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Why Co-Creation in Archaeology Works

July 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the AASLH Annual Meeting is My Favorite Museum Event

July 19, 2015

AASLHThis years annual meeting of the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) will take place from September 16 – 19 in Louisville, Kentucky. I attended my first AASLH Conference in 2010 in Oklahoma City when I received a Small Museum Scholarship. I have only missed one annual conference since then.  The AASLH meeting has become my favorite meeting related to my role as a museum professional.  Here is why:

  • In 2010 I was a reasonable newbie in the museum business.  In fact, when I was hired as the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in 2007 I had never formally worked in a museum.  Instead I had operated on the periphery of museums in my career as an archaeologist and academic.  The 2010 AASLH meeting proved an ideal venue to get my feet wet in learning about available resources, best practices, and networking with other museum professionals.
  • Over the past 30 years I have attended many professional meetings ranging from city-wide to international in scope.  While not dismissing the importance of any association, as a small museum professional, I find that AASLH conference is a perfect fit for my needs.  Conferences such as the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), while certainly of value, tend to focus on the needs of the medium to large museums. City and state conferences, while wonderful networking and experience sharing opportunities, cannot marshal the resources of a national organization like the AASLH.  Although sessions often cover the same topics as both larger and smaller professional meetings, the AASLH application is more inclusive of small museum contexts.  Of critical importance is understanding that the AASLH application is not lesser than, but rather more inclusive and relevant to my needs as a small museum professional.
  • The program for the Louisville meeting is particularly relevant to my interests.  I am particularly looking forward to hearing Wendell Berry one of my favorite writers/philosophers speak.  Check out the preliminary program to see what sessions might suit your interests and needs.  In a quick review of the program, sessions such as Kids Count, Too! Writing History through Community Collaboration; The Courage to Co-Create: Practicing Engagement with Your Audience; Marketing Educational Programming in Tough Times; and The Power of Possibility: Developing Partnerships through Project-Based Learning immediately caught my attention.  I am pleased that multiple “pop-up” sessions will take place at this year’s conference to provide more spontaneous discussions on a range of issues.
  • I am intrigued by the theme of this year’s conference – The Power of Possibility.  In a time when many cultural institutions are just now recovering from the recent economic downturns, focusing on what is possible in our new realities is an exciting step in the right direction.

If you have not been to an AASLH conference before, I encourage you to check out the event.  If you have attended in the past, the program for this year’s meeting looks fantastic.  Hope to see you there!


Pop-Up Archaeology Museums!

July 15, 2015


Very cool and relevant form of public archaeology from the UK!!

Originally posted on Middle Savagery:


Florence Laino, one of our recent University of York Digital Heritage MSc graduates, has joined forced with L-P Archaeology in creating a Pop-Up Museum for the 100 Minories site near the tower of London. You may remember that Dan & I were involved in early testing at the site. L-P Archaeology had a previous pop-up museum, HIPUM on Hayling Island.


We had a chance to check out the Pop-Up Museum a couple of weeks ago, and they’ve done an impressive job with temporary displays with finds from the site. The site was in the London city ditch, so all manner of artifacts came out of it. At the Pop-Up Museum, you can open up the displays and have a chat with the archaeologists who worked on site.


The displays were impressive, and in a great location–right next to a standing part of the old city wall! The excavation was very close by…

View original 44 more words

Your Input Needed on Survey of Public Archaeology Resources

June 29, 2015


After several years of planning, The Society for American Archaeology‘s (SAA) Archaeology For The Public Webpage was officially launched in 2006. The intent of the page was to share resources, best practices, and general information about the discipline of archaeology with both the professional community and the interested public. Since its inception, the volume and scope of the pages grew dramatically.

Patrice L. Jeppson, Carol McDavid, and Mary L. Kwas of the SAA Public Education Web Pages Working Group received the 2007 Presidential Recognition Award for developing the initial idea of the webpages and shepherding the process through to the official launch in 2006. Hundreds of individuals have also contributed content to the webpages since 2006. Maureen Malloy, in her capacity as the SAA Manager of Education and Outreach, played an integral role with the Working Group in maintaining and expanding the webpages. Today, she is charged with the Herculean task of the For The Public Webpages oversight.

The site has now grown to a complex tangle of over 400 linked pages. Many of the pages need substantive revision in content, function, and aesthetic perspectives. Three years ago students in my Applied Archaeology and Museums class at the University of Memphis began a preliminary review of the pages to track down dead links, evaluate content, and propose upgrades. By the end of the semester, we clearly understood that a major revision was needed to make the pages an effective tool for the 21st Century.

As an organization that relies primarily on the volunteer expertise of its membership, an inward search of the SAA was begun to facilitate the upgrade. In my capacity as chair of the Public Education Committee, I asked my colleague Elizabeth Bollwerk if she was interested in heading up a task force to tackle the project. She agreed and assembled a team of Public Education Committee members—Eve Hargrave, Eli Konwest, and Rebecca Simon –to form a task force to coordinate the work.

Over the past year Beth and her team inventoried all the For The Public pages and generated a series of recommendations. A key recommendation is to survey the public to obtain their input on the next steps in the For the Public webpage upgrade, which the task force promptly created.

Now is your opportunity to take part in providing that necessary input. The survey will take 10 – 15 minutes to complete and will remain open until July 22, 2015.

Here is an important point – the webpages are titled For The Public, therefore public input is critical. We are not just looking for input of SAA members or professional archaeologists, but everyone who has an interest in archaeology and seeks resources on same – including teachers, makers, scout leaders and members, archaeological mystery fans, avocational archaeologists, public officials . . . you get the idea – the broad public who has an interest in the discipline.

I will appreciate your completing the survey and forwarding this blog post or just the survey link to your network or relevant individuals.

For comments or questions about the project, please contact Elizabeth Bollwerk, Project Coordinator of the For the Public Webpages task force at And once again, you can take the survey at this link or by pasting the following address in your browser:


Come On Up To The House

June 27, 2015

hualkidsI enjoy Tom Waits a good bit.  His Mule Variations album is a particular favorite with songs like Come on Up to the House,  What’s He Building, Picture In A Frame, and Pony.






Come On Up To The House

Well the moon is broken
And the sky is cracked
Come on up to the house
The only things that you can see
Is all that you lack
Come on up to the house

All your cryin don’t do no good
Come on up to the house
Come down off the cross
We can use the wood
Come on up to the house

Come on up to the house
Come on up to the house
The world is not my home
I’m just a passin thru
Come on up to the house

There’s no light in the tunnel
No irons in the fire
Come on up to the house
And your singin lead soprano
In a junkman’s choir
You gotta come on up to the house

Does life seem nasty, brutish and short
Come on up to the house
The seas are stormy
And you can’t find no port
Come on up to the house
There’s nothin in the world

There’s nothin in the world
that you can do
you gotta come on up to the house
and you been whipped by the forces
that are inside you
come on up to the house
well you’re high on top
of your mountain of woe
come on up to the house
well you know you should surrender
but you can’t let go
you gotta come on up to the house

Kathleen Brennan, Thomas A. Waits
Copyright: Jalma Music

Recent MOOCs I Have Taken & How They Helped Me on the Job

June 22, 2015

haul_moonI am currently enrolled in two MOOCs, and recently completed a couple of others.  I am impressed with the increased quality of MOOCs in the past two years.  I remain uninterested in the naysayers who feel  MOOCs threaten their hegemony in higher education or other doomsayer predictions.  Rather, I continue to see MOOCs as a supplement to other forms of education and an excellent means for micro-credentials.  The four courses I am taking or recently completed that benefit my current employment include:

  • Irish Lives in War and Revolution: Exploring Ireland’s History 1912-1923 taught out of the University of Dublin is the first MOOC I have taken from Future Learn. I took the course out of basic interest – the lifelong learning that is in vogue among us baby boomers – and was impressed with the video, text and resource offerings quality.  The course was meaty.  Had I run through just all the online resources provided, the quality and quantity would have exceeded a typical upper level UG course.  I was also pleased that the discussion boards were far superior to my previous experiences. I paid $40.00 for the certificate, simply because I wanted to support what I considered a quality offering.  Given the demographics of who takes MOOCs, it might prove a worthwhile marketing strategy to promote verified certificates beyond proof of accomplishment, to include those who support the process.  This MOOC demonstrated to me the simplicity in putting together quality and engaging content that is not beyond the means of a small institution on a limited budget.
  • I am currently enrolled in another Future Learn MOOC Behind the Scenes of the Twenty-First Century Museum taught out of the University of Leicester’s Museum Studies Graduate Program.  I registered for this course because it is the first MOOC I have seen that specifically deals with museum practices.  Initially I was rather skeptical about the course relevance.  I anticipated that the content would be very introductory in scope and content.  I was completely wrong.  By far this is my favorite MOOC taken to date.  The course content is excellent.  Several of the video lectures and online readings will show up on my syllabus for the Museum Practices graduate seminar I will teach again this fall.  The lecturers include individuals whose texts I have assigned for the past five years in class.  Perhaps most enjoyable are the discussion boards.  I have exchanged links, ideas, experiences with professionals and students from South Africa, Finland, the UK and the US.  The discussion is excellent.  I have learned a great deal that will be applied in my professional practice both in museums and in the classroom.  I am getting more out of this MOOC than most professional meetings I attend.  This course certainly demonstrates the possibilities of MOOCs in continuing education contexts.
  • I completed most of the Store Design, Visual Merchandising and Shopper Marketing MOOC from Iversity.  My reason for taking the course was to get ideas for the store in the museum where I am the director.  The staff member who runs the store also enrolled in the course.  We both agreed the MOOC provided some useful information, but most of the content was not relevant to our specific interests.  To me, this MOOC was similar to the first one’s I took a couple of years ago – basically a talking head, conveniently promoting his text each week, and those miserable multiple guess questions where one needs to select 3 of 4 poorly worded correct answers – that I quickly give up in frustration.  I only completed four of the six weeks because of other commitments and a waning interest.
  • I am currently enrolled in Content Strategy for Professionals 2: Expanding Your Content’s Impact and Reach from Northwestern University on the coursera platform.  Twice I had started Part 1 of this MOOC and quit half-way through because of the case study (something about selling a brand of suits in China) that I just could not get my head around.  In the Part 2 of the MOOC the case study assignments are based on the participants institution/business.  I am thoroughly enjoying the content and process.  This MOOC is extremely helpful to me as we continue to develop our museum audience.  I find the MOOC even more essential as I think through my responsibilities with PIARA, the nonprofit I work with in Peru.  The course description includes:  “In this, the second Content Strategy MOOC, participants will go deeper. They will learn actionable ways to grow internal and external audiences.  They will deepen their understanding about those target individuals and will use a host of known and emerging tools and social networks to meaningfully reach them. They will also learn how to measure and improve the impact of their efforts with quantitative and qualitative metrics.

As a practicing museum professional and university professor, the above are how I find MOOCs integral to my career.  I am particularly impressed with the increased quality of MOOC offerings over the past couple of years, especially as exemplified by Future Learn.  So far as I can tell, the dire warnings from the nattering nabobs of negativism about the evils of MOOCs remain without merit.

Museums and Online Learning – An Interview with Debbie Morrison

June 15, 2015

DebMorrison_HeadShote_v3I have followed Debbie Morrison’s blog Online Learning Insights for the past few years.  Debbie’s blog is my ‘go to’ source on all things related to digital learning.  I particularly appreciate that while she is a strong proponent of online education, she does not give the practitioners a free pass on the problems and challenges the technology faces.  For example, although an early and consistent supporter of MOOCs, she has given even coverage to the successes and failures of this ever evolving platform.  Because of her approach and expertise, Debbie’s work is well-respected, earning her consulting positions with organizations such as the World Bank in their recent entry into MOOCs.  Debbie generously agreed to an interview where she explores the potential of online learning in cultural heritage venues.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved with online learning?

I’ve been a passionate advocate for pursing higher education for well over twenty years. I see education as a means to improving life opportunities, relationships, and one’s health and well-being. My experience in education began as a Training and Development Manager for a national retailer in Toronto, Canada. I discovered a passion for creating skill development and education programs. It was rewarding to help employees develop and improve, to see the confidence they gained professionally and personally. When my family moved to the United States in 2003, I took two years off and homeschooled my children using a K-12 virtual school platform. I saw a vision for the future in online learning. After my kids went back to public school I completed a master’s degree in education and human development with a focus on educational technology, began working in K-12 and then higher education. I loved my job as Lead Curriculum Developer with a small private university. I worked with faculty to develop and transition face-to-face (F2F) courses to the online format. I now work as a consultant with higher education and K-12 helping educators develop and improve online and blended programs. I’m living my passion.

 Ten years ago many cultural heritage professionals considered the notion of a “virtual” museum or tour as a threat to the viability of cultural venues.  Today, a growing number of professionals view digital presentations more as a supplement to real-time experiences.  Where do you see the virtual vs. real-time discussion going for online learning in museums and other cultural heritage venues?

I view virtual museums and exhibits as a boon to cultural venues. Online exhibits are vehicles that can increase the public’s interest and awareness about the rich experiences museums and places of culture offer. I see the discussion of virtual vs. real-time experiences in museums mirroring the very same discussions happening now in higher education about F2F versus online education. I’ll address the questions here specifically to museums. First, the line between experiencing and appreciating art and culture online or F2F is gray. Both can provide a rich, engaging educational experience, but in different ways. Well-designed virtual exhibits provide users with an accessible and approachable experience. Virtual exhibits reach people who would never otherwise set foot in a cultural venue, whether because of distance, time or inclination.

Yet they can also supplement educational experiences. One of the most interesting and interactive online courses I developed was an undergraduate level course ‘Introduction to Music and Art’. The faculty member and I created a highly visual and interactive course using a variety of digital exhibits, videos and open art resources. In addition to the virtual exhibits, students were required to visit in-person, two cultural centers or events during the semester. The virtual tours created learning experiences that could never be achieved with cultural F2F visits and textbooks alone.

A current buzzword in cultural heritage studies is the “participatory” museum.  How do you envision that online learning can facilitate an increased participation in museums?

Student-focused education is where online learning is going, where students are participants and contributors to their learning, not just passive recipients. This is a paradigm shift for education. Students want to contribute and expect to be involved whether through social media or within the course itself. I see this same student-interest applying to museums and cultural centers. There is unlimited opportunity for encouraging public participation with the various social media platforms. Pinterst, the digital bulletin board platform, allows users to follow boards, create boards and comment. Twitter is another with hash tags that can ‘tag’ conversations and comments related to an exhibit or particular museum. Another is Instagram, a platform popular with teen and young adult set. The Getty Center here in California where I live does a good job in utilizing media and digital resources, but I see far more opportunities yet to be leveraged with museums in general.

Much as been written about the trend toward “lifelong learning” in museums.  How might that trend benefit from an online presence?

Tremendously – if museums can engage the public through social media–meet the potential visitors where they are, e.g. on Instagram, Facebook or other platform, the potential of having loyal and repeat visitors and supporters is tremendous. People want to belong and associate themselves with something special and unique—what is more unique and special than a museum or cultural center? Cultural centers will benefit by developing an online presence and building a following from there.

Online experiences such as the Google Art Project and virtual tours of archaeological sites are providing increased accessibility to cultural heritage objects.  Any predictions on future trends?

Interest in static digital resources will continue, but participatory interactive resources and digital experiences allowing users to create artifacts from cultural and art exhibits will grow significantly. Interactive and participatory platforms that allow users to creatively express themselves, and share using digital artifacts posted by museums builds on the idea of participation and contribution. Pinterest, Google Art Project, are just the beginning.

I definitely see user-generated content and open platforms such as ones offering MOOC as opening up and making knowledge and culture approachable and accessible. It’s opening up to the global public, and though there are still more people and communities to reach, this phenomenon is enriching, improving and transforming lives in many ways.

Any recommendations for the cultural heritage professional looking to begin online learning projects?

Start small, but start somewhere. Reach out to individuals outside one’s museum and cultural circle to find those that want to help and can make a contribution. Many people want to contribute their energy, expertise and time. Though critical is creating a plan first, a strategic plan that outlines what the goals are for the museum or cultural center that describes how a digital strategy and online learning projects align with the center’s values and mission. Next identify what type of projects will work with existing or future projects and create goals for digital and online learning. Then it makes sense to reach out to individuals and ask for help, and/or invest funds.

Debbie Morrison blogs at Online Learning Insights and can be contacted at debbiemorrison505(at)


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