The Public in Public Museums

Where is the public in our publicly owned museums?  I have pondered this over the past couple of years in my capacity as the Director at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  Here are some thoughts:

  • At Chucalissa, we host several internships each semester of both the undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Memphis (UM).  We strive to match an intern’s interest with the museum’s needs.  Student feedback suggests we are successful in this effort.  We view the Museum as a classroom, laboratory, or experimental station for our interns.
  • Because of my training as an archaeologist and my place on the UM Museum Studies faculty, I often give the introductory presentation to visiting college age school groups.  Over the past several weeks we had several UM “Fresh Connections” freshman undergraduate class visits.  I emphasized to these students that the Chucalissa Museum is their Museum both as UM students and as a public institution supported by their tax dollars.  I explain the intern, volunteer, and other opportunities available to students during their four years of study at the University.
  • In a recent Museum Practices graduate seminar, we discussed visitors, volunteers, and interns – the public’s physical presence at museums.  I showed a training video we made for our new Graduate Assistants that explores how we view volunteers at Chucalissa.  As I previously posted, we aim to engage volunteers because doing so is our mission and less because we have tasks that our regular staff cannot complete.
  • We are embarking on a project to rework the 20 exhibit cases in the main hall of our museum.  Our approach responds in part to Robert Janes asking in Museums in a Troubled World ” . . . if museums did not exist, would we reinvent them and what would they look like?  Further, if the museum were to be reinvented what would be the public’s role in the reinvented institution” (p.14).  Mallory Bader, a graduate assistant at the Museum, will interview key stakeholders, conduct focus groups with teachers, community leaders, students, and others, and coördinate tracking and visitor surveys as a means for obtaining public input into our reimagined main hall.
  • Over the past year, I posted several items on the public involvement in our African-American Cultural Heritage exhibit.
In their reading journal for last week’s Museum Practices seminar, one student wrote they found the participatory museum articles interesting but perhaps overly idealistic.  The student posed the question – what if it does not work?  Specifically – what if the students who created the African-American Cultural Heritage exhibit at Chucalissa produced something that simply could not work?  What is the impact of the youth working on a project that might never see the light of day? A good question that cannot be answered with “But it did.”  I believe that the answer is found, at least in large part, in this graphic from a post of last year.  I am struck that a key role that museum professionals play is to help the public to take on the ownership responsibility of their institutions.  That process is messy, consumes a great deal of time and energy, but ultimately is key to the mission of public museum and the ability of those institutions to achieve long-term sustainability.
Your thoughts?

Are Museum Ethics Changing?

One of the student assignments in the Museum Studies graduate seminar I lead each fall semester at the University of Memphis is to provide annotated references each week on the seminar topic.  I enjoy the diverse responses from graduate students in Art History, Earth Science, Anthropology, History and other disciplines.  That diversity allows me to think outside of my worldview as the director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  One of my intents with the assignment is build a database of resources to share on the range of Museum Practices issues.  In the coming weeks, I will occasionally feature selections of those resources on this blog, especially as they relate to public engagement of museums and archaeology.

Early in the seminar we take up the issue of Museum Ethics.  Here are some of those resources:

  • Treatment and Repatriation of Human Remains – Katherine Broome wrote about the website set up by family members and first responders of the September 11, 2001 disaster at the World Trade Center.  The group’s function is to galvanize opposition to the placement of human remains in any memorial museum at the site.  The May 2011 issue of Anthropology Today, has an update by the advisors to the group.  Within the U.S., for the last 25 years museum questions about human remains have principally focused on those of Native Americans as a result of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).  Here is a link to an updated scholarly treatment on the impacts of NAGPRA.  Cori Ogleton came across a statement from the Pitt Rivers Museum in the UK about the exhibiting of human remains.  The governing policy of the Museum on the treatment and repatriation of human remains is also available.  A primary difference between the U.S. and U.K. policies is the formal legislation in the U.S. compared to less structured guidelines in the U.K.  As well, the role of the relative or descendent voices of the human remains held in the U.K. seems considerably less in the U.S.  The treatment and repatriation of human remains is a critical issue in public outreach in both archaeology and museums today.  In the U.S., our institutions are now directly accountable to the citizens whose collections they curate.
  • Treatment and Repatriation of Cultural Materials – The Elgin Marbles have long been a touchstone for discussing the repatriation of cultural materials.  That horizon has broadened considerably   Katie Maish found a formal discussion between Malcolm Bell III who notes the loss of context when art is taken from its original setting and James Cuno who promotes the cause of the Universalist Museum approach.  Noteworthy is that only Western Institutions signed the 2002 Declaration of Importance and Value of Universal Museums.  Alex Pearson came across an excellent blog that discusses the generalities and specific instances of looting and museums ethical responsibility.  The repatriation and exhibition of a cultural materials will continue to be a substantive issue that faces archaeologists and museums in their very ability to conduct public outreach.  Does the public’s desire to view prehistoric ceramic vessels override the objections of those descendent voices, also a part of that public, who wish for the objects to be kept from public view?  If the public’s desire to view these objects is considered paramount, why are they for the most part locked away in repositories away from public view?
  • And in General – The American Association of Museums (AAM), the International Council of Museums, the Society for American Archaeology, and most other national organizations make their code of ethics available on-line.  Megan Keener reported an interesting project from the Center for the Future of Museums of the American Association of Museums.  The project invited practitioners from a diversity of museum settings to consider the needs for amending the AAM’s current code of ethics.  The discussion notes that codes need constant updating to address the evolving and dynamic pace of world events.  Here is an example of the project’s discussion.  The Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University also has abundant resources on the subject.

The accountability demanded of archaeologists and museum professionals by the very voices whose materials cultural they curate is rightfully on the rise and will continue to grow.  As well, as archaeologists and museum professionals are employed in nonprofit and publicly financed institutions, in an era of decreasing discretionary dollars, institutions that are unable to explain their relevancy to the public likely will not, and should not, survive.  In this capacity, ethics takes on an increased role.

How has your institution been faced with new ethical considerations?


Visualizing Information in Museums Exhibits

C.H. Nash Museum ceramic vessel exhibit redesign - before in background, after in foreground

When thinking about exhibit design, books by Edward Tufte and the webpage of David McCandless’ Information is Beautiful are a couple of welcome resources.  Similarly, nearly 15 years ago I first came across Beverly Serrell’s Exhibition Labels, a book I go back to regularly and assign as a required reading in my Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.  Tufte and Serrell profoundly impact how I view presenting information in public venues.

While a graduate student at the University of Illinois, my advisor R. Barry Lewis introduced me to Tufte in the Anthropological Research Design graduate seminar.  An intriguing assignment in the class was to find the best and worst interpretive graphic in a professional journal.  The search produced scores of examples with text that could only be read under 400% magnification, along with jumbles of circles, lines, arrows and their gradient fills that were unintelligible.  For the assignment, students found some great graphics too.  But that assignment some 20 years ago is still relevant when considering the professional PowerPoint presentations of today, often more akin to a dizzying kaleidoscope art form than information presentation.  “Power Corrupts.  PowerPoint corrupts absolutely” so saith Edward Tufte.

About fifteen years ago I completed text labels for an exhibit.  Then Serrell’s Exhibit Labels book, hot off the press, arrived in the mail and I read it immediately.  I then trashed my newly created exhibit labels and started over from scratch.  I now had a guide to a systematic and meaningful way of creating the labels – determining the Big Idea and telling the story.  Although I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, these lessons lead me to strive for clean, clear, and aesthetically pleasing information presentations.

With all of this in mind, three years ago, a Graduate Assistant led the attack on the ceramic vessel exhibit at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa – the before and after shown above – by all measures a pretty dramatic improvement.  Besides the aesthetics, the redesign addressed vessel form, effigy symbolism, function, and contextualized the vessels within the site.  The redesign also explained the ever cryptic type names archaeologists assign to vessels.  In the past three years, the redesign received a good bit of visitor and staff feedback.  Based on that feedback, this fall one of the projects for the Museum Practices seminar will be to redesign the Chucalissa Pottery exhibit again.  The ten graduate students will use Serrell and other resources on exhibit labels and design to come up with their individual proposals they will then collaboratively morph into a single final design.

The opportunity for students to engage in such projects is one aspect of our applied studies program that is quite valuable.  Beyond searching for the best and worst interpretative graphic in a professional journal, the students will be able to not just find, but create and resolve.  Such an educational approach provides hands-on experience for future museum directors, registrars, educators, marketers – all fields – to offer more robust and mission driven practices and creations.

How do you create or recreate clear and meaningful exhibits?

From Me to We: Museums & Communities

In academia today there is a tension between the importance of interdisciplinary studies compared to single discipline research.  Although universities encourage collaboration across disciplines as an effective means for applied research individuals are evaluated and rewarded for production within their own departments.  To see the range of the discussion on this point, google interdisciplinary studies on the Chronicle of Higher Education website.

This tension can also be framed within a me vs we approach.  In a strict disciplinary approach, departments are viewed as individual “me” silos concerned foremost with their own self-interest and often with little concern about what happens outside of their own walls.  The interdisciplinary approach is considerably more engaging as a web of interaction that plays off of multiple partners.  In this capacity, the product of the interdisciplinary whole is more than the sum its individual departmental components creating a group synergy.

I have thought about the need for an interdisciplinary approach for a cultural heritage development in project in Orange Mound, an African American community of Memphis Tennessee with roots extending into the late 1800s.  The Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis is currently assisting the Orange Mound community in the creation of a local component for the traveling exhibit The Way We Worked from the Smithsonian Institution.  Orange Mound community discussions around the exhibit immediately raised possibilities for other cultural heritage projects.  In Memphis, there are many individual neighborhood possibilities but little in the way of a collaborative approach.  For example, typical cultural resource management archaeological projects result in gray literature reports and boxes of cultural materials, but little in the way public access or presentation.  A notable exception includes virtual presentations such as the Lamar Terrace project.  As well, for the past five years, the Rhodes College Crossroads to Freedom Project has collected oral history from the African American community.  I have posted before about community cultural heritage the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa collaborated on in Southwest Memphis.  But there is little or no effort to develop an interdisciplinary consortium of collaboration for these types of projects

Interdisciplinary projects have demonstrated considerable worth in broader community development.  For example, at the University of Memphis a colleague, Katherine Lambert-Pennington recently received national recognition for her work in this area.

When considering cultural heritage projects such as at Orange Mound, an interdisciplinary approach seems the most fitting.  The Collaborative for Cultural Heritage and Museum Practices (CHAMP) at the University of Illinois is one such example.  A quick scan of the CHAMP faculty demonstrates the broad interdisciplinary approach that the Collaborative can bring to any issue.  Consider the breadth of those faculty and their resources to envision any cultural heritage or museum project.  Consider how that interdisciplinary set of skills and ability will benefit the greater whole.  I suspect that there are few cultural heritage projects where going it alone will produce a better product.  However, such the multidisciplinary approach necessitates that we all move out of our individual silos and into a web of interconnection with others.

How can you benefit from a collaborative interdisciplinary relationship?

21st Century Careers in Archaeology

So what is it that archaeologists do in the new millennium?  What are the career opportunities in archaeology today?  Check out the special issue of Society for American Archaeology’s monthly publication The Archaeological Record to find out.  This special issue contains 12 personal accounts of careers in archaeology that show how the field involves a lot more than just digging holes.  Read about archaeologists involved in work with the Federal government, community based projects, collaboration with educators in public schools, in the virtual world, and much more.

When I returned to school in 1985 as a nontraditional 30-something undergraduate I first registered for a course in physical anthropology and decided that was what I wanted to be when I grew up.  The next quarter I took Introduction to Cultural Anthropology and decided ethnography would be my future.  The next quarter was linguistics and I once again pondered a different career direction.  Then I took Introduction to Archaeology and realized that this subfield of Anthropology allowed me to merge all of my research interests.  I was thoroughly caught up in the interdisciplinary work of Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus in Early Mesoamerican Village, The Cloud People and more.  Then, I distinctly recollect that after my first field experience in 1986, I was newly committed to excavation and artifact analysis.

Fast forward some 25 years and I have not dug a whole lot more than a few shovel test probes in the last couple of years but the same excitement for archaeology I had in the 1980s continues in my work as the director of C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa and when teaching in the Museum Studies program and the Anthropology Department at the University of Memphis.  My career has certainly not taken me where I thought it would back then.  But I realize the end result is much more meaningful.

As reflected in the 12 personal stories in the special issue of The Archaeological Record, I also have found that the new career opportunities in archaeology speak to the discipline’s relevance in today’s culture not simply as a source of curiosity and speculation but as a means for engaging the public in a discussion of our culture’s future.

How has your archaeological career evolved over the years?

Advocacy & Museums: Not Just for Administrators Anymore

With shrinking support dollars, advocacy is more than ever a pressing and essential survival skill for public institutions.  The American Association of Museums‘ (AAM) 2011 book Speak Up For Museums: The AAM Guide to Advocacy by Gail Ravnitzky Siberglied is an excellent starting point for the discussion.  As AAM President Ford Bell notes in the volume’s Preface “We advocate for the value of our museums every time we open an exhibit, welcome a school group, send out a press release, meet with funders or hold a special event in the community.  Advocacy can be as simple and personal as chatting with a visitor” (p. xi).  Advocacy work with elected officials and policy makers is the focus of the volume.

Like many AAM publications, the scope of Speak Up For Museums is basic but comprehensive.  The volume covers the limitations in advocacy work for nonprofits, involvement of museum boards, advice from public officials and museum advocates, and a basic civics lesson on government structures and operations related to advocacy.

Two chapters stood out as particularly helpful to me.  First, Chapter 3, An Advocacy Inventory, contains step-by-step templates/guides for compiling institutional data (e.g., visitation demographics, elected and other public officials, and economic data) critical for successful advocacy.

Chapter 6, Start Advocating Today! A Week-by-Week Plan provides a list of 57 advocacy tasks.  The examples range from simple to complex and include adding all relevant elected (city, state, county, federal) officials to your mailing list and social media sites (and vice versa), updating a museum’s virtual presence on websites, Wikipedia and social media pages, and  joining with other area museums in advocacy efforts.

The AAM hosts a Speak Up For Museum webpage with many links and information on advocacy work.

The 125 page volume was a quick read and a ready reference for framing further advocacy work.  My takeaway points directly and indirectly from the book include:

  • Museums continue to move from being collections driven to centering on the visitor experience in the same way that archaeology now includes a public accountability component unheard of 50 years ago.  In this regard, all practitioners take on advocacy roles.  Advocacy is now embraced by the field archaeologist, the curator, and the research scientist, not just the administrators, educators and marketing departments.  Particularly with the advent of social media institutions no longer have the luxury of controlling the means and pace of their advocacy efforts.  Speak Up For Museums focuses on advocacy with public officials.   Although not explicitly stated, the public realm of advocacy also requires a full team effort.  Despite centralized press releases and lobbying efforts, all staff need to create their 3-minute elevator speech advocating for the institution.
  • I have a new appreciation that advocacy is a long-term process that starts with building a relationship today.  I often smile smugly at the Facebook entries from the institution that only posts for self-promotion or Kickstarter/Pepsi Challenge type fundraising efforts.  I suspect the public official feels the same way if they only hear from me when I need something but am not engaged as part of the broader solution.
  • Advocacy is not rocket science.  Advocacy can be as simple as putting one foot in front of the other and doing the next right thing.  Adding the email addresses of all relevant public officials to an e-newsletter list is pretty straightforward and can probably be achieved with a half-hour of Google search time.  In fact, Chapter 3 “An Advocacy Inventory” suggests that the template/guide tasks “can also be done as a case study for a graduate class in museum studies” (p. 16).  Hmm . . . sounds like Project 1 for my Museum Practices graduate seminar in the Museum Studies Certificate Program at the University of Memphis this fall semester – pick an area museum and develop an advocacy guide for them.

Speak Up For Museums is a great resource to start or further develop an institution’s advocacy work.  Although geared specifically toward museums, the application is adaptable to a range of nonprofit agencies.

What are your tools for advocacy?

Museums as Relevant Institutions

Story of Frank Haggerty and Babe Ruth at the ballplayer's birthplace museum in Baltimore, Maryland

A recent Wall Street Journal article on changes in the leadership of museums recounts the experience of an art museum director whose suggestion to discuss environmentally friendly museums was initially dismissed.  She was recently elected to head the professional association that did the dismissing.  Now, authors such as Robert Janes put forward the need to make museums relevant to the issues facing the current world and the American Association of Museums hosts special webinars on The Green Museum.  A couple of weeks ago I posted on lessons I learned from Pat Essenpreis, specifically on the need to explain the relevancy of archaeological research to the public.

These issues are not much different from John Cotton Dana’s call for museums to be relevant to their communities in his 1917 publication of The New Museum.

Over the past couple of weeks my wife and I have roamed through the Maryland/Virginia area hitting museum venues both large and small.  At most of these venues I have tried to keep on my museum professional’s hat on to learn from the successes of others, especially on the issue of relevancy and engagement.  At some locations, I must confess to just being completely absorbed in the story, not really care how it is told.  Such was the case with the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore.

Relevancy and engagement are considered in Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum, where she lays out three types of participation that museums can engage with visitors: Contributory, Collaborative, and Co-creative, something I touched on in last week’s post.  Simon writes:

“In contributory projects, visitors are solicited to provide limited and specified objects, actions, or ideas to an institutionally controlled process. . . In collaborative projects, visitors are invited to serve as active partners in the creation of institutional projects that are originated and ultimately controlled by the institution. . . In co-creative projects, community members work together with institutional staff members from the beginning to define the project’s goals and to generate the program or exhibit based on community interests”  (cited from here).

What strikes me as important in this consideration is not to view the types of participation as a linear evolution as simple to complex, but rather, how inclusion of these approaches fits a broad range of visitors to a museum.  This brings me back to full circle where I started this post.  These are challenges that have been raised in various forms for the past ten years, going back to the American Association of Museums‘ 2002 publication Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums and in the more distant past to Dana.

How do you make your outreach to the communities you serve relevant?

Radical Trust and Visitor Engagement

Flowing from my last post, as museums or archaeologists, how do we stay engaged with our volunteers, visitors, and the community?  I have posted on this before, but the general subject keeps bubbling to the surface in my daily actions.  I keep coming back to a lunch last year where the Outreach Director for a state agency wondered “How do we know if these once a year Archaeology Days are successful and how do we keep those people involved after the event is over?”

In this post I want to talk about an “aha” moment I had on this. To start off, I truly believe that social media is not just a one-way street.  We cannot just use Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube for cheap advertising.  Rather, these tools are excellent and designed for integration and interaction.  A buzzword over the past few years is radical trust.  There are many good discussions on this subject that explore the reciprocity and interaction of online hosts and users.

In the past few months, I heard from a couple different resources about this idea of micro-volunteering at a site called Sparked. The general concept is that lots of people have 15-20 minutes here and there where they could volunteer to help someone else online in mini-tasks or “challenges.”  If you visit the Sparked website, you can login as either a nonprofit or a micro-volunteer.  Keep this distinction in mind as you read on below because it’s the essence of the “aha” experience.

I registered at Sparked a few weeks ago.  I did not follow-up for the first few days, then I got a reminder email and decided to give it a shot.  I posted a copy of the last Chucalissa Anoachi e-newsletter and asked for a critique.  I got an absolutely fantastic response back from Tim S. with Charles and Ray Design.  I suspect his total time invested was less than 30 minutes but he gave a phenomenal critique, all of which got incorporated into our December newsletter.

After getting the response back from Tim, I realized I could not just let it go at that.  I made a decision that for every response I received to a “challenge” I posted, I would “micro-volunteer” and respond to another challenge.  In so doing, I would be giving back to the resource I was drawing from.  I have engaged with Sparked for a few weeks now.  I have posed “challenges” to have our Mission Statement translated into five different languages and have micro-volunteered to several challenges in need of copyedit and critique.

Here is where the “aha” moment comes in.  Last night I was logging onto the site and hesitated in whether I should consider myself as a nonprofit or a micro-volunteer.  I was invested on both sides of the equation.  I can now issue “challenges” on everything from fundraising ideas to design critique when I am in need of fresh insights on a Museum project.  In the same way, if I am in a doctor’s office or stuck at the airport waiting for a flight, or just have a few minutes at the end of the day, I can logon and engage.   Sparked is always there, the need is always there, and the opportunity to post a challenge is always there.  But most importantly, I have developed a stake in the community.

So, what does this have to do with staying engaged with our volunteers and visitors?  I have become a stakeholder in Sparked.  How do we engage our visitors and volunteers as true stakeholders in the cultural heritage of their towns, cities, and built environments?   I suspect that a first step is to go beyond Archaeology Days and one-off events and begin talking about radical trust and a consistent engagement.  And that goes back to volunteers and visitors as integral to our Mission.

Your thoughts?

Interns, Volunteers, Success, and the Great Thing

Interactive Interpretive Model, Adapted from Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach, 1998, p. 102

In the past few days I had some revealing conversations and reflections on the role of volunteers and interns in creating exhibits and programs at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  We recently revised our mission statement to emphasize the participatory nature of our engagement with University of Memphis students and the broader community.  So how successfully do we “operationalize” that engagement?  Typically, this aspect of mission is framed within the mandates of building community relationships and providing educational opportunities on the one hand and on the other hand getting stuff done that our limited staff are not able to complete.  Flowing from those considerations, I want to present a couple of case studies on the reciprocal nature of our interactions with volunteers and interns.

First, over the past few months I posted several times on the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis project.  I won’t rehash all that here, except to note that the co-creation in that project was absolutely necessary.  The student participants were all from Southwest Memphis and none of  our museum staff are.  The student input was required to create the exhibit, pure and simple.

But moving to the less obvious, for the past few months on Volunteer Days, Gerry and Adriana VanBeek have worked with artifacts dating to the prehistoric Poverty Point culture (circa 3 – 4000 years ago) recovered in West Tennessee.  After spending a couple of Saturdays on the project they took the 5 hour drive down to Epps Louisiana to visit the Poverty Point site itself.  I appreciate that the experience in our Museum is able to offer direction for such opportunities.  But here is where the co-creation comes in – this past Saturday Gerry showed me photos of Poverty Point culture artifacts from a museum he and Adriana visited in Florence, Alabama.  He correctly assumed that if we were interested in Poverty Point culture objects from West Tennessee we would also be interested in those recovered in northern Alabama.  He was right.  To me, that simple exchange is an example of where the co-creation and reciprocal nature of the participatory museum comes in.

The next case is that of Emily Neal and Scott Hadley, two Anthropology undergraduate student interns at the Museum this semester.  I try to match our Museum needs with an intern’s interests.  In so doing, we designed an internship where Scott and Emily used unprovenienced stone tool artifacts from our collections to create a hands-on educational program for visiting school groups.  The project is nearly complete.  Scott and Emily did a dry run of the program for volunteers and staff on Saturday and got some great critical feedback.

After the presentation Emily, Scott and I sat down and discussed their internship in a sort of exit interview fashion.  They expressed appreciation in having a hands-on experience, doing something they had never done before, and getting experience on future career trajectories.   But there was another critical take-away point for me on the internship.  Scott and Emily both noted that although I provided them with some broad initial guidelines for creating the program, but they also felt somewhat undirected during the first couple of weeks of the internship.  I recollect that they asked questions early on, and I would give them direction, but not answers.  They noted at first they found the lack of a clear direction a bit frustrating.  They contrasted their internship experience with coursework where the instructor provides a syllabus with the exact pages to read, the lecture schedule, when the test will occur and so forth.  But after some initial uncertainty in the internship, Emily noted that she found the freedom to choose the project direction actually brought out her natural creativity in such situations.  Scott noted that having to choose the direction forced him to think outside the box.  I am struck that their internship can be likened to creating a painting on a blank canvas compared to completing a paint by number type of project.  They both felt strongly that the end product was their own creation.  Scott specifically commented that he was excited to know that the program would live on after he completed the internship.  Both students felt they gained valuable real-time experience and made a real contribution to the museum.

Here is what impressed me the most about their internship process – Emily and Scott created a quality program that my graduate studies in anthropology could not have produced.  From the visuals to the script and activities, the interns brought a fresh approach to exploring prehistoric stone tools outside the box in which archaeologists typically operate.  I specifically challenged Scott and Emily to scour the literature but also brainstorm on their own and come up with creative ideas to explain the evolution in tool form through time and space – and they succeeded in doing so.  In their early 20s, both Scott and Emily are also much closer in age and experience to the students who will take part in this program than I am.  However, my graduate studies in lithic technology and experience in museum programming are not to be completely set aside.  That is where the value of co-creation comes in.  As Scott noted, the collaboration, including the feedback they received this past Saturday, was key to the success of the project.  To me, that is also where the beauty and elegance of Parker Palmer’s above model fits – but more on that later.

What are your thoughts on co-creation and museum programs?

To Be Virtual Or To Be Real – Is That The Question?

Mall of America, Bloomington, Minnesota

As a follow-up to my last post, here is a continuum of links that consider one potential of virtual museums in archaeology:

  • Digging Digitally is a blog that discusses “Archaeology, data sharing, digitally enabled research and education” and is an “unofficial” outlet for the Society for American Archaeology Digital Data Interest Group.  The blog posts regularly with discussions on web alternatives to peer review, 3D modeling for digital presence, and a very cool recent discussion and video on prehistoric acoustics in Peru.  The blog reports the wide-ranging discussion of the movement toward online data in archaeological research.
  • In what is described by some as a WordPress for Museums, Omeka.net is in development with a “mission to make collections-based online publishing more accessible to small cultural heritage institutions, scholars, enthusiasts, educators, and students.”  Omeka is a project of the The Corporation for Digital Scholarship that enables free and open-source research and education software.  The power of a resource such as Omeka speaks directly to Rachael Barnwell’s comment on last week’s blog post about virtual museums.  She noted that the Bamburgh Research Project does not have a museum home but must rely on a virtual presence to disseminate information about ongoing excavations.  Her comment leads to considering whether establishing a formal public museum in Bamburgh is a positive and logical next step toward enhancing the public’s access to the cultural heritage discussion of the area.  Conventional wisdom might answer yes.  But would such a venture be a prudent use of resources?  Can a virtual presence supplemented by activities in the broader community space but outside a formal museum venue be the best next step?  Can resources such as Omeka.net allow for the broad dissemination of collections and cultural heritage information without a formal museum setting?
  • A recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts, notes that individuals introduced to an art form via digital media, whether gaming or the Internet, were three times more likely to follow-up with a real-time visit to a museum or other arts venue.  The finding seems intuitive and in line with the intended function of many virtual promotions of cultural heritage.  How does an organization such as the Bamburgh Research Project respond to the “three times” increase in the public’s desire for a real-time experience, if there is no museum to attend?

This is where a recent post, The Decision Before the Decision, from Seth Godin’s Blog might prove useful:

The Decision Before the Decision

This is the one that was made before you even showed up. This is the one that sets the agenda, determines the goal and establishes the frame.

The decision before the decision is the box.

When you think outside the box, what you’re actually doing is questioning the decision before the decision.

That decision is far more important and much more difficult to change than the decision you actually believe you’re about to make.

I suspect there are many “decisions before the decision” we need to question as we move forward in considering virtual and real-time museums and cultural heritage in the coming decade.

Your thoughts?