Coproduction & Co-creation with Volunteers

collection-distortA few weeks ago Ennis Barbery wrote here about coproduction with the public in archaeology.  In museums, Nina Simon has published on the co-creative process in The Participatory Museum.  In an interview, Natalye Tate a former Graduate Assistant at Chucalissa noted, “Our role at the museum is to broker ideas to bring in volunteers who are members of communities, and ask what do you want to see, what do your kids want to see and what’s the direction you want to take this collection . . . our job is not to be the creators, but to make sure the process gets done and gets done well.”  These three concepts converge in a direction that we are moving at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa with our “volunteer” experiences.  For the past four years a combination of volunteers and graduate students worked diligently to re-inventory the archaeological collections curated by the University of Memphis.  Many volunteers were eager for the opportunity to just touch, count, and inventory the prehistoric and historic materials.  As well, we are always quite intentional to explain the significance of the specific tasks that volunteers perform.  However, we continue to frame the volunteer tasks as preparing the materials for an “other” whether professional or student, who will take the process to the next step of analysis and interpretation.

On March 16th we will begin a process where the “other” will be the volunteers themselves.  The aim is for the volunteers to select an unreported or under-reported curated collection from our repository, undertake a complete analysis of the collection and associated records, and create an exhibit based on the materials for an area library or other public venue.

For example, during our Saturday Volunteer Day last week,  a volunteer was inventorying a collection of several thousand projectile points and ceramic sherds of a surface collection from Lincoln County, Tennessee.  A landowner donated the materials to the C.H. Nash Museum in 1981 from the uncontrolled surface collections made over several decades on the family farm.  Like so many of our collections, the artifacts were dutifully accessioned, counted, weighed, labeled, placed in plastic bags, then in boxes never to again see the light of day except during spot inventories every few years.

This past Saturday the collection provided me the opportunity to deliver one of my infamous “Why what you are doing is more important than eating a plate of worms” impromptu ramblings.  I noted that although the collection was unprovenienced except to the landowners plowed fields, the projectile points in the collection represented an age range of several thousand years.  The Native Americans made the tools from a variety of raw materials that outcrop throughout the Midsouth of the United States.  Further the several hundred artifacts typically called “arrowheads” actually included dart points, drills, knives and host of other tool types.  Based on their website, the Lincoln County Museum located near where artifacts were collected does not appear to have a prehistoric exhibit.  I noted that the collection that the volunteer was inventorying would be an ideal set of artifacts to develop an exhibit that could illustrate many aspects of Native American lifeways in prehistory including stone tool technology, trade and exchange, and settlement patterns.

Nice idea, but how will this happen?

Ten members of the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS) have signed up to volunteer once a month to work on such projects.  The first meeting will be March 16.  MAGS was actually formed over 60 years ago as a group of avocational archaeologists who conducted some of the first excavations at the Chucalissa site.  In fact, Kenneth Beaudoin, an avocational archaeologist wrote the first report on Chucalissa that reported those excavations.  MAGS published the report in 1952.  Although MAGS evolved over the years to focus on geology, a strong archaeological interest remains.

Each Saturday session will provide instruction on archaeological interpretation and analysis techniques.  We will also involve graduate students from our Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program to assist in the construction of exhibits.

There are two important results from the above process.  First, our goal is to move closer to the model envisioned by Natalye Tate in her interview of a couple of years ago.  That is, the volunteers will take on more of the decision-making in the coproduction or co-creative processes.  The volunteers will become more familiar with the collections we curate and their skill set will increase along with their possibilities for taking on a more active role in future projects.

An even more important result is that the C.H. Nash Museum and collections we curate become more relevant to the public who we serve.  Consider the added relevance from the above scenario.  The donated collection that remained unused since 1981 will:

  • Provide members of MAGS the opportunity to take part in a project in which they have an expressed interest as part of their lifelong learning experience.
  • University of Memphis students in both archaeology and museum studies will gain valuable applied experience in material analysis, exhibit construction, and public outreach.
  • The Lincoln County Museum will install an exhibit on the prehistory of their region to more holistically interpret the rich cultural heritage of their region.
  • The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa will become a more relevant institution to all of the above publics that we serve.

How can your collections and practices better demonstrate relevance to the public you serve?

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7 thoughts on “Coproduction & Co-creation with Volunteers”

  1. One way to tackle this is to team with local students. We currently have a project underway in which a local high school class is analyzing a small assemblage that has sat, untouched, sinch its excavation in 1980. The students have chosen research topics–some broad, about the time period, and others focusing on specific objects–which will then be translated, by the students, into a small exhibit featuring the objects. The exhibit will be on display at their school and then moved into the local public library. We’re excited about the project because it serves multple fuctions: 1) It gets high school students involved in their state history in a very direct way. 2) It provides the students with real world skills that they can use long after the project is over. 3) It allows members of our community access and control over the messages we put out in public about the collections we hold. 4) It accomplishes work that we have long wanted to complete at our museum but haven’t had the time/manpower/resources available.

    I could go on about the benefits but will end by saying that moving museums in this direction is a win for all involved.

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