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Why Co-Creation in Archaeology Works

July 20, 2015
food-and-drink

At the modern cemetery in Hualcayán, Peru, food and drink offerings are made to the deceased as in the prehistoric period at the site.

As a blue-collar kid, I grew up a trade union activist, believing that I had the vision for what the workers of the world needed. However, I was told more than once that all of my book-learning and vision might be great for speeches, but there was also the need for the real world bettering of lives, today – perhaps one of the reasons I ended up an applied anthropologist.

In 1990 I quit my industrial job and became a non-traditional higher education student, ultimately earning a doctorate in anthropology, then working as an archaeologist, college professor, and museum professional. I am pleased at how lessons I learned early in life transferred well to my postgraduate career.

In the same way I got my comeuppance as a trade union activist in the 1970s and 80s, I vividly recall as the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in Southwest Memphis, US, attending a neighborhood meeting in 2008 and being told “Don’t tell me what your university is going to do for my community. The last time you were here for two years doing your research and all we got was a map on the wall.” Through my earlier life experiences, I came to appreciate that community outreach at Chucalissa could not be based on what I believed the community needed, but must start from the listening to the expressed needs and interests of the community. Nina Simon popularized this understanding of co-creation in the Participatory Museum. My colleague Carol McDavid traced this co-creation concept back to marketing strategies in the 1980s.

This August, Co-Creation and the Archaeological Record, co-edited by Elizabeth Bollwerk and I, will be published as a thematic issue of the Society for American Archaeology’s Advances in Archaeological Practice. The issue contains a dozen papers, including one by Carol, that explores the background and presents archaeological case studies of co-creation. The volume includes my article that discusses how a co-creative approach transformed Chucalissa’s relationship with the surrounding community. A highlight of the transformation was the creation of an African-American Cultural Heritage exhibit based on a community expressed need. The 2010 exhibit was co-created with nine area high school students. This summer students from Freedom Prep Charter School, just down the road from the Museum are updating the exhibit created by their peers five years ago.

In the same issue of Advances in Archaeological Practice my colleagues Rebecca Bria and Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza report on their multi-year move toward greater co-creation in the activities of the organization they co-direct Proyecto de Investigación Arqueológico Regional Ancash (PIARA) in Hualcayán, Peru. For the past three years I have worked with Rebecca and Elizabeth on these co-creative projects. (In fact, I write this post at 10,000 ft in the 400 person village of Hualcayán.) An example of this co-creation will occur on July 28, Independence Day in Peru, when the community will receive 100 copies of the La Historia de Hualcayán: Contada Por Sus Pobladores. The 50-page book by Elizabeth is based on a co-created oral history project launched last summer. I have posted before about the origins of that oral history project.

Eli and I met with Leodan Abando Alejo Valerio this past week to deliver advance copies of the book. As discussed in that earlier post, Leodan is ultimately responsible for the project. He was very pleased with the book and had a half-dozen projects in mind he wanted to work on in other small villages of the Huaylas Province. First, he wants to repeat the oral history book project in Huallanca the nearby small village where he is now assigned to teach. We agreed to play the same role as we did for the Hualcayán volume.

In Hualcayán, there is quite a buzz about the July 28th event. This past Thursday evening, Eli and I met with the Hualcayán President, Angel Hueza, who outlined the agenda for the Independence Day activities. The book presentation will occur after the singing of the Peruvian National Anthem but before speeches by the President and other community members. At the suggestion of the President, all the students who participated in the project will receive a diploma for their work. (I will post the details of this event in the near future.)

What does all of this co-creation have to do with archaeology at sites like Chucalissa and Hualcayán? I am completely convinced that all folks value knowing their past. For example, the boom in ancestry.com and genealogical research in general support this statement. In Southwest Memphis, at the annual Veterans Day events we host at Chucalissa, current and deceased area residents dating back to World War II are prominently featured on banner exhibits honoring their military service. This is a big deal as I have posted about before. As well, when I showed a Southwest Memphis community leader the mock-up of the Hualcayán oral history volume and noted that the students at Freedom Prep summer camps could launch a similar project, he enthusiastically approved – as did the Freedom Prep students and school administrators. In the same way, both Leodan and President Hueza see the oral history book as a central piece of a July 28th Independence Day celebration and a reclamation of Hualcayán history.

Such projects, based in an applied anthropology/archaeology provide a ready link for demonstrating the true cultural value of the archaeological record, and counter the PBS Antique Roadshow formula of “Is it real, how old is it, and how much is it worth.” In Southwest Memphis, the link extends to the remnants of a 1930s African-American Civilian Conservation Corps camp responsible for discovering the Chucalissa in the modern era.  The remnants are located at the adjacent T.O. Fuller State Park.  The link is also made in the current drive to reclaim abandoned historic cemeteries in the Southwest Memphis community. In Hualcayán, a link is formed from the modern community’s cultural heritage to the archaeological site with 4000 years of human occupation.

When we met with the Hualcayán President he noted that it was good the oral history book was not linked directly to archaeological research that can be contentious because of land access and preservation concerns. While seemingly at odds with archaeological research interests, I believe the President’s comments actually provide an opening for dialogue about the link between the modern and prehistoric periods. PIARA excels in this approach, sponsoring pop-up museums, site tours, a library, and opening a community museum. All of these projects continue to take on an increased co-creative component.

Co-creation allows for projects that truly meet the needs and interests of all participants and show the value of cultural heritage. There is room for growth and attitude adjustments from both the archaeologists and the neighborhood communities. The perspective of the student who commented “Hualcayán was so great in prehistory, but look at it today” is as problematic as the looter who reduces the archaeological record to an economic resource whether in the highlands of Peru or the US.

At my very first field school in 1986, my former mentor the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis threw out the challenge that if we could not explain to the public why their tax dollars should support the archaeological research we were conducting we might as well go home. That is, did our work have value on the public land where we excavated or to the taxpayer who funded the research? At both Chucalissa and Hualcayán, I can answer Pat’s mandate with a strong yes. For me the genesis of that yes, began as a trade union activist when I learned to appreciate the value of listening and learning from the people in whose interest I wished to serve. That affirmation is found in working with the community and not for the community, a cornerstone of co-creative projects.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Blair Stock permalink
    July 20, 2015 2:42 pm

    Thank you. Enjoyed the message. A great reminder for all fields.

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  1. How You Can Help Curate Collections in Nivin, Peru | Archaeology, Museums & Outreach

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