A Success Story in Strengthening Communities

Graduate Assistant LaKenya Smith at the African American Cultural Heritage Exhibit

The Strengthening Communities Grant (SCG) Summit took place this past Friday in Memphis.  Dedra Macklin of the Westwood Indian Hill Development (WIND) and I were the fortunate recipients of an SCG in 2009 for the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis Project at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  At the summit, we participated in a workshop that considered the “How To” points in developing successful community partnerships.  We addressed three basic themes:

It’s a Process not an Event – Successful community engagement is not something that is built overnight, or stops after submitting the final project report.  Prior to receiving the SCG, the C.H. Nash Museum and WIND developed a relationship over the preceding two-year period.  Joint projects during that time included film showings, exhibit work, and the opening of community youth photographic banners at the Museum.  For academics, in a world governed by publication and other deadlines, such an intentionally casual partnership development is not the norm.  We viewed the SCG project as a single step in a continuum of interactions that will continue after we submit the final project report.

Collaboration – As the academic in a partnership, I know I must guard against speaking with elevated authority in determining what is best for the project.  Here is an excellent example of this tendency –  As we neared completion of the exhibit, I more announced, rather than suggested, that we should approach Memphis City Schools and others for the next phase to do x, y, and z.  As an alternative, the Project Coordinator, Sam Gibbs, commented that the general direction of my proposal seemed about right and involved the community, perhaps we should first call a meeting of all our partners, including the new partners engaged during the project, the community at large, and of course the student participants, and see what the combined group thought were the next best steps.  A perfect understanding of true collaboration!

You Can Make Plans, But Don’t Plan the Results – The project did not go the way we planned.  We intended to recruit students by January of 2010.  We did not complete the recruitment process until April but had an incredible pool of applicants that was four times the maximum number we could involve.  We intended to create a single exhibit on the excavation of a 1920s era farmstead.  We ended up with that exhibit, plus two walls of banner posters, a resource center, and a 20-minute documentary edited from over 30 hours of oral histories – all created by the student participants. In his comments at the exhibit opening, one of the students, Davarius Burton noted “It was all on us.  There were no limits to what we could do.”  But we remained true to creating a cultural heritage exhibit on the African American Cultural Heritage of Southwest Memphis, the basis for our grant proposal.  At the same time, and in the same way that now when creating exhibits on Native American tribal groups we ask “What do you want the people who visit the C.H. Nash Museum to know about your culture?” we allowed the students to make the same decision about presenting their cultural heritage.

For me, the Strengthening Communities Grant Project is one of the most rewarding examples in the intersection of Archaeology, Museums, and Outreach.

Museums, Students, & Community Engagement

This past Saturday at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we opened our new exhibit on the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis, created by nine area high school students over the past couple of months.  The primary products were a 20 minute documentary and a banner & artifact exhibit in the museum.   We see the exhibit as a major step in our functioning as a true community partner and resource center for the people of Southwest Memphis.   Of course, we continue our mission of high quality educational experience on the Native American cultures of the Midsouth as well.

If you are in Memphis, or pass through, stop by and visit the exhibit.  You can watch a video with highlights from the opening here.

Engaging Community – Muscatine’s Pearl Button Museum

Two generations explore the Muscatine map at the Pearl Button Museum

I spent the last three weeks traveling from Memphis up to Lake Itasca, the headwater of the Mississippi River, and then back down to Memphis on the Great River Road.  During the trip, we visited 15 or so full-fledged museums and a couple dozen nature preserves, historic landmarks, and so forth.  Among my favorite stops was the Muscatine Pearl Button Museum.  Muscatine is a small city of about 25,000 along the Mississippi River in East Central Iowa.  I held a certain fascination for visiting this place over the past couple of years.  Back then, I came across their website that contained the folkloric saying of “No Muscatine resident can enter Heaven without evidence of previous servitude in the button industry.”  Sounded to me like they had a great story to tell.

By the time of my visit a week ago, the museum moved to a new location, with a whole new set of exhibits, and was now part of the Muscatine History and Industry Center.  Here is why the Center and Museum rank among the favorites from our recent trip:

  • Primarily composed of exhibit panels and hands-on displays, the Pearl Button Museum tells the story of the town from the origins of the industry in the late 1800s through the transition to plastic buttons by the 1980s.  I took away an intimate sense of the city’s history.  Rather unique was the seemingly non-biased telling of the pearl button story from the perspectives of the entrepreneurs who owned the factories, the clammers who collected the mussels from the Mississippi River, the 1946 Pearl Button Queen selected by Ronald Reagan, to the workers of the industry. One exhibit panel focuses on Pearl McGill, a young union activist.  The AFL unions are given the same balanced presentation as the owners of the factories.  In this capacity the Museum truly incorporates the multiple constituencies of Muscatine.
  • The hands-on exhibits engage with the Museum story.  That is, the hands-on approach is not simply for the sake of having a hands-on experience as is often the case in museums.  The Muscatine exhibits challenge visitors to “card” buttons or sort and count buttons as workers did for over a half century.  A large map (pictured above) of Muscatine plots the locations of the button factories and support industries along with private residences.  Accompanying legend books give detail on structures.  During my short visit to the museum, multiple sets of visitors spent time viewing the map.  In one instance, two older women reminisced about their neighborhood in the 1950s.  In another instance, a grandmother told her grandson about her own history in the town, the school she attended, and her parents first home, pointing out the locations on the map and correlating them to present day structures.   The Pearl Button Museum is a resource for out-of-town visitors and community residents that is very engaging.
  • The Pearl Button Museum occupies the first floor of the Muscatine History and Industry Center.  The second floor of the Center exhibits the modern industries of Muscatine.  These exhibits come off as equal parts trade show, chamber of commerce, and educational.  The collaborative arrangement provides corporate support for the total Center complex.
  • With the updated exhibits installed beginning in 2006, the Center is able to function as a venue for cultural events in downtown Muscatine.  As well, the Museum currently offers K-12 educational programs.

Muscatine’s Pearl Button Museum is a small venue off the main route of many vacationers but the location on the Great River Road is certainly an asset.  Importantly, the Center clearly functions as an outstanding example of a local community resource.

What is your experience with other small museum venues that serve as community resources?

The House of Dance and Feathers

A fitting post for today is Ronald Lewis’s museum The House of Dance and Feathers in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.  The museum focuses on the cultural traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans.  Besides that yesterday was Mardi Gras, the House of Dance and Feathers is particularly relevant to this blog because the institution in many ways represents the ultimate in public outreach or the public face of the museum experience.  I lived in New Orleans for a few years a couple of decades ago and always thought that the Zulu Krewe represented the essence of the African-American Mardi Gras experience.  Currently, there is an excellent exhibit on the Zulu Krewe in the Cabildo at Jackson Square in New Orleans.

The House of Dance and Feathers documents something entirely different.  As taken from their website “Since 2006, the museum has become an important gathering place for scholars, activists, students, neighbors, and volunteers to talk about the history and culture of the Lower Nine, and to discuss the rebuilding of New Orleans.  The museum has also hosted numerous meetings, workshops, and gatherings for people who are working to make things happen in New Orleans.  Visitors to the House of Dance and Feathers experience the power of self-representation and the value of cultural exchange.  Mr. Lewis is currently working with Rachel Breunlin and the Neighborhood Story Project to produce a museum catalogue. In his museum tours and public talks, Mr. Lewis speaks eloquently about the social significance of place, family, and cultural traditions in community-building, and he has been an outspoken advocate for a resident-led rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward.”

I first heard of the Museum in a presentation given by Helen Regis at the Society for Applied Anthropology Meetings last year in Santa Fe.  Regis is one of the editors of the very engaging volume The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum by Ronald W. Lewis. The book is a fantastic story and documentation of the multi-faceted potential of the museum experience.

What other community museums tell these untold stories?

Society for Georgia Archaeology, Public Outreach

A few weeks ago I posted about the Louisiana Division of Archaeology website and the wealth of online information they offer.  Louisiana is not unique in their breadth of offerings.  I find that in most states, their respective archaeological organizations provide an increasing amount of on-line information to the public.  Most state sites offer schedules of upcoming events, brochures and information about major sites and museums in the area, along with a listing of the programs and services available through the agency.  Also, these state archaeological agencies usually each contribute some unique online resource to the public.  In Louisiana, the unique offerings included their excellent mound trail driving brochure and teacher guides.

The Society for Georgia Archaeology website follows a similar trend.  In addition to including many of the offerings common to archaeological  agencies in other states, Georgia also provides several unique offerings.  One of the most unique is information about the their archaeobus that takes archaeology to the public throughout Georgia.  Rita Elliott, Curator of Exhibits and Archaeology at the Coastal Heritage Society in Georgia gave an excellent presentation on the archaeobus at the 2009 Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Mobile, Alabama.  The archaeobus is a transformed Bookmobile retired from a county regional library.  The archaeobus web link documents the transformation process, including the expense involved, and evaluates the initial phase of the project.

The SGA website also has detailed lesson plans for download and use in the classroom.  Topics include the Mississippian mound complex at Etowah and the Removal of Native Americans from Georgia to Oklahoma in the 1800s.  The SGA website also provides links to other institution’s lesson plans such as at Springfield, the Free African-American Community founded around the time of the Revolutionary War.

The SGA website also contains the 128 page Archaeology in the Classroom: For Teachers by Teachers available free for download.

My favorite unique contribution on the SGA website is the Weekly Ponder column.  Now in its second year, the column provides updates on archaeological site excavations, preservation issues, discusses the veracity of historic documents, and current trends in archaeology, to name but a few of the topics covered.

The SGA site has links to volunteer opportunities, guides for preserving historic cemeteries, book reviews, summaries of the prehistoric periods in Georgia, Science Fair information, links for kids, along with the typical information found on most state archaeology websites.

The Society for Georgia Archaeology website is well-maintained and regularly updated – I found no broken links or pages that were months out of date.  The SGA website is an excellent “one-stop-shopping” site for bringing archaeology to the public in Georgia.  The website would benefit from inclusion, or at least linking to, descendent voices, principally of the Native American communities.

Do you have a favorite website that brings archaeology and museums to the public?

SunWatch Indian Village & Public Outreach

In today’s post we have a Q & A with Andy Sawyer, Site Manager of the SunWatch Indian Village and Archaeological Park, near Dayton, Ohio.  I have long been impressed that SunWatch runs an effective outreach program and now leads the way in the inclusion of descendent voices in the programming of the site.  I asked Andy to share a bit about himself and the SunWatch program.

Tell us a bit about your own background and your overall responsibilities at SunWatch.

I am an Anthropologist who specializes in Archaeology.  I have a BA in Anthropology from Miami University and an MA from the University of Denver. In my career as a student and practicing archaeologist I have had the opportunity to work in many parts of the US.  Prior to coming to SunWatch I worked for several years in Cultural Resource Management throughout the western US.  At SunWatch I am responsible for the day to day operation of a partially reconstructed 800 year old American Indian village and museum that covers the lives of the American Indians who occupied this region almost 300 years before Columbus reached the shores of the “New World.”

What do you consider your most successful recent effort to bring the surrounding community to SunWatch?

One of the things about a small museum such as ours is that we do not have the space or the funding to bring in many traveling exhibits.  Thanks to the support of local donors, however, since 2007 we have offered an annual presentation series that covers topics of local and national interest on archaeology and issues important to the American Indian community.  Our first series in 2007 averaged 42 people per presentation and in 2009 we averaged 92 people per presentation.  We just started our fourth presentation series a few weeks ago and the attendance was 94.  These series have given us a chance to offer something new to the visitors.

That’s a pretty impressive increase in attendance. How do you account for the success?

We have focused on unique topics and have been lucky to have supportive donors that have allowed us to keep new subject matter on the table.  We also have “word of mouth” promoting as we have numerous regulars to the series over the last few years that share with folks they know and bring new people out. Also, I really think targeting the groups that have an interest in specific presentations or topics is a good strategy.  And of course, offering these programs free of charge doesn’t hurt either.

What has been your experience in being inclusive of descendent voices at the SunWatch Village?

Our experience over the last several years has been incredibly positive.  As you are likely aware, archaeologists and American Indians have not always had a good relationship, in fact in some cases it has been just outright confrontational.  When I first suggested to our organization that I wanted to contact the most visible American Indian group in the Dayton area about collaborating on events they were a bit skeptical.  In the past this American Indian organization had been critical of activities at SunWatch on multiple occasions. Part of the issues, I think, in the past was a lack of communication.  I contacted them, invited them in for a talk, and we are going on our 4th year of hosting their Pow Wow and collaborating on other events including a clothing and school supplies drive for various reservations.  So from my perspective it has been an entirely positive experience.

How do you currently use Social Media at SunWatch Village?

About a year ago we started a Facebook page for SunWatch which was our first, and still only venture into using social media outlets.  So far it seems to be a good way to get information about SunWatch and our upcoming events out to our “Fans” who have signed up.  It also seems to be a good way for our “Fans” to spread the word.  Many of our fans share our updates with their Friends helping to spread the word even further.  Some of the organizations that help us organize events, such as the Miami Valley Council for Native Americans and the Miami Valley Flute Circle, both American Indian based groups, also have their own Facebook or MySpace pages. So when these groups post info about events on Facebook they are also helping expose more people to SunWatch.

What do you anticipate will be the future role of social media at SunWatch Village?

Since we are still relatively new to this, and social media is relatively new itself, we are not sure exactly what role this will play for us in the future.  For now though it seems to be a promising way for us to reach those who are already aware of us and perhaps many more that are not… yet.

Any wise words of wisdom on how you promote SunWatch Village that other museums or archaeologists might find helpful?

Identify your audience(s).  As a non-profit we have a limited budget especially when it comes to promotions.  Part of what we have tried to do is identify people who we already know will have an interest in our events and finding ways to let them know what is going on.  The groups that we have identified include local historical societies, archaeological interest groups, Native interest groups, and others.  These organizations typically have newsletters and/or e-mail lists through which they can let their membership know about upcoming events of interest so they can help us promote our events to their members.  Last year our presentation series was on Archaeoastronomy so we contacted local astronomy organizations to let them know about the presentations and we had a great response.  This year our first presentation was on shipwreck archaeology in the Great Lakes, so we contacted a local Scuba group, and we started off with a bang again.  While we still use more traditional advertising/marketing strategies, targeting our efforts in this way helps us make sure we get the word out to people who we know are interested.

You can email Andy or visit SunWatch village on-line at www.sunwatch.org or on Facebook.  Be certain to check out SunWatch Village when you are traveling through Southwest Ohio.  In fact, Southwest Ohio has a bounty of Native American cultural resources from the prehistoric era including the Fort Ancient site and Miami Fort – both open to the public.