Applied Archaeology and Museums: The Student Projects
I posted last week about the Applied Archaeology and Museums class I taught this past semester at the University of Memphis. Forty percent of the course grade is from the final project that students propose and complete. I offer several possibilities and discuss projects from previous classes to help stimulate the students thinking. The criteria for the final project include that the product must be broadly based in archaeology or cultural heritage studies and must ultimately live in area museum. Here is one example of a completed project:
A prompt I gave for a possible project was a near empty exhibit case in the classroom building where many archaeology classes occur. I noted the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa curated an abundance of unprovenienced stone tools in our educational collections that could be used in creating an exhibit for the case. Two students, Garrett Ballard and Rachael Starks, proposed and created a stone tool exhibit that explored function and stylistic changes through time. The exhibit has three shelves. One shelf of their exhibit contains projectile points ranging from Paleoindian through Mississippian. Individual artifact labels include the age of the artifact and a linked QR code contains interpretive information. One shelf contains a series of untyped but numbered bifaces with a single label that asks “Which of the artifacts are really arrowheads?” the popularly assigned term for any triangular-shaped stone tool. A QR code links to a resource that illustrates and explains the function of each tool and identifies the true arrowheads. The third shelf contains a set of ground stone tools and labels that contain functional and raw material information.
The students pulled the stone tools from an unprovenienced surface collection curated at the Museum. Robert Ford, a University of Memphis Alum, and the best lawyer in a one lawyer town in rural Arkansas donated the collection in 2000. Ford donated the collection for use in educational projects. The several thousand diagnostic stone tools that range from Clovis to Mississippian points remained untouched in the repository for over 10 years. Mr. Ford was not pleased and called me one day asking about the artifacts. Having come to the museum seven years after the donation was made, I was unaware of the donation. When I located the materials in the repository, we made quick work of utilizing them in several of our educational programs.
Besides physically creating the exhibit, there are a few key lessons the two students gained from the project. First, they took away a keen understanding of the value and potential of archaeological resources locked away in museum repositories. Second, as undergraduates they created an exhibit that is of interest to them and their peers. Third, they created a meaningful product that will live on after the semester is over – an act in itself that is empowering.
Here are some of Garrett Ballard’s thoughts expressed in his process paper on the exhibit creation:
Ultimately, we all had common interests and decided to pursue a common goal that would satisfy all the parties involved; I would get to create an exhibit using authentic Native American projectile points, Rachel would get to incorporate website design, social media, and QR codes, you (Connolly) would get a Chucalissa exhibit installed at Johnson Hall, and lastly, Robert Ford’s artifacts would get plenty of educational use through our exhibit . . .
I was slightly overwhelmed by the number of artifacts in the collection, and was very concerned about how I would manage to convey a message to the viewers of the exhibit. Luckily, I believed you sensed my frustration and sent me the Serrell Reading to help. Serrell’s guide has been critical in our research design, and has helped me not only to make better interpretive labels and an overall comprehensive exhibit, but it also showed me the importance of having a “Big Idea”.
Armed with a “Big Idea” and a fresh delivered copy of Noel D. Justice’s Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points, the next few visits to the repository proved to be enjoyable and result driven as the project was coming together and pieces started to fall into place . . . While going through the collection I took care in the handling, photographing, and cataloguing of a range of different types of tools and projectile points, increasing my own knowledge on the subject matter in the process.
I consider this exhibit process a big success as an applied educational opportunity for Garrett and Rachel. In the process:
- A point reinforced to me is that in such projects, my role is to provide logistical expertise and guidance, but allow the students creativity to come to the fore. In so doing, they arrived at concepts, such as the Which is an Arrowhead . . . shelf that likely would not have occurred had I dominated the process. When given such latitude, I find students enjoy the freedom, but also experience an initial sense of frustration as Garrett notes. However, with guidance, students work creatively to find solutions and directions.
- I would not have chosen the colors or fonts that Garrett and Rachel used for the exhibit. But then, their peer group are the primary audience for the exhibit, not me.
Other exhibits created by the students in this semester’s class include:
Michelle Dallas Faulk organized and created didactic panels for an exhibit of ceramic sherds and obsidian tools from central Mexico. The exhibit is located in the same hallway as the Stone Tool display created by Garrett and Rachel.
- Carolyn Trimble created a small exhibit on stone tools supplemented with information through linked QR codes for the Morton Museum in Collierville, Tennessee a suburb just east of Memphis. The Morton Museum Director contacted me about creating asmallexhibit on the prehistory of the area. We were able to use
artifacts in our repository from two prehistoric Collierville sites excavated through Cultural Resource Management projects. A QR code link reports the sites and contextualizes the prehistory of the suburb for museum visitors.
In next week’s post I will report on other types of student projects created in the Applied Archaeology and Museum class from this past semester.