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Public Access to Artifacts: A Problem or Opportunity?

December 1, 2014
HD 08 lab2

Hands-On Lab in 2008

We are doing a major exhibit upgrade at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  Here is a story – in the Spring of 2008 we launched our “Hands-on Archaeology Lab” drawing on some of my experiences over the years in community outreach.  We used deaccessioned or never accessioned educational collections curated at the Chucalissa to provide visitors with a tactile/sensory experience with archaeological materials that are usually visible only behind glass.  Since 2008, we have made minor changes and additions to the lab.  The exhibit proved a big success based on teacher/visitor informal and formal evaluations.

In 2013 we conducted focus groups and surveyed visitors and staff on what worked and what didn’t work in the Lab to decide how to improve the experience.  Based on those responses we came up with a proposal to upgrade the Hands-on Archaeology Lab into the Brister Archaeology Discovery Lab (BADLab).

In the fall of 2014, the River 2 AmeriCorps NCCC Team began the upgrade process.  The six-person all women team gutted the lab, moved the map cases to a new location, tore out the sinks and cabinets, and laid a new floor.  (River Two Team member Chelsea Crinson (who was voted NCCC Team member of the year for the Southern District Go Chelsea!) designed and supervised the painting of one wall to approximate the covered excavation trench at the Chucalissa site.  For safety reasons, we no longer permit public visitation of the trench that was originally excavated in the 1950s.  Our idea was to mount actual size digital images of portions of the trench (e.g., buried living floors, evidence of basket loading, postmolds,) at the appropriate locations on the wall Chelsea designed in the BADLab.

lab-wall-trench

Transition to BADLab with AmeriCorps painted wall trench.

Then we stepped back and looked at the incredible work the AmeriCorps Team had done and began rethinking the project.  Ron Brister, who first worked at Chucalissa in 1966, and for whom the renovated BADLab is named, made a suggestion – what if instead of mounting digital photographs to the BADLab trench painting, we mounted sediment peels from the actual excavation trench.  In this way, we could bring the actual excavation trench into the BADLab exhibit.

Ron’s suggestion got everyone thinking more.  We wanted to highlight the contribution our museum could make to cultural heritage in the Memphis area that complemented but was not redundant with offerings at other venues.  Bringing the excavation trench inside was one such contribution.  A second opportunity was expanding the use of the thousands of unaccessioned and unprovenienced prehistoric and historic cultural artifacts we curate in our education collection.

I wondered – could we use a curated educational collection in the BADLab to tell the complete story of an artifact from the field to the museum.  Such a hands-on exhibit would allow us to explain the importance of provenience, the time period and function of the occupation, and so forth – and we could use a 20 foot section of wall and counter space to tell the story.  I considered the Fred Jobe collection of artifacts from Lincoln County, Tennessee, that I have posted about before and how they might fill this role.  Since their accessioning in 1982, these 3000 artifacts had remained in our repository unused.  But since 2012, the collection has been the subject of 3 student projects, volunteer day activities and a temporary exhibit at the C.H. Nash Museum.  I was particularly intrigued because the Jobe farm artifacts are reportedly collected from part of a Revolutionary War land grant.  As a minor league baseball player turned farmer, the recently deceased landowner, Fred Jobe, was a human interest story to go along with the 3000 unprovenienced cultural materials he donated to Chucalissa in the 1980s.

circa 1960s Residential Ridge Excavation Exhibit at Chucalissa

circa 1960s Residential Ridge Excavation Exhibit at Chucalissa

My thinking correctly raised the eyebrows of several of the graduate students at the Museum:

  • Brooke Garcia, our Graduate Assistant who works with collections noted that the Fred Jobe collection was in fact accessioned and our Collections Management Policy did not allow for accessioned collections to be used for hands-on educational exhibits.  Nor did the Policy allow for the deaccessioning of materials for such purposes.
  • Our Graduate Assistant Nur Abdalla, who worked with the Jobe artifacts and created the temporary exhibit expressed concern about the security of the collection in the BADLab.  She also noted that we had offered to install the revised exhibit in the Lincoln County Museum in Fayetteville, Tennessee, near the Fred Jobe farm.
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The Hands-On Lab at the C.H. Nash Museum in 2008

Nur and Brooke raise important questions:

  • The accession vs. deaccession point is important.  We all agree that today, given the same information about the Fred Jobe collection we might only accept and inventory the artifacts for use in educational projects.  Today, we would not accession the collection.  (Without the detail, we assume that the collections are from the Fred Jobe Farm, but we do not have any direct paperwork that support that case.  The filed site forms do not list the cultural materials noted on the accession forms.)  We do have provisions in our Collections Management Policy to deaccession materials that do not fit our Collection Plan criteria.  The Fred Jobe collection falls into this category.  In fact, we have other collections that were accessioned in the 1970s and 80s with absolutely no provenience information.  We could deaccession these materials as well.  Related, Robert Janes considers this issue from a perspective of museums lack of sustainability in part through unlimited collections growth.  Should we deaccession all such materials, including the accessioned prehistoric vessels curated in our museum with provenience information listed only as FOP (found on premises)?
  • Since 2008, we are aware of perhaps 5 projectile points that have gone “missing” from the hands-on-lab exhibit.  I suspect at least an equal number of ceramic sherds have been pocketed or lost.  This low number is attributed to our official policy that the visitors to the hands on lab must be accompanied by a museum staff.  None of the missing artifacts were accessioned or have any provenience information.  We have hundreds, if not thousands, depending on artifact type, of unaccessioned/unprovenienced artifacts from our educational collections to replace the missing pieces.  Is this loss a reasonable exchange for the thousands of visitors who have had a real-time tactile experience with the prehistoric materials?
  • I am attracted to the idea of using this particular collection from the Fred Jobe farm in our upgraded BADLab because there is a compelling and relatable story to tell along with the artifacts.  Alternatively, we could use other unprovenienced/unaccessioned collections to tell other stories.  Should we even be using these types of collections in creating hands-on, or any other type of exhibits?

I will appreciate your consideration, comments, and questions as we grapple with this issue in the coming months.  For the rest of this year, we will be working on the sediment peels!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2014 10:43 pm

    Robert,

    I think you have a problem and an opportunity! I agree that touch is important, and allows you to provide for a wider range of visitors. Have you seen the edited volume by Elizabeth Pye, The Power of Touch?

    I do worry about deaccessioning collections with the notion that you accept some will be stolen.

    Perhaps you could explicitly consider the research value of the collection as a step before considering deaccessioning, because even collections with poor provenience information can have research value. Which, of course, needs to be weighed against their value to the public.

    A tough question, for sure.

    Bernard

    • December 1, 2014 11:08 pm

      Bernard,

      Thanks for the comments – yes I do like Pye’s book.

      Yes, and on research value, depending how micro or macro you want to get, everything can have value (e.g., study universe is all sites east of the Missississippi River compared to west, or no value – surface collections from plowed fields have no value because precise provenience/context not known. Check out the Robert Janes video I cite – some very interesting challenges to consider.

  2. lilyklep permalink
    December 4, 2014 9:06 pm

    Reblogged this on Lily Does Archaeology and commented:
    Love this! and loved Pye’s book.

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