Co-Creation: The Messiness of Being Relevant

This past Saturday temperatures in Memphis were in the upper 90s to insure a pretty light turn out for our regular Volunteer Day activities at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa – especially since we advertised a focus for the month on outdoor landscaping and gardening.  In the end, we had a great day.

Carmello Burks and Rachel Clark planting the Butterfly Garden.

First, Rachel Clark from my Applied Archaeology and Museums class this past semester had proposed that we install a butterfly garden in the area that in Chucalissa’s pre-NAGPRA days housed the display of human remains excavated from the site. Over the past few weeks Rachel and I discussed the sensitive logistics for the proposed installation.  The garden could not intrude below the ground surface in any way, given the very real possibility of remaining human burials in the vicinity.  We also discussed installing a panel on a nearby kiosk to explain why the human burials were no longer exhibited at Chucalissa.  A butterfly garden and informational display on the importance of NAGPRA and respecting the lives of those who built the 1000 year-old Native American earthwork complex seemed fitting and in line with the wishes of site development expressed by contemporary Native Americans of the Midsouth.

Second, on Saturday we also made arrangements for an Eagle Scout Project that will replace a dilapidated bridge along our nature trail.  Eagle Scout projects are always a negotiated process, matching our museums’ needs with the ability, interest, and motivation of the individual Scout in tandem with Eagle project criteria.  The bridge was in desperate need of replacement and the Scout chose the project from a half-dozen possibilities.

Reverand George Royal and Mr. Robert Gurley working on the Urban Garden this past Saturday

Third, on Saturday members of the Westwood Neighborhood Association were out to tend the urban garden they planted for the third consecutive year.  The idea for the garden came from an offhand comment by a community member during a focus group on exhibit hall upgrades for our museum.  One community member, the recently deceased Mr. Ralph Thompson, noted that the prehistoric agriculture exhibit at Chucalissa reminded him of traditional foods grown in his youth.  He lamented the lack of a suitable public space for such a garden today.  We immediately noted that we had 40 acres of protected space to consider for an urban garden, and the project took off.  The garden is a source of pride for many community members.  The participants this past Saturday, Mr. Robert Gurley and Rev. George Royal told me about how good it is for the body and soul just to get out in the sun and do physical labor.  The urban garden produced a bountiful harvest in the past two years shared throughout the community.

Three sisters
Freedom Prep Students creating hills for the Three Sisters Garden on Earth Day in April.

Fourth, I was itching to spend the day out in the heat and humidity.  I am one of those folks where the temperature and humidity never get too high.  I spent the morning weeding in our Three Sisters garden, planted in individual hills typical of Native American cultures in the late prehistoric period.  The plan for the garden was originally designed by Carrie Havrilla as a Green Internship project at the University of Memphis.  This year we planted the garden as an April Earth Day activity with community members and families taking responsibility for individual hills.  Fifteen students from Freedom Prep Academy, a local charter school, also participated in sculpting the hills and planting the corn, beans, and squash.

family three sisters
A young sister preparing the Three Sisters Garden on Earth Day

On Saturday afternoon I looked out on the open space of the prehistoric earthwork complex and thought about the three new gardens and bridge replacement.  None of the projects were part of our strategic plan except that we seek to be an institution that is relevant to community needs and provides co-creative experiences.  In all four of the projects the “public” whether Boy Scouts, students of all ages, or community members are creating projects of their choosing in a space that is publicly owned and administered.  All of the projects fall well within the scope of our institutional mission and the expressed interests of our community stakeholders.  I reflected how this co-creation process is messy, nonlinear, but highly relevant to expressed community interests.  The process also flows directly from one of my favorite quotes in the New Museum by John Cotton Dana, written nearly 100 years ago: “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs.”



A Museum Program Niche

Following up on last week’s post about a people engagement niche, I want to take a look at creating a program niche.  Over the past few years at the C.H. Nash Museum, we have gone through a transition in our programming.  Thirty years ago, our programs focused on a reconstructed prehistoric village with a rather regimented Native American performance coupled with an exhibit of human remains.  Time, economics, accountability in presenting indigenous voices, along with the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, dramatically altered those programs.  My predecessor as Museum Director, Dan Swan, in 2005 pondered after the removal of the last vestiges of the dilapidated replica village “Without the reconstructed village, what is the value of the Chucalissa site?”

As I posted before  addressing that question has been a focus of our work over the past several years.  We first looked around at what other Museums did well.  The Pink Palace here in Memphis has an exceptional “traveling trunk” exhibit to the schools.  We thought about creating something similar.  Just across the River in Arkansas, the Parkin Archaeological Site offers a week of Black History program each February.  A similar offering seemed a good way to relate to the 95% African-American Community that surrounds the Chucalissa site.  Fortunately, we did not get past the thinking stage on any of these projects.  Instead we considered our own niche – our SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats).  For the past three years, we begin each fall semester with a week-by-week chapter review of Stephanie Weaver’s Creating Great Visitor Experiences that helps us to investigate these concepts and to refine our niche.  Here are some of the things we have come up.

Context – Chucalissa is situated on 100 forested acres that are adjacent to another 1000 acres of the T.O. Fuller State Park.  In a recent survey of our monthly e-newsletter readers, respondents suggested we develop more programs on our natural environment.  In 2008, the Southwind Garden Club created a state certified arboretum at Chucalissa.  This summer members of the Westwood community will plant traditional foods in an urban garden at Chucalissa.  This past Saturday we launched our Traditional Medicinal Plant Sanctuary funded through Green Fee at the University of Memphis.  Of note, the Memphis Botanic Garden (MBG) also recently created a medicinal plant garden.  In conversation with MBG Garden Curator, Chris Cosby, we discussed how Chucalissa and MBG gardens might complement and not be redundant to each other.  As Chris noted, at Chucalissa, our plants are in their natural context and allow an appreciation of the micro-environments that support the different species.  At MBG’s made environment this appreciation is not as apparent – a great example of living into our mutual strengths and opportunities.

Resources – As a regional repository for the past fifty years, the C.H. Nash Museum has accumulated a considerable educational collection of historic and prehistoric materials.  Educational collections result from the past practice of the museum accepting donations of unprovenienced artifacts from surface collections or other unknown sources.  Although we no longer accept such donations, in the past we accumulated 30 or so cubic feet of collections with no research value but plenty of educational worth for exhibits and programs.  These educational collections allow us to use real artifacts in our hands-on archaeology lab and in other offerings, such as our stone tool program.  This opportunity is unlike any other in our region –  again, a niche that we can live into.

The Chucalissa Site – One of our greatest strengths is that our Museum is located on the grounds of a temple mound complex built by Native Americans 1000 years ago.  The greatest weakness our Graduate Assistants identified last fall in assessing our current programs and exhibits was our museum’s lack of interpretation of the site.  That is, we do a good job of interpreting both prehistoric and modern Native American cultures, in general, but our Museum presents little specific to those people who lived at Chucalissa.  At the same time, we curate collections from a 50 year archaeology program at the site on which to base those presentations – obviously, a niche that we can fill best.

In the Memphis area, within a 2-3 hour drive there are perhaps a dozen or so museum venues that interpret the prehistory of the region. In one respect, savvy marketing dictates that the dozen venues not be cookie cutter models of each other to effectively cross-promote all venues.  However, more importantly by developing our individual niches we can live into our individual strengths and opportunities.  For example, until five years ago, the trail system at the Chucalissa was not much more than an afterthought in site interpretation.  We considered our off the beaten path location as a deterrent in attracting visitors.   Today, we envision our “rural oasis 20 minutes from downtown Memphis” as an asset and an important part of our niche.

What are the unique niches that your venue fills?

Are Museum Ethics Changing?

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

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

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

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

How has your institution been faced with new ethical considerations?

Collections on-line: Quality vs. Quantity

We are in the process of a major library reorganization at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  In the reorganization we intend to begin digitizing the 50 years worth of accumulated photographic prints, 35 mm slides, negatives, and to systematically organize more recent digital images.  Also, we will scan our archive of research reports, often written by students for course requirements, but containing a wealth of primary data.  Further, we aim to digitize the University of Memphis, Department of Anthropology’s Occasional Paper series that contains archaeological research and conference proceedings from the past 20 years.  Initiating the process raises the issue of how to disseminate these materials once digitized – or to the point, what do we do with all this stuff once placed in a format that better accommodates transfer and access.  We could put it all up on the internet, but, even discounting considerations of logistics and ethics, should we?  Does such wholesale uploading of material address the public outreach part of our mission?  What is the appropriate solution?  Is more always better?  A couple of months ago we posted photos from 1960s Chucalissa  field schools on Facebook.  The photos generated much interest and feedback from the folks in the 40-year-old photos.  Is our public outreach goal simply to have interaction or is there more to it than that?

On-line visual representation across the field of anthropology is quite varied.  An example of an engaged and informative online photographic presentation is the Edward S. Curtis Collection at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress.  Besides the images, and lots of them, the site also presents a set of essays that contextualize the Curtis photos in time and space.  The Field Museum in Chicago is one of the institutions that has placed many photographic galleries of their collections online.  For example, photographs of collections from the World Columbian Exposition are online but there is very limited provenience or interpretive information despite the several introductory essays. My takeaway is that the online Field Museum collection has lots of pictures of things but little in the way of meaning.  The British Museum galleries however provide detailed information on many of the  artifact images presented.

A cursory examination of anthropological collection websites shows considerable variation in the presentation of images online.  This observation raises questions about the very nature of these public access resources.  If we have 50 years of photographs is it important to have each and everyone available online?  What considerations come into play when considering community engagement and outreach in the access to collections on-line?

Public Outreach in North Carolina Archaelogy

The Research Laboratories of Archaeology lives within the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  A pretty highfalutin sounding title and not necessarily a place one might immediately go looking for public outreach or teacher resources in archaeology.  Regardless, the site has a lot to offer. The Who We Are page lists the most recent accomplishments of the RLA and all deal with production or publication of educational materials geared at the K-12 level.

One of the most compelling resources is the Intrigue of the Past lesson plans geared to the 4th – 8th grade levels.  The five sections include Fundamental Concepts, The Process of Archaeology, North Carolina’s First People, Shadows of People, and Issues in Archaeology.  Chapters within the sections range from the culture history of Native Peoples, ethics, rock art, artifact analysis, archaeology as a career, to name a few.  The set of lesson plans are comprehensive and for the most part hands-on or participatory in nature to engage student involvement.  The total package of lesson plans is a useful guide for similar projects in other institutions or regions.

Other unique offerings on the site include a 2009 on-line course for teachers, Archaeology and North Carolina’s First Peoples taught by Theresa McReynolds through the Continuing Education Program at the University of North Carolina.  As described on the link “This online course explores the science of archaeology and 12,000 years of North Carolina’s human past. Participants will be introduced to inquiry-based activities that can be adapted to meet their own teaching objectives.”  The course runs 8 weeks and requires 5-7 hour per week commitment.  The course sounds like an excellent model to equip public school teachers with archaeology basics for classroom instruction.   Hopefully, this course will be ongoing.

The RLA site also has locally produced videos that explore different archaeological concepts such as stratigraphy.

Perhaps the most engaging part of the site is the electronic excavation of the 18th Century Native American Occaneechi site.  Though somewhat static and without the bells and whistles often associated with on-line edutainment today, the scope, detail, and value of the excercise are impressive.

The site has a set of links to other resources, a slide show on the 2009 Archaeology Day, links also to academic course offerings, field schools and recent research projects in the state, although this latter link is somewhat dated.

Of note, the Collections Page contains a series of pdf files of catalogs for artifacts curated by the RLA along with associated records such as black and white photos and color slides – something many state facilities are moving toward, but few have accomplished.

The site can be a bit confusing to navigate.  For example, with the link to the on-line course noted above, I am not certain how I got there the first time but the only way I refound the page was by going back through my browser history.  It seems that there are multiple links leading to the same thing – not a huge issue but a bit confusing.  There are no links or discussion of descendant voices save a few several year old articles on Cherokee Potters.

The RLA page is an impressive resource for North Carolina and a model of creative ideas for the rest of us.

SunWatch Indian Village & Public Outreach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you currently use Social Media at SunWatch Village?

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

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

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

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

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

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