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What to do with all of those surface collections. . .

March 25, 2013

MAGS artifact3

A few weeks I posted about how museum professionals and archaeologists can work with volunteers in the analysis of cultural materials and museum exhibits.  I raised up a project that we were embarking on with Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS) at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  The launch of the project this past Saturday was a great start.  Here is how the first day went and some lessons learned:

  • We created binders with about 75 pages of xeroxed readings that included a 1954 article from the Tennessee Historic Society on work that the MAGS performed at Chucalissa in the early 1950s; an Archaeology 101 type article from the Archaeological Institute of America; an introduction to projectile point analysis; a chapter on stone tool analysis from a regional site report; two introductory articles on museum exhibit design; and a glossary of archaeological terms.  When we distributed the binders on Saturday we let folks know the readings were not homework but rather an information source as we continue into the project.  We expected that either we would provide or the participants would come across other articles and information to add to the binders through time.
  • For about half of the four-hour session on Saturday we talked about what we intended for the long-term scope of the project.  We toured the repository and noted the materials we curated that had never been analysed or reported to the public.  The participants realized that they had plenty of “job security” for this monthly activity.
  • We then discussed the 5000 surface collected artifacts from Lincoln County that we proposed analyzing in our first project.  I reported on this collection in a previous post.  This past week I contacted the Lincoln County Museum in Fayetteville Tennessee to see if they were interested in having an exhibit on these collections.  We had a very interesting conversation.  I spoke to Farris Beasley one of the directors of the Museum. Dr. Beasley is also the veterinarian who treated the cattle of the farmer, Fred Jobe, who donated the collection to the C.H. Nash Museum in 1981.  Mr. Jobe passed away last November.  Coincidentally the Jobe farmhouse, built in the early 1800s, was being sold that very weekend.  Dr. Beasley noted the farm’s connection to land grants from the Revolutionary War period, that Mr. Jobe had been a minor league baseball player, and then asked “How did those artifacts get to Memphis?” to which I did not have a good response.  Our conversation ended with an invitation for me to attend a Museum Board of Directors meeting to discuss installing an exhibit on the Jobe farm artifacts.
  • This past Saturday our MAGS group began to brainstorm what such an exhibit might include. They considered the type of information and artifacts to include in the exhibit.  What would museum visitors want to know about the artifacts and the prehistory of the area? The MAGS group concluded there is a need to show how the stone tools we often think of as arrow heads were actually used for many purposes.  We discussed how different raw materials indicated the Native Americans who lived two thousand years ago on what became Mr. Jobe’s farm participated in a trade and exchange network – and more.  We discussed that the exhibit might be limited by the space available in the Lincoln County Museum.  The MAGS group also suggested they do some research and create a tri-fold information sheet on the prehistory of Lincoln County.  As well, one participant suggested that we could create traveling trunk exhibits from the Jobe farm surface collections for area schools.
  • The rest of our Saturday session we spent completing the re-inventory of the collection.  Participants were given pads of paper to make notes on interesting artifacts they came across as candidates to include in the exhibit.  Some of the noted artifacts included flint tools with sickle sheen indicating their use in agricultural activities.  Other artifacts that drew interest included two ground stone discoidals, generally interpreted to be used as chunky stones in games of skill.  Participants asked questions like “How can you tell if this artifact was used as a knife or a spear?” and “How would the handle be attached to a knife?”
  • We ended our first meeting by discussing where the participants would like the sessions to go in the future.  Everyone agreed that the general direction we were pursuing was a good one.

Here are a few of my takeaway points on the experience so far:

  • I really enjoy seeing the direction that the MAGS members want to take the exhibit.  Too often, museum professionals and archaeologists can get bogged down in typology and other factors of limited interest to museum visitors and forget about that intrinsic wonder that first attracted them to their careers.
  • My conversation with Dr. Beasley at the Lincoln County Museum added a sense of engagement that further ties the prehistoric materials to the community memory, linking the historic with the prehistoric.
  • Perhaps of greatest importance is recognizing that the hundreds of thousands of surface collected artifacts in our nation’s museum repositories that are only provenienced to a farm field or even a county and judged of little “research” interest can take on a new life.  The volunteer work and brainstorming from our small MAGS group this past Saturday demonstrated the very real potential of these collections.  Also, think of the value of a small acknowledgement in such an exhibit “that the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society created the exhibit from collections curated at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.”  Such an understanding raises the relevance of our cultural heritage institutions in service to the very public who fund these public facilities.  I suggest that activities such as our MAGS group meeting this past Saturday are some of the most effective responses to the American Digger type mentality.

How can the surface collections you curate be put to more effective use?

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