got from a 5th grade girl during a presentation at St. Leo’s Elementary school in Lafayette Louisiana was interesting.  Our exchange went something like this:

Me – So what do you think these headless figurines are all about?

She – They didn’t have camera’s back then did they?

Me – No they did not.

She – Well maybe instead of having a picture on the mantle of their grandma or grandpa who lived far away, they kept this statue and when the person died they broke the head off because they were dead.

Me – Hmmm . . . that sounds like a pretty good idea.  I like it.  Has anybody else got any other ideas?

. . . and the fact is, the 5th graders response better accounts for the actual presence of the figurines in the Poverty Point archaeological record than the conventional wisdom passed along by archaeologists.  As an aside, I have remembered that story for the past 15 years.  I have recently wondered if that student, now in her twenties, also remembers that story, and if having her interpretation legitimized proved meaningful to her.

But in moving from simple engagement and curiosity, I consider some of the best resources on this issue are the applied archaeology volumes such as those edited by Paul Shackel, Erve Chambers, and Barbara Little, to name but a few.  These volumes are filled with case studies where archaeology is used as a source for empowerment of indigenous communities.  A distinct component of these studies are the collaborative and co-creative processes where the archaeologist and the indigenous community work together in the research.  Natalye Tate and I recently published a substantive piece on this in the journal Collections.

Let me summarize how this process can work where I am employed as the Director of The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa a Mississippian Temple Mound Complex in Memphis Tennessee. The Chucalissa site was discovered in modern era of Jim Crow politics when in the 1930s the CCC was building a segregated park for the African American community of Memphis, then known as the Shelby County Negro Park.  When the temple mound complex was encountered during the construction process the surrounding 40-acres was removed from the park development and became an enclave of academic research.

In 2002 a small 1920s era African-American farmstead was excavated at the Chucalissa site.  Because the site museum interpreted only the prehistoric  Mississippian culture and to a lesser extent the contemporary Native Americans in the form of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the materials from this farmstead excavation were stored away.

Note that the community surrounding the Museum is 90% African American and we record more visitors from that zip code 38109 than any other.  In the summer of 2010, we received a grant to employ nine area high school students to create an exhibit on the farmstead excavations.  Our grant proposal goal was simply to create a single exhibit case on the excavations.  The five-week process exceeded our expectations dramatically.  In addition to the exhibit case itself, the students collected 30 hours of oral history interviews that they edited into a 20-minute documentary, created timeline banners of the African American experience in southwest Memphis and began a resource center.

So, the grant funders and everyone agreed they got their money’s worth out of the project and we got a great exhibit, but I don’t see that as the real success story – rather, the real success of the project was in the co-creative process.  The museum staff provided the technical expertise, but the students created the content and had the final decisions in all aspects of the exhibit creation.  The only stipulation was that the exhibit had to focus on the excavation materials and the broader African American experience in Southwest Memphis.  The students selected the artifacts that would be in the display case, chose the community leaders to interview, researched the timeline scripts, and even determined the color of the wall paint.

In the same way that National Archaeology Day should simply be a node on an annual continuum of public outreach, so was this exhibit creation.  As an archaeological and cultural heritage museum we have ongoing projects with the surrounding community that predate and postdate the exhibit creation.  These projects include regular volunteer day activities in processing of prehistoric and historic cultural materials, a traditional medicinal plant sanctuary and dye garden, special programming, hosting Black History month events, community service projects and more.

There are two punch lines here in response to Pat Essenpreis’ challenge years ago.  First, the community surrounding the C.H. Nash Museum now very much understands how and why their tax dollar expenditures that support the museum are relevant.  I vividly recall a community meeting I attended 5 years ago.  The President of the Westwood Neighborhood Association abruptly challenged a University of Memphis colleague’s proposal saying “Don’t tell me what the University of Memphis is going to do for our community.  The last time you came and did your research you were here for two years and all we got was a map on the wall.”  That sentiment was replaced by the same individual announcing at the farmstead exhibit opening “We need to let more people in the community know about our exhibit at the Museum” along with collaboration on numerous other projects.

The second and equally important point is that we as the museum staff and archaeologists could not have created the exhibit that the students created nor could we have collected the information on the African American CCC crew, accessed the cultural memory that is now in place at the Museum, or interviewed the neighborhood candy ladies, simply because those data reside exclusively in the community.

I would like to consider  one other point on community engagement and public outreach.  In a recent post, I presented  the essay of Leila Hamdan, a graduate student in my Museum Practices seminar this year to illustrate the relevance of museums to the public.  The final line of Leila’s essay is where I find myself today in responding to the challenge Pat laid out to students in her field school 25 years ago.

Our challenge is to engage and demonstrate to the public the relevance to the preservation and presentation of their cultural heritage.  In so doing, we can create a public who will demand that the cultural heritage professional in fact preserve and present those materials and that the resources are made available to carry out that work.

And to everyone who responds with something like – nice idea – now let’s talk about the real world, I conclude with the advice given by Richard Dreyfuss to Bill Murray in the film What About Bob?  – it is all about taking the baby steps and consistently so.  We have just concluded extended community outreach through National Archaeology Day, and here in Louisiana Archaeology month – we need to continue that process all year.

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Museums, Anthropology, Bicycles, Recovery, Cancer, Retired

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