This week’s post features an interview with Jayur Mehta who is completing his doctoral studies at Tulane University in New Orleans. His dissertation work focuses on the Carson Mound group near Clarksdale, Mississippi. I first met Jayur several years ago when he was employed at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. I have followed his blog for the past several years and found his most recent post on community outreach and service learning in his field work to be quite interesting. Jayur’s work is an excellent example of using the college classroom as an opportunity for students to employ an applied archaeology approach to community and cultural heritage development. Below is an interview with Jayur where he touches on these issues.
Please tell us a bit about your background and how you became interested in community outreach?
My entire archaeological career was born out of community outreach. When I was 16 years old, I was fortunate enough to participate in an East Carolina University sponsored summer camp, and during that camp, we spent 2 weeks digging at Fort Neoheroka, a Tuscarora village and stronghold built in the early 18th century. This experience fundamentally played a role in my life and career, and I would not be an archaeologist today if it were not for the East Carolina University archaeology summer program. I did not get the opportunity to engage in any community outreach until I was in my mid-20s and working for Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH). It started with short public lectures at small, rural libraries, and my outreach efforts culminated at MDAH in a day-long archaeology fair/expo I helped to organize.
How do you integrate community outreach in your archeological or cultural heritage projects?
I work with community partners who are local to where I do my research. In trying to figure out how best to “do” community outreach, I realized I needed to know people in the community and what their needs actually were. I was introduced to some of the leaders of the Griot Youth Program, a non-profit dedicated to arts education, and we quickly developed a rapport that allowed us to collaborative decide how best to bring their high-school aged students together with my college students to not only learn archaeology, but also to make garden boxes and assist with the Griot summer programming.
What is the reaction to your University students who participate in public outreach projects as part of their field season.
Most of my students have really enjoyed doing service projects, whether for archaeology or environmental studies. In our post-service reflection sessions, I have noticed that students like talking and collaborating with other students who are older or younger, and they enjoy sharing information they have learned. Occasionally I’ll get the recalcitrant student but, in general, they are eager to participate in activities that are outside of the classroom and relevant to the content of the course. I think this is the most important element of outreach and service learning – any and all activities should be related to the mission statement of the course.
How has your public outreach evolved over the past few years?
My public outreach was initially formulated while working for a state agency, not as a college professor, so my early outreach efforts entailed speaking with an incredibly broad public audience. Whether in lectures, artifact “show and tells”, or in archaeology fairs, archaeology was the focus. Now however, I teach archaeology and environmental studies to students, and my outreach efforts are focused on bringing students into contact with communities and community partners. It has been an exciting shift in focus – I like working with a specific and captive population and tailoring my pedagogy to their needs, which I can predictably anticipate because of our daily classroom interactions.
What do you consider your most successful recent efforts in public outreach or community engagement?
I can think one very successful and recent outreach event. Last summer, one of my students from the field school became particularly enamored of the Griot Youth Program and wanted to do something good for them. Given they are an arts focused non-profit, he wanted to help them with their programming infrastructure. When he approached me after the class and said he wanted to do something for them, I helped with identifying grants he could write for the Griot Youth Program. Unfortunately, these proved to be too time consuming. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise – instead, my student and I organized a fund-raising concert that provided enough funds for the Griot Youth Program to buy a new PA system. While this service work was not directly related to the course, my student met these partners through the course and he identified his own path to helping my community partners. I think he did a lot of good here, and I’m very proud of his efforts!
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned from your educational and outreach program?
In general, I think it is that small groups work the best, regardless of the kinds of activities taking place. I like giving one on one attention to folks or at the least, engaging with them in small groups. Lecture is a great way to target a large group of individuals but lectures are only so stimulating. This brings me to my other point, which is that outreach, education, and service do not happen in a vacuum. You need people at your side helping with outreach and service and you need partners to participate and help guide your outreach work. Ideally, outreach and service are reciprocal between community and educator – for this collaboration to be effective, good working friendships are important.
What do you consider to be the biggest obstacle in developing effective educational outreach?
At the end of the day, outreach and service learning should not just be an “extension” of the fields in which we operate. Instead, service should be a fundamental component by which lessons are taught. This is very difficult to implement and requires a fair bit of planning and hard work. Sometimes, and I feel this often, it is easier to lecture or to teach concepts outside of a community-oriented context. The challenge is to make yourself, and your students, care about the well-being of communities in which they living.
The idea of working on development projects with the host community that are not related to immediate research interests seems somewhat of a recent development for archaeologists. What got you interested in adding this component?
While the arts programming that is the focus of the Griot Youth Program is not necessarily related to archaeology, I think it is related to the overall mission of academia and of the liberal arts, which is to provide individuals with the necessary tools to build a future, to help others, and to have a complex and historical understanding of human society. By working with underprivileged youth in the Mississippi Delta, my students learn about another sector of society and become familiar with the needs and wants of humans they may never otherwise encounter. These meetings and relationships are important if scholars and academics are going to effectively work towards building a more verdant and equitable future for all of society. I do service and outreach in my classes because I want students and communities-in-need to get together and to collaboratively find solutions to problems, whatever they may be. In the end, I want my students to know that the world and its problems are in their hands and that they have to find ways to address them. I want them to be citizens and active agents of equity. I believe through service and outreach, I am helping to put them on this path.
Do you have any words of wisdom for archaeological and museum professionals to enhance their outreach work?
Talk! Always engage with strangers about your work and make friends in your community. I decided that service learning and outreach would be important in Clarksdale because I was tired of going there every summer and making random friends in bars, only to forget them by next summer. If archaeological heritage is to be preserved and cared for, it is up to us not only to do the research, but also to help others understand why a mound, creek bed, or field are important cultural resources that should be preserved.
Jayur Mehta can be contacted at jmehta(at)tulane.edu
Last week I participated in a forum about professional archaeologists working with “amateur” or “avocational” archaeologists. The session, “Cons or Pros: Should Archaeologists Collaborate with Responsible Collectors?” was organized by Michael Shott and Bonnie Pitblado at the Society for American Archaeology meetings held in San Francisco. In their introductory comments at the session both organizers emphasized the need for a cordial and respectful discussion, perhaps anticipating a polarized response to the question. This concern reflects a comment made by a professor of mine in graduate school who stated “There is no such thing as an amateur archaeologist. Would you go to an amateur brain surgeon?” To which my immediate response at the time and today is something like – Give me a break!
The session organized by Michael and Bonnie went off without a hitch. Solid and important questions were raised such as the ethics of working with collectors who obtained their materials through legal but less than desirable circumstances and the problem of repositories bursting at the seams with cultural materials mitigating against taking on more artifacts, regardless of context (see excellent comments by Robert Janes on this issue). But all participants in the session noted the important role that “amateur” archaeologists played over the years and recognized the need to fully embrace and acknowledge that contribution today.
The discussion caused me to reflect on several points:
- A quote I have referenced several times over the years in this blog was from my first field school instructor, the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis who said something like “If you cannot explain to the public why they should be funding this site museum and excavations, then you might as well go home.” Pat’s comment flowed from her belief in the need for accountability in research on public lands and in recognition that almost all archaeology, whether through CRM, private foundation, or outright public financing, ultimately is funded through tax dollars paid, or not paid in the case of charitable contributions.
- I published an article a couple of years ago on the surface collections from the Poverty Point site. The majority of the collection was made by Carl Alexander, an avocational/amateur archaeologist. Carl recorded the ridge and sector of the artifacts he collected over a 30-year period when the site remained in row crop, prior to purchase by the State of Louisiana in the early 1970s. In 2014 Poverty Point was designated a World Heritage Site. Today, Carl Alexander’s surface collections account for at least half of what we know about the material culture of the site. Interpretations based on his collections continue to be instrumental in guiding today’s professional research efforts.
- During my tenure as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point site I gave archaeology month presentations at the public library in Belzoni, Mississippi, just down the road from the Poverty Point culture Jaketown site. The first year I spoke in Belzoni I talked about the spatial distribution of artifact types noted by Carl Alexander at the Poverty Point site. I asked the farmers in attendance if they noted similar patterns where different types of artifacts were recovered at Jaketown. Heads nodded. The second year I spoke in Belzoni, the same farmers talked about the artifact distributions they noted over the previous year. Today, there is a small museum in Belzoni composed of collections donated by those farmers.
- I first ran into Jerry Pankow sometime in the early 2000s. He had come to the Poverty Point site to discuss his “amateur” archaeology excavations at the Poverty Point culture Claiborne site in Hancock County Mississippi. Jerry and members of the Mississippi Archaeological Association diligently conducted excavations at this major Poverty Point culture site as bulldozers destroyed the site for a construction project. Jerry showed me his detailed field notes of 5 x 5 ft. units excavated through midden deposits at the site. He recorded cultural materials in arbitrary 5-inch levels, providing an excellent stratigraphic profile on stylistic and material culture change through time – a point of critical importance interpretively for the Poverty Point culture. In fact, these temporal markers were first documented by another avocational archaeologist, Clarence Webb, a pediatrician from Shreveport, Louisiana. When I first met Jerry he wanted to publish his notes. Jerry was quite insistent on how the material should be published and could not come to an agreement with any of the regional journals. He self-published a brief 35 page xeroxed pamphlet. While preparing my comments for the 2015 SAA meeting session, I discovered that in 2014, Jerry had expanded the original publication to double the length, again self-published but now available through amazon.com. I got a copy and am impressed. I am hopeful of getting hold of Jerry to convince him to publish his tabular data.
My experiences with avocational/amateur archaeologists lead me to several conclusions:
- First, the contributions of avocational/amateur archaeologists for understanding the Poverty Point culture of the Southeast is a critically important part of the total corpus of knowledge that exists about that prehistoric culture today.
- Second, concerns over looting of archaeological resources, the commodification of this country’s cultural heritage, and a lack of public funding for archaeological research are all concerns expressed by the professional archaeological community. We are well-served to embrace the avocational community who have a proven track record and can develop the grass-roots support to address these issues.
- Third, the premier professional archaeological organization in the U.S. is the SAA – the Society for American Archaeology, not the Society for Americana Archaeologists. In noting this distinction we are reminded that the interests of the discipline are appropriately placed before the self-interest of the practitioners.
The latest issue of the Society for American Archaeology‘s (SAA) Archaeological Record Volume 15, No. 2, March 2015 contains a special section – Archaeological Practice on Reality Television – edited by my colleague and former SAA Executive Board liaison for the Public Education Committee, Sarah Herr.
The “From the President” column of the issue provides an excellent introduction and context for the reality television discussion. President Jeffrey H. Altschul is to be congratulated for taking on the reality television and archaeology topic in a way that proved quite productive. Too often, our professional disciplines only become involved when our turf is directly threatened and then in a rather holier-than-thou manner. Over a multi-year period Jeff has been intimately engaged in the reality television topic. As his SAA President’s term comes to an end, he has begun to see the fruits of that work.
His column details the multi-year conversations with the National Geographic Channel around their portrayal of value, broadly defined, of the material culture at archaeological sites. Jeff’s leadership in this area produced visible changes in the popular Diggers program, including the opportunity for archaeologists to comment and make recommendations on the rough cut versions of episodes.
The entire issue of the March 2015 Archaeological Record is relevant to the diverse publics interested in cultural heritage preservation and presentation:
- Articles by Jim Bruseth, Sarah Whitcher Kansa and Carrie Dennett discuss the economic and other implications of the SAA considering a variety of Open Access options for the organization’s journals.
- Sarah Herr introduces the section on reality television, providing some background for the discussion. Sarah also interviews John Francis, Vice President for Research Conservation and Exploration at National Geographic Society (NGS). Francis reviews the more than one century of NGS contributions to archaeology and specifically discusses the Diggers show and how he did not expect some of negative feedback. While agreeing to the need for substantive change in the show, he also encourages archaeologists to consider the challenge of holding an audience’s attention when reporting research and to develop an eye for storytelling.
- Eduardo Pagán, the four-season co-host of PBS’s The History Detectives provides an excellent overview of the history and economic considerations of reality television. He concludes by stating “I remain hopeful that scholars and professionals in the field can discover ways of harnessing the power of television. We must reach beyond our classrooms to find effective ways of demonstrating and sharing what we do as scholars and professionals . . . “
- Meg Watters writes about the reality show Time Team produced for 20 years in the UK and the more recent Time Team America in the US. Meg writes that “Time Team America‘s goal is to represent the diverse archaeological resources in the United States and to address global issues such as climate change or the movement of people.” A difference with Diggers is Time Team America’s focus on archaeological methods of research at each site that are also reported online. Watters notes that the Time Team America members follow the advice of John Francis to link science and storytelling. Watters notes that the archaeologists and other researchers at the sites investigated by Time Team America report the program has a positive impact on the public support for the site research. Watters concludes that for archaeology reality shows to succeed professionals must be more than consultants but involved in program development. She sees Time Team America as beginning that process.
- Giovanna Peebles advocates using reality television to be part of the solution and not add to the problem. Giovanna chaired the SAA Task Force on metal detecting of archaeological sites on reality television. She notes that the “Task Force quickly identified three distinctive but related opportunities for the SAA to explore: improving communications and public education, enhancing relationships with metal detectorists, and working together with the producers of reality television shows.
- articles by Matthew Reeves on working with metal detectorists, Richard Pettigrew on video production, and Jeffery Hanson on creating a preservation ethic.
This thematic issue of the Archaeological Record is an important read for all cultural heritage professionals and students. I am particularly pleased that the SAA charged Sarah Herr with pulling together the diverse group of experts for the issue. The volume speaks well of the SAA understanding of the need to engage with the multiple publics who through their tax dollars and other time and resource commitments make the work of cultural heritage professionals possible.
From the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology . . .
Originally posted on Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology:
A recent exchange on Facebook prompted TCPA President Dr. Tanya Peres to think more about public archaeology, and the best practices for archaeological professionals when it comes to conducting public outreach and education.
Tanya M. Peres, PhD, RPA
President, Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology
Director, Rutherford County Archaeology Research Program
Chances are you do archaeology because you have a passion for the past. How often do non-archaeologists remark that you have the coolest job, then launch into a litany of questions about what you do, what you find, where you’ve worked? Public interest in archaeology and the past is at an all time high. Yet, many archaeologists still shy away from actively participating in regular public outreach. I’m here to confess, I used to be one of them. Then I realized, this is not an “all or nothing” proposition. Yes, there are archaeologists that specialize in public archaeology/outreach. They…
View original 1,130 more words
Important piece on community service learning and archaeology in the Mississippi Delta by Jayur Mehta.
Originally posted on Jayur Madhusudan Mehta:
Fieldwork and Community Service Learning in New Orleans and the Mississippi River Delta.
This is a personal story, and in it, I write about why community service learning (CSL) matters to me and how my experiences in the discipline have fared since starting CSL projects in 2014. Herein, I write about why CSL is an important pedagogical tool for a holistic university education, and why archaeology, which by its very nature is embedded within descendant communities and local stake holders, can be easily integrated into CSL projects. Two recent events and outcomes from CSL have precipitated and inspired me to put pen to paper. One event was a benefit concert organized by a student for my community partners and another was a particularly successful service day with another community partner and collaborator. Through service learning activities I organized for my classes and my community partners, several successful and positive outcomes…
View original 2,169 more words
So we have gotten to that time of the year where in my museum studies classes I always ask students to respond to the question below. In this semester’s undergraduate Introduction to Museums course, Brandi Newton, an art history major provided a particularly insightful and compelling response. The question:
Put yourself in the position of John or Josephine Q. Public. In the current economic chaos, the bank is foreclosing on their home, they have lost their jobs, and the city just reduced their public services. In referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the House Budget Committee recently argued that “The activities and content funded by these agencies…are generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” Isn’t your research or the position you aspire to a museum professional just another example of this wealth transfer? What do John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars that fund your research/position?
Museums: Important Community Assets
by Brandi Newton
In recent years The House Budget Committee stated that museums are essentially nothing more than a wealth transfer from the poor to the rich. If this wealth transfer were to exist then any professional working in a museum would be a participant in maintaining this transfer. In this paper however, I will argue that this wealth transfer either does not exist or is so small that it should not be counted as a loss. I will do this by illuminating the percentage of tax dollars actually used by museums and highlighting the missions of a handful of museums based on educating the public while supporting these claims through examples of funded programs designed to give back, often at not cost, to the community.
Greater than 93 percent of annual not for profit museum budgets are covered by either revenue or private donations leaving less than seven percent to be covered by a combination of local, state, and federal taxes (National Endowment for the Arts 2012). Based on these numbers one could actually argue the opposite of what The House Budget Committee stated. Since private donations from foundations, corporations, and individuals compose 38.2 percent of annual museum budgets, the wealthy are in fact transferring their wealth to the greater community not the other way around. To put this further in perspective, data from 2013 showed that “the $146 million budget of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) represents just 0.012% (about one one-hundredth of one percent) of federal discretionary spending” (National Endowment for the Arts 2013:1). This amount of money is a drop in the bucket for federal spending, yet despite their lack of financial support from the government, museums still find ways to give back to their communities.
As described in their mission statement, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee seeks to benefit its visitors and community by inspiring “participation in civil and human rights efforts globally, through [their] collections, exhibitions and educational programs” (Stokes-Casey 2014:2). This museum benefits its community by giving back in ways that lead to them exposing more people to what they have to offer; this also works to fulfill their mission statement. One way they accomplish this is by offering free admission days. This of course, allows access for those individuals who could otherwise not afford to attend the museums. Their website states that, “Tennessee residents with state-issued ID may visit the museum for free on Mondays from 3 p.m. until closing” (National Civil Rights Museum 2014).
Additionally, The National Civil Rights Museum’s Education Coordinator, Jody Stokes-Casey has been working with a local charter school to develop a program that teaches the values and history offered in the museum itself. This is a seven-week program that, except for one museum field trip, is actually brought to the school and presented to the students during their homeroom period. The stated goal of one of this program’s resources, which is titled Courage in the Civil Rights Movement is to “enrich their classrooms and to create a resource for teachers to facilitate discussion, encourage student dialogue, increase understanding, and promote courageous action” (Stokes-Casey 2014:4).
There are other ways museums can serve their communities; some do not even require attendance to the museum itself. For instance, The National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. says as a free service “We design and produce a wide variety of teacher professional development workshops and digital learning resources – from short YouTube videos to complex mobile app games, websites, webinars, and electronic field trips” (The National Museum of American History 2015). This type of programming meets one of the goals in their mission statement, which is to “explore the infinite richness and complexity of American history” accomplished through “dynamic public outreach” (The National Museum of American History 2015).
Seeing this museum with its multiple historical exhibits in person is also quite easily accomplished. Barring an individual’s personal transportation and time constraints, this museum in incredibly accessible to the public because, admission is always free. This in itself is quite an awesome service considering the fact that for the majority of museums 40.7 percent of their revenue comes from earned income (National Endowment for the Arts 2012).
Yet another example is the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington whose STEM “Out-of-School-Time…sends teams of high school interns and Science Center educators into underserved communities to inspire students to pursue STEM learning.” This outreach program alone has reached over 150,000 students. After participating in the math portion of this outreach program 70 percent of students saw an increase in their test scores. Their outreach doesn’t begin and end here, in all “The Center’s outreach initiatives serve more than 200,000 individuals spanning over 39 counties and four states, making it one of the top outreach organizations in the Pacific Northwest” (JPMorgan Chase & Co. 2015). It is important to point out that much of the funding for The Pacific Science Center’s STEM Out-of-School-Time program has been provided, not by tax dollars but by a private company. “JPMorgan Chase Foundation has contributed $750,000 [to The Pacific Science Center] over the past 5 years” (JPMorgan Chase & Co. 2015).
I would argue then that public funding be increased because of the measurable and notable benefit that museums are able to provide to their communities. Does a more educated society not benefit us all? In fact, Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice who in 2006 was appointed the Director for the Institute of Museum and Library Services said, “Public funding helps museums deliver quality services that strengthen communities, families, individuals and the nation” (Manjarrez, C., C. Rosenstein, C. Colgan, and E. Pastore 2008:2). This one simple sentence sums up so much of what is important about museums and why they are of such importance in our lives. They provide opportunities for families, friends and colleagues to learn together and create shared memories. However, this benefit can be achieved individually as well. Ultimately, they ensure that our cultural heritage is preserved for posterity so that we may learn from the past. They inspire us as we look toward the future.
JPMorgan Chase & Co.
2015 Pacific Science Center: Inspiring a lifelong interest in science, math and technology. http://www.jpmorganchase.com/corporate/Corporate-Responsibility/seattle-pacific-science, accessed March 20, 2015.
Manjarrez, C., C. Rosenstein, C. Colgan, and E. Pastore
2008 Exhibiting Public Value: Museum Public Finance in the United States (IMLS-2008-RES-02). Institute of Museum and Library Services. Washington, DC.
National Civil Rights Museum
2014 Visit. http://civilrightsmuseum.org/visit/, accessed March 17, 2015.
National Endowment for the Arts
2012 How the United States Funds the Arts. Washington, DC.
National Endowment for the Arts
2013 Fact Sheet. http://www.nasaa-arts.org/Research/Grant-Making/NEAFactSheetSpring2013.pdf, accessed March 17, 2015.
The National Museum of American History
2015 American History. http://americanhistory.si.edu, accessed March 17, 2015.
2014 Courage in the Civil Rights Movement. NCRM.