Community Service & Learning in Musuems

This past Saturday at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa 35 undergraduates from the University of Memphis participated in our monthly Volunteer Day.  The students were part of a Service on Saturday group project organized out of the University. Typical projects include activities like neighborhood clean-ups, urban garden projects, and assisting in the assembly and staffing of the Smithsonian Institution’s The Way We Worked exhibit at a local community center.  As participants in the University’s Emerging Leader Program, the students perform community service hours each semester.  Yesterday at Chucalissa, they worked on our repository reinventory, digital photography project, and helped transfer over two tons of stone ground cover to our in process Traditional Medicinal Plant Sanctuary.  The students supplemented the 20 volunteers who participated in our regular Volunteer Day activities.

Two weeks before 25 members of the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS) spent four hours at the C.H. Nash Museum assisting with our  repository inventory project.  Six MAGS members returned this Saturday to participate again.  Mike and Sherri Baldwin lent their artistic skills to repainting the 40-year-old model trees in our diorama display.

In late January 45 visiting students from the Illinois State University spent the day at Chucalissa as part of a two-week Community Service Learning class traveling through the Southeast.  After a site tour and discussion of our Museum’s commitment to community engagement, the students spent the rest of the day on a variety of service projects at Chucalissa.

From mid-March to mid-April, we will host an 10 person AmeriCorps project.  The crew will start by working on trail maintenance at the T.O. Fuller State Park.  Then the AmeriCorps crew will work with archaeologists and community members on preliminary archaeological investigations of the 1930s era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp located near Chucalissa at T.O. Fuller State Park.  The CCC project is particularly significant.  The AmeriCorps of today are the legacy of the CCC, who in the 1930s “discovered” the prehistoric earthworks and artifacts that became known as the Chucalissa site.  The discovery came while the CCC worked to construct a Jim Crow era swimming pool for the African-American community of Memphis.

All of the above activities can be categorized as community service or community service learning projects.  The National Service Learning Clearing House notes a distinction between the two activities: “If school students collect trash out of an urban streambed, they are providing a valued service to the community as volunteers. If school students collect trash from an urban streambed, analyze their findings to determine the possible sources of pollution, and share the results with residents of the neighborhood, they are engaging in service-learning” (citation here).

There is a good bit of gray area between the two types of service activities.  One might argue that the students yesterday who were spreading stone ground cover for the Traditional Plant Sanctuary were only “providing a valued service to the community” as they did not “analyze their findings” etc.  In our museum settings today, we must provide the types of service opportunities that can bridge fully into learning projects.  This is a key ingredient to all of our volunteer/service opportunities at Chucalissa.  Using the parlance of Simon’s Participatory Museum, I have posted before on the distinctions of contributory, collaborative and co-creative visitor and volunteer experiences.  Seemingly, the more complex the level of engagement for the participant, ultimately, the more complete the stakeholder development.  I am not convinced that is true.  I don’t see the contributory, collaborative and co-creative experiences as hierarchical.  Rather the range is different.  The same is true for community service and community service learning experiences.  As we strive to be relevant institutions to the public that we serve, we must also be keenly aware and ready to nurture these relationships.  A key understanding is that as public institutions, museums must truly serve the public.  With incredible regularity I repeat “The only reason we exist as a museum is because of the visitor.  Without them, we would function only as a repository or research station.”  In the same way, as public institutions, the public has a responsibility to use, engage with, and advocate for museums.  A reciprocal relationship is the foundation for sustainable institutions into the future.

Helpful resources on this subject include:

What are your experiences with service and service learning activities?

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?

The Essential Role of Volunteers in Museums

(left to right) Claire Mundy, Robert Ford, Charles McNutt, Ron Brister

This past Saturday we held our annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  I am always quite humbled and grateful when looking at not just the number of volunteers but also what they accomplish over the course of a year.  In the last year, our museum had a full-time staff of four, a part-time staff of four graduate assistants, supported by over 200 volunteers.  Of those 200 volunteers, the majority are one time participants such as Scout or youth groups on service projects.  Another 40 volunteers participate occasionally throughout the year.  A core of 20 volunteers can be counted on like clockwork to show up on a scheduled basis.

I reflected on a blog post I wrote last year titled “Volunteers as Mission.”  In the post I noted that the primary reason we have volunteer programs at our Museum is not because we do not have enough staff to do all the things we need to do but because our very mission mandates that we offer participatory experiences for the public at Chucalissa.  That participation often comes in the form of volunteer opportunities.

At Saturday’s dinner we also considered how the skills that volunteers bring to the Museum is an essential part of collaborative and co-creative visitor experience.  A new exhibit that opened on Saturday exemplified this point.  The exhibit features prehistoric stone tools from Midsouth region that range in age from 12000 BC to AD 1500.  The exhibit came about through the participation of several contributors who all brought their special skills to the table.  Only one of those individuals is a part of the regular staff at the Museum.  The participants included:

  • Robert Ford of Wynne Arkansas who generously donated to the C.H. Nash Museum artifacts he surface collected from area farm fields over the years.  Mr. Ford’s donated materials are also used in other educational programs at the Museum.
  • Ron Brister and Richard Whittington are volunteers who examined the thousands of artifacts in the Ford collection and pulled a sample of a couple hundred to represent over 13000 years of prehistoric occupation in the region.  They also donated and modified a beautiful map case to house the exhibit.  Ron brought over 40 years of expertise to the project as the recently retired Collections Manager at the Pink Palace here in Memphis.
  • Brooke Mundy, an undergraduate intern at the University of Memphis assisted with exhibit design and construction.  She also created the panels for the exhibit and interviewed Robert Ford at his home in Wynne.
  • The Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS) generously provided the funds to create the exhibit.  MAGS has a long-term commitment to Chucalissa archaeology extending back to the early 1950s before there was even a museum at the site.
  • Our museum staff oversaw the creation process, assisting primarily in logistics, exhibit text, and panel printing.
Here is the punch line to the story.  The assemblage of folks who helped create the exhibit provided both time and resources that are in short supply at not just the C.H. Nash Museum, but in museums across the country.  But more importantly, each participant brought expertise and skills to the process that are not available on our regular staff.  So, museums do not just need volunteers because there are not enough staff to do the tasks at hand, or because they are mandated to do so by their Mission Statements, but also because the volunteer brings to the museum skills, expertise, and resources not available with the regular staff.  In my comments at the Saturday night dinner, I noted that the volunteers at our museum were absolutely essential to our operation.  That is not just hype to make folks feel good about their participation.
What essential skills and expertise do volunteers bring to your institution?

Mentoring for Outreach

Pat Essenpreis, Fort Ancient State Memorial (33Wa2), 1987

I recently had a discussion with a colleague about mentors.  The subject came around to the person who provided a decisive and lasting impact on our career or life trajectory.  I reflected on this in terms of my interest in public outreach and an applied approach to the study of archaeology and museums.

So here is my mentor story . . . without a doubt, the person who most impressed me with the importance of the public role in archaeology was the late Dr. Patricia Sue Essenpreis.  I first met Pat on June 21st 1987.  I remember the date because it was at the summer solstice observation at the Fort Ancient State Memorial in Oregonia Ohio where I was to begin a field school in archaeology the following Tuesday.  Before sunrise that morning, a group of perhaps 50 folks assembled to watch the sun come up, hopefully along the trajectory of two prehistoric parallel walls.  I don’t remember the exact details of the sunrise event.  I do remember that one fellow with his work boots painted silver and wearing some sort of aluminum contraption on his head held up a huge crystal as the sun rose and began chanting and dancing about.  Pat took this all in stride and continued her presentation on the “canons of construction” used by Native Americans over 2000 years ago in building the earthwork complex.  Ultimately, I took those basic concepts and over the course of my doctoral research developed what I termed an “architectural grammar” at Fort Ancient.  Pat through long discussions provided me with the framework to develop my research interests.  She was ridiculously patient with me as a nontraditional 30-something coming back to work on BA in Anthropology after accumulating an 0.7 GPA during my first try at college in the 1970s.

I had the opportunity to work closely with Pat for the next four years until her illness and too soon passing in 1991.  But everything I learned about public outreach from Pat I got in that first field season.  Here are a few points:

  • She was committed to public participation in all aspects of the field work.  I don’t recollect her ever turning away a volunteer or not answering a visitor’s question.
  • Ten percent of our course grade in that field school was composed of how we interacted with visitors to the site excavations.
  • In a pre-NAGPRA era, Pat was committed to collaboration and respect for the Native American whose ancestors built the earthwork complex at Fort Ancient where we now conducted research.
  • Pat challenged us to think.  Another 10 percent of our grade was to develop a real-time proposal for field research at another section of the Fort Ancient Earthwork complex based on what we learned over the six-week field school.
  • Perhaps most important Pat consistently challenged us that if we could not articulate the importance of archaeology today as a contribution to real world issues, we might as well stay home.  She noted that most archaeologists are funded through tax dollars in one form or the other and we needed to be able to explain why our research was a worthwhile expenditure of public resources.
I don’t think Pat thought that “public archaeology” was such a big deal but more just a natural way of how things needed to be done.  I am truly grateful to those lessons.
Who mentored you about the importance of bringing archaeology to the public?

Volunteers & Public Archaeology

A couple of things this week –

First, at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, Graduate Assistants and interns from the University of Memphis carry out key components of our operation.  Natalye Tate was a GA at the museum for the past two years.  She graduated with her MA in May and now heads off to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she was awarded a University Fellowship to study in the Anthropology PhD program.  Natalye coordinated our Volunteer Day Saturdays for the past two years at Chucalissa.  Here is a brief video interview where Natalye talks about her perspective on the role of volunteers at the C.H. Nash Museum.  She provides an exciting perspective on the engagement and empowerment of museum volunteers.

Second, the Public Archaeology Interest Group (PAIG) of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) is organizing a symposium for the SAA’s Annual Meeting to be held in Memphis, Tennessee, April 18-22 2012.  Below is the call for papers for the PAIG session:

Society for American Archaeology
Public Archaeology Interest Group

Call for Papers

It has become increasingly common in recent years for public archaeology to no longer be viewed as synonymous with cultural resource management and/or public education, but instead as the process whereby archaeology enters the public discourse, where negotiation of meaning is inevitable.  Under this definition, public archaeology not only encompasses archaeological products, such as educational programs, museum exhibitions, and non-academic publications, but also the process by which interpretations are created for and then presented in these products.  Archaeologists are not viewed as conducting research on behalf of the public, but rather as facilitators and mediators in the process whereby stakeholders and other interest groups negotiate the meaning of the past.  The Public Archaeology Interest Group (PAIG) of the Society for American Archaeology is calling for papers for a symposium on Public Archaeology that it will sponsor at the 2012 Annual Meeting in Memphis, Tennessee.  The goal of the symposium is to educate professional archaeologists about the benefits and challenges of public archaeology by presenting examples of archaeological programs or projects in which the public has been successfully engaged.  Those interested in participating in the symposium should e-mail a 100 word abstract to Greg Lockard, Chair of the PAIG, at

Cognitive Surplus & Community Outreach

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky is one of those books I categorize as simply being good to think about. The essence of the text explores the impact of social media on our ability to share information and create knowledge.  The case studies in the book are wide-ranging and extend from the boycott of U.S. beef imports into Korea in 2008 to the microvolunteering that I posted about a couple of months ago.  The relevance to public outreach in museums and archaeology is considerable.  Shirky writes:

The atomization of social life in the twentieth century left us so far removed from participatory culture that when it came back, we needed the phrase “participatory culture” to describe it (p. 19).

But Shirky provides one of those key ‘aha’ moments in understanding a true participatory approach in Outreach when he notes that:

TV is unbalanced – if I own a TV station, and you own a television, I can speak to you, but you can’t speak to me. . . . Participation is inherent in the phone, and it’s the same for the computer.  When you buy a machine that lets you consume digital content, you also buy a machine to produce it (p. 22).

With this in mind, I was listening to a series of presentations last week at the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings where the speakers described their outreach efforts in community cultural heritage projects by distributing videos through iTunes U and creating general information sources on web pages.  With Shirky in mind, I was struck how this approach is very linear and one-way and does not invite participation.  Information is put out for the consumer to take in, but not take part in.  Contrast the above dissemination strategy with publishing videos on Facebook where feedback is encouraged and the lifeblood of the media.  Alternatively, instead of posting video content to iTunes U consider the impact of posting outreach videos on YouTube with the considerably broader search and distributional capabilities.  Offhand, I don’t recall ever Googling for a term and being directed to an iTunes page.  Or, consider the difference in using a wiki page or blog for outreach efforts, again where interaction is the expected norm for the very creation of content in contrast to a uni-directional website.

In essence, we can use digital technology in the same way we use print technology – the professional disseminates to the lay person without a strong feedback loop.  However, we also can use digital media to effectively engage broad participation in outreach efforts.  Shirky makes comparable points in everything from restaurant reviews to medical information.  Here is where the discussion gets pretty interesting.  Shirky writes:

At every turn, skeptical observers have attacked the idea that pooling our cognitive surplus could work to create anything worthwhile, or suggested that if it does work, it is a kind of cheating, because sharing at a scale that competes with older institutions is somehow wrong.  Steve Ballmer of Microsoft denounced the shared production of software as communism.  Robert McHenry, a former editor in chief of Encyclopedia Britannica, likened Wikipedia to a public rest room.  Andrew Keen, author of the Cult of the Amateur, compared bloggers to monkeys.  These complaints, self-interested though they were, echo more broadly held beliefs.  Shared, unmanaged effort might be fine for picnics and bowling leagues, but serious work is done for money, by people who work in proper organizations, with managers directing their work (pp. 161-162).

Shirky provides pages of examples of how this thinking is just plain wrong and completely at odds with today’s reality on so many levels including the development of the Apache software that allows you to read this blog post.

Here is where some of this comes down for me.  I was out-of-town at a conference all last week.  I know that it is important for our Museum’s Facebook page to have regular posts. While on the road, I really don’t feel like doing posts from the hotel room.  Five other staff and students are administrators on the Museum Facebook account and can post updates, photos, and so forth.  I also know that when I am in town, their default is to default to me to post because I am the Director (read professional) at the Museum.  The staff can be quite intimidated about posting, fearing they will post something not quite right, or use none to real good grammar and reflect poorly on the Museum.  This condition exists despite my regular encouragement for them to post.  But last week they did post updates all week, and the updates were great, and actually got more “likes” than content I usually put up.  I am hopeful this process will continue (especially since they usually read this blog post).  But the student reluctance also is an indication to me of how ingrained the notion of lecture to and not being in dialogue with folks can be.

Shirky shows us that when folks are provided or take the opportunity to engage in using their combined cognitive surplus, outreach in institutions such as museums or in archaeology can move to the next level of engagement and sustainability.

Check out Shirky’s book.  If you already have, what are your thoughts on his discussion of cognitive surplus?

How an Exemplary Volunteer Program Thrives in Cincinnati

Bob Genheimer (lower right) with his volunteer field crew at Hahn Field excavations, Newtown Ohio

This week’s post is an interview with Bob  Genheimer, Curator of Archaeology at the Geier Collections and Research  Center at the Cincinnati Museum Center.  Bob administers one of the  longest running and most successful volunteer archaeology  programs in the country.  In addition to field excavations, volunteers  assemble for several hours every week at the museum to process excavated  materials.  Back in the mid-1980s one of my first field opportunities  was as a volunteer at the Center’s salvage excavations at the Madisonville  Site.  As an undergraduate student in  anthropology, my academic institution showed little interest in having volunteers, but I was welcomed to participate with the regular group  at the Museum Center.  I have asked Bob to tell us a bit about the  Center’s volunteer archaeology program.

First off, tell us a bit  about yourself and what you do at the Cincinnati Museum Center?

My official title at the Cincinnati Museum Center is the George Rieveschl Curator of Archaeology.  I oversee both archaeology and ethnology collections at the Museum.  I have been involved in archaeology of the Cincinnati area since 1974, when I participated in my first field school at a Late Archaic base camp near the Ohio River.  I have worked as an archaeological intern, survey archaeologist, a CRM consultant, and a collections manager before assuming my curator position in 2003.  My interests in prehistoric archaeology include lithics and ceramics, with particular interests in Hopewell and Late Prehistoric assemblages.  I also have a deep love for historical archaeology, and in particular, urban archaeology.  Most of my research into historical archaeology has been associated with privies, early American ceramics and glass, and the Underground Railroad.

The  Volunteer Program in archaeology at the Museum Center has been around for a long time.  How  did the program originate?

When I arrived at the Museum more than 20 years ago, the volunteer program was already in full swing.  At the time, the Museum had a Volunteer Coordinator, who would advertise opportunities in the Museum’s quarterly magazine.  It has never been difficult to get volunteers – the opportunity to work with artifacts in the lab, or help excavate a site in the field, holds a fascination for many people.

The Cincinnati Museum Center is probably not much different from many other mid-sized museums in that volunteers must form the core of the work force.  Staffing levels and budgets are typically low, and volunteers provide the means of getting things done.  And, in archaeology, that means doing all the non-romantic parts of the work.

How do your volunteers function today?   What exactly do they do?

Our archaeology volunteers undertake a myriad of tasks.  With ongoing field operations (we do a month-long field school every summer), many of their jobs revolve around fieldwork or lab work.  They are instrumental in the field, providing most of the screening and record keeping, but the more experienced ones actually excavate units and features.  Other volunteers take care of various logistical tasks.  But, the one area that volunteers are most useful is in the lab.  Based upon calculations derived from the operation of our field school, a minimum of 18 to 20 lab days are required for every field day.  The volunteers do all the washing, sorting, numbering, and bagging of collections once they reach the lab.  And, they do it with a real sense of professionalism and pride.  Some of my volunteers do other things instrumental to the Department including data entry, photography, reconstruction, and inventory.  I would be lost without them.

How are volunteers recruited and  retained in the program?

Today, volunteers are mostly recruited via our Volunteer Services Department.  This Department fulfills volunteer requests for all departments in the Museum, and currently directs approximately 800 volunteers throughout Museum programs.  I also get volunteers directly through area universities and colleges, many times through connections with archaeology or anthropology departments.  I currently have about 20 core volunteers, many of whom have been here more than 5 or 10 years, with a few who have been here nearly 30 years.

Throughout the years I have come to recognize two factors that strongly affect volunteer retention.  The first is a sense of family.  We all know each other, we know our spouses and kids names, and we even know our pet’s names.  There is a strong social bond to volunteering, it is not just an opportunity to wash flint flakes, but to catch up on friends and stories.  Without this bond, the volunteers have no connection, and are hence reluctant to remain for a protracted time.  I will say that most of my volunteers are elderly, and hence share the bonds of age and experience.  The trick is to integrate the elderly volunteers with younger, mostly college-age students.  It doesn’t always work, but my experience has taught me that the two groups can get along very well.  In fact, some of the elderly volunteers enjoy mentoring some of the younger members.

The second factor is harder to pin down, but involves a connection between the volunteers and their curator.  Volunteers will be more productive, and will stay longer if there is a genuine bond between them and their supervisor.  In essence, they have to respect you and believe in what your doing.  And, most importantly, you have to instill in them a sense of worth and accomplishment.  In my case, I try to constantly teach them what we are doing and remind them of the importance of their work.  They have to know that you cannot achieve anything without them.

What are some of the significant  accomplishments of the volunteer program over the years?

Their accomplishments are astounding!  Since I began in 1990, archaeology volunteers have processed and catalogued hundreds of thousands of artifacts and artifact fragments from nine major field expeditions.  They have entered much of this in an electronic catalogue.  They have taken thousands of field and artifact photos.  They have reorganized collections.  And, they have participated in countless exhibitions.  There are rarely “wow” moments in volunteering, but many, many small steps that allow a project to go forward and reach its fruition.

How are the  volunteer accomplishments acknowledged?

It is well known that the Archaeology Department has one of the most successful and longest running volunteer programs at the Museum.  On top of my encouragement and recognition, their accomplishments are constantly acknowledged by our Volunteer Services Department.  Volunteers at the Museum receive recognition based upon time of service, including years and hours, as well as in broad categories of achievement that reflect their dedication and indispensable nature.  Award receptions are held twice a year.  Of note, I have two of the longest serving volunteers in the Museum, who consistently place at or near the top in years of service, total hours, and total hours within a fiscal year.

Ray Oldenburg talks about the  idea of a Third Place – a place that is not work, and not home, but a place  where people gather to socialize and be in community – sort of like the  coffee house or Cheers stereotype environment.  When I think  back to my time volunteering at the Center, I think some of the  attributes of this Third Place idea might be present with the volunteer  group.  Do you agree?

Yes.  The archaeology lab is a gathering place where dissimilar people gather to have fun, tell stories, and play practical jokes.  It is a place where politics are avoided, bad jokes are told, and lots of hard work is accomplished.  I would like to say it is the archaeology that holds them together, but I know it is this unique social environment that allows them to be a community.  And, as I said before, that connection or social bond, is perhaps the most important aspect of a successful volunteer program.  That being said, maintaining this community becomes critical.  All communities must be infused with new people and new ideas to survive.  Maintaining a functional balance becomes important.

What are some of the biggest  lessons you have learned over the years with the volunteer  program?

The biggest lesson has been that volunteers want to know how their little piece of the process (e.g., data entry or scrubbing rocks) fits into the big puzzle.  Let’s face it, washing rocks, or putting tiny numbers onto flint flakes, is not exactly what they envisioned when they signed up for archaeology.  But, it is all necessary, and its up to the curator or volunteer supervisor to show them the importance of their work.  If a volunteer questions why she should write numbers onto animal bones, I show them a faunal list from a similar site so they can appreciate the knowledge that can be derived from properly curating the collections.

Another lesson that is quickly learned is that supervising volunteers takes time and dedication.  Anyone who believes that volunteers will simply walk in and do the work you are not willing to do has not supervised many volunteers.  Volunteers have to be procured, trained, encouraged, and rewarded.  It can take up a significant part of your time.  As a result, you must apportion your time and volunteer core appropriately.  If you have too few volunteers, you will spend an inordinate amount of time training, with few results.  If you have too many volunteers, they may accomplish much, but you will have little time to produce and assemble the results (e.g., publications and exhibitions) of their labor.  In my experience, I have found it works best to establish a volunteer manager of the lab.  This experienced person directs the efforts of the volunteers, and in many instances can answer their questions or explain their task.

What are your future plans for archaeology volunteers at the  Museum Center?

I would like to get them more involved in fieldwork, but with many of them of advanced age, it will require recruiting some younger people.

Any words of wisdom for other institutions that are  trying to get their volunteer groups off the ground?

Be realistic about how many volunteers you can supervise and train.  And, clearly identify what you want accomplished.  I would set small scale goals and evaluate your volunteer team before undertaking a massive enterprise.  And, remember that little of what you intend them to do involves the romantic parts of archaeology.  You have to instill a sense of excitement and purpose, and let them share in those “wow” moments when they occur.

Bob can be reached at

Service Learning, Partnerships, and Memory

This past weekend a group of Boy Scouts, their families and friends, painted the main exhibit hall at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  This Museum, like many small to mid-size institutions throughout the U.S., benefits from the projects of groups such as the Boy Scouts and  students who perform service hours to complete various requirements.  For example, three years ago, Boy Scouts replaced a decaying road sign that directed visitors to the Chucalissa site.  Another Boy Scout Project replaced a bridge along our nature trail.  In the Fall of 2009, youth from the AmeriCorps cut a trail system at the adjacent T.O. Fuller State Park  and spent several hundred hours at the C.H. Nash Museum processing artifacts, painting residential housing and more.

The AmeriCorps are a legacy of the 1930s New Deal era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  The CCC was quite active throughout Tennessee.  A small museum northwest of Nashville recently opened to celebrate their work.  Of significance, it was a 1930s era CCC that actually  discovered the Chucalissa site while they worked on building a Jim Crow era segregated State Park for the African-American community of Memphis.  While excavating for a swimming pool, the encountered prehistoric Native American artifacts and features.  (A great resource on the CCC including teacher lesson plans is found here.)

A common element to the Boy Scout, CCC, and AmeriCorps experiences is the concept of service learning.  In a recent volume Archaeology and Community Service Learning, editors Michael S. Nassaney and Mary Ann Levine  compiled a set of articles that explore the recent movement by archaeologists to develop more engaged and productive learning opportunities for students and the public.  These activities can develop into sustainable long-term partnerships.

Consideration of the Boy Scout project from this past weekend along with the CCC and AmeriCorps got me to thinking more about how these service learning experiences are an opportunity to lead toward that long-term engagement.  But in five years, our museum walls will need another coat of paint.  We have already repainted and replaced some rotted wood from the three-year-old sign built by the Boy Scouts.  The CCC campsite from the 1930s at T.O. Fuller State Park is now a picnic area.  Or simply put, the visible legacy of these projects diminishes through time.  However, that legacy is integral to telling the story of the Chucalissa site.

One path to resurrecting that legacy is to better highlight and incorporate the contemporary contexts of archaeological sites into the public interpretation.   Whereas there is a rightful knee-jerk reaction against having a dedicatory nameplate on every drinking fountain, footbridge and museum exhibit case, an understanding of how our cultural heritage institutions came to exist and live in their present form is relevant.  When I think of the community service that created what today is the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, that community includes the CCC of the 1930s, the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society beginning in the 1950s, the Friends of Chucalissa, the Southwind Garden Club, Boy Scouts, modern Native Americans, students, interns, volunteers and countless others.

Digital media and the internet are means that lend themselves particularly well for incorporating these communities into the story.  Such an approach cannot be reduced to simple acknowledgement and thanks, like the credits at the end of movie.   Rather, a critical task is contextualizing the modern era on a continuum with past that will lead to the future.  In that way, service learning, partnerships, and memory are joined.  Seems a good rabbit hole to go down.

Your thoughts?

And finally, here is a link to Colleen Dilenschneider’s blog Know Your Bone where she reports on the launching of a new bi-monthly on-line journal OnlyUp that focuses on young adult leadership in nonprofits.  Great stuff.

Volunteers & Career Choices

Ron Brister at the Pink Palace Family of Museums' Coon Creek Science Center

I read a post this week on how early museum visits can impact career choice.  This got me to thinking again about our museum mission.  Once I overheard a museum staff member mention that there was an eight-year-old boy whose parent wanted to bring them to the museum for a behind the scenes tour because the child wanted to be an archaeologist.  The staff member lamented they felt such a tour was a waste of time because “at eight the kid would probably change their mind a half-dozen times before they settled on a serious career choice.”  The statement shocked me, to say the least.

I have always counted myself fortunate because my first field experience as an archaeologist was directed by the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis.  Pat was adamant about public education in archaeology.  Pat told us straight up that 10% of our grade was going to come from our presentations to visiting tourists at the Fort Ancient site in Warren County, Ohio.  She designated one student as the tour guide each day.  When visitors made their way to the units, you jumped out and presented the detail on the research project.  Pat always eavesdropped on your presentation and offered a critique after the fact.  The tour was a big deal to her.  And there were a lot of eight-year-old kids in attendance.

I have a standard line I rattle off about if it weren’t for the visitor, our museum would be a repository or a research center – that it’s the visitor that moves us into that different space.  And I also know I can get quite selective about how I engage with visitors.  As a museum director whose primary function is not on the floor, I can be pretty selective in how and when I engage visitors.  I do enjoy our Volunteer Day activities where I try to actually practice what I preach.  I always get some pretty phenomenal lessons in this experience from volunteers, students, and staff.

Take Ron Brister, who was part of the field crew at Chucalissa in the 1960s and then went on to a phenomenal 30- year career as Collections Manager for Memphis’ Pink Palace.  Ron is now retired and has returned full circle back to Chucalissa as a volunteer.  Ron is a critical source of knowledge in organizing our 50 years worth of accumulated “records” that range from excavation field notes to 40-year-old student papers on botanical analysis at the site.  But one of the most visible role’s that Ron plays is as tour guide and informal lecturer to the assembled group for our Volunteer Day activities.  Each Volunteer Saturday, Ron provides an impromptu presentation and handouts on some aspect of the cultural materials that the volunteers are processing, whether the difference in lithic raw materials, stone tool form, or ceramic types.  As well, Ron leads a tour of the open excavation trench where visitors can view 500 years of Native American prehistory. The excavation trench is now closed to regular public viewing because of  preservation concerns.

Here is my takeaway for all of this that ties back to my last couple of posts.  I am somewhat embarrassed to say that Ron had to propose to me his Saturday Volunteer Day role – I did not immediately link his skill with our need.  Now on Volunteer Day instead of the Director, breezing through the room for a quick impromptu presentation and tour of the excavation trench, Ron fills that role in a much more thorough and relaxed manner.  As well, Ron is considerably more qualified than me to do lead those activities.

This ties back to my Volunteers as Mission post from a couple of weeks back.  Ron is integrated as a volunteer not just because we have stuff to do, but because our Mission mandates that we offer participatory opportunities at our Museum.  Ron is passionate about our Museum and the Chucalissa archaeological site.  If we did not have a “need” Ron would still want to participate and our Mission mandates that we accommodate that want.  For me this translates into focusing on volunteers as mission.  I need to move from “we need to paint the inside of our Museum Hall, who can we get to do that?” to “we have 80 some odd folks who volunteered in the past six months at the museum, how do we keep them engaged?”

And here is where it comes back to the career choice I started out this post with.  As you can see from the photo above, Ron clearly enjoys working with others.  He gets and completely appreciates that when he is leading the excavation trench tour with the Volunteer Day group, that often includes an eight year old child,  he may very well be talking to someone who 20 years from now will remember when he led them into this dark and dusty trench that contained 500 years of Native American house floors stacked on top of each other, and they were hooked.

My suspicion is that there are many more Ron Brister’s out there if we slow down and look.  I will end this string of posts by simply noting that I believe the successful museums of the future will treat their volunteers as the same precious resource as the cultural materials hanging on the walls, inside the exhibit cases, and on the repository shelves.

Your thoughts?

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?