More on Funding Museums with the “Publics” Dollars

As I noted in my last post, for the past few years, half of the final exam in my Museum Practices graduate seminar in the Museum Studies Program at the University of Memphis consists of responding to the following:

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?

Brooke-Garcia-HeadshotAnother excellent essay was written by Brooke Garcia a graduate student in the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at the University of Memphis.  Brooke is also enrolled in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program and is a Graduate Assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. Drawing on her own experience at Chucalissa and the Third Place concept she provides an excellent response to the essay challenge.

What the Publics Get From Museums

by Brooke Garcia

I would venture to generalize that a good portion of people still view museums as the ivory tower[1], a repository of artifacts only accessible to the wealthy elite. However, more museums today recognize this stereotype and are taking steps to change this misguided, outdated perception. At least in theory, museums reflect the needs of their community, and as discussed previously, if they do not change to reflect these needs, museums will cease to exist. One of these needs is to be affordable in difficult economic times and provide more than just exhibits. Museums need to be an experience, and despite the hardships John and Josephine Q. Public have endured, they should still be able to participate in museums. It is their space, a third space, for the community to utilize, learn from, and enjoy.

For the sake of this paper, John and Josephine Q. Public live in Southwest Memphis, and their local museum is the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. As a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum and a student at the University of Memphis, their tax dollars help fund my position. But what do they receive in return? The C.H. Nash Museum strives to be transparent, and their educational and economic impact statements tell Mr. and Mrs. Public what their taxes pay for. Their taxes fund staff, who in turn help create new exhibits and education resources, such as the African-American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis exhibit, Medicinal plant sanctuary, resertification of the arboretum, and the Hands-on archaeology lab.[2] Their children,   Joseph and Johna Public, visit the museum with their elementary school and benefit directly from the graduate assistant and staff-led tours, education programs, and crafts, which include Mystery Box, Native American Music, Pre-history to Trail of Tears, Talking Sticks, Simple Beading, and many more.[3] As a family and for regular admission price, the Publics can participate in Family Day programing on every Saturday plus some weekdays in the summer.

But how can they benefit more? Given their economic hardships, even paying regular admission prices could be difficult for their entire family. Perhaps the C.H. Nash Museum needs to consider offering free days to locals or two-for-one ticket deals once a month. I also think providing free, open to the public, academic lectures about the prehistoric and historic Chucalissa site would benefit the museum greatly. These lectures could also be a platform to display artifacts usually not on view. The Publics could enjoy these lectures with their children without worrying about their hardships and learn even more about the site or other special topics than even a regular visitor would. This situation exemplifies what we as researchers and museum professionals can do for the public that shows museums are not a wealth transfer, they are a place to exchange information and a third space for the community.

As defined by the Center for the Future of Museums blog post “Experience Design & the Future of Third Place”, the third space includes spaces “not home, not work public-private gathering places” for the community.[4] The third space is “for people to have a shared experience, based on shared interests and aspirations [and] open to anyone regardless of social or economic characteristics such as race, gender, class, religion, or national origin.”[5] Furthermore, these spaces are “often an actual physical space, but can be a virtual space, easily accessible, and free or inexpensive.”[6] Examples of third spaces include: coffee shops like Starbucks, public parks, malls, chat rooms, fairs, and even museums. In exchange for their tax dollars, the Publics have access to government-funded third spaces like museums and parks. However, what separates museums from these other third spaces? Museums are a place for learning and entertainment. Instead of coming away with a new dress or a Frappuccino, museums visitors (hopefully) take away new information, or at the very least, a new experience. At the C.H. Nash Museum, the Publics can learn about the prehistoric Native American site, but also the past and contemporary history of their community. And they can also participate in community events, such as the local Black History Month celebration.[7] Even with hardships, they can take advantage of their museum as a third space.

Museums today are not a space just for the wealthy. More and more museums strive to provide a place for their community to gather and learn. No longer are museums just about artifacts, but now, in my opinion, their true mission should focus on education, in all forms for all ages. Education through exhibits, programs, activities, crafts, etc.; in other words, museums are a third space, focused on passing on new information to their visitors and providing for the needs of their community, whether that includes Richie Rich or John and Josephine Q. Public.




[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Ivory Tower,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation Inc., last modified December 10, 2014, accessed December 10, 2014.

[2] C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, Educational Impact Statement, 1, accessed December 10, 2014.

[3] Some of these mentioned in C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, Economic Impact Statement, 1, accessed December 10, 2014.

[4] “Experience Design & the Future of Third Place,” Center for the Future of Museums Blog, April 3, 2012, accessed December 10, 2014.

[5] California Association of Museums, Foresight Research Report: Museums as Third Place, Report for Leaders of the Future: Museum Professionals Developing Strategic Foresight (2012), 5.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Chucalissa, Economic Impact Statement, 1.

Public Access to Artifacts: A Problem or Opportunity?

HD 08 lab2
Hands-On Lab in 2008

We are doing a major exhibit upgrade at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  Here is a story – in the Spring of 2008 we launched our “Hands-on Archaeology Lab” drawing on some of my experiences over the years in community outreach.  We used deaccessioned or never accessioned educational collections curated at the Chucalissa to provide visitors with a tactile/sensory experience with archaeological materials that are usually visible only behind glass.  Since 2008, we have made minor changes and additions to the lab.  The exhibit proved a big success based on teacher/visitor informal and formal evaluations.

In 2013 we conducted focus groups and surveyed visitors and staff on what worked and what didn’t work in the Lab to decide how to improve the experience.  Based on those responses we came up with a proposal to upgrade the Hands-on Archaeology Lab into the Brister Archaeology Discovery Lab (BADLab).

In the fall of 2014, the River 2 AmeriCorps NCCC Team began the upgrade process.  The six-person all women team gutted the lab, moved the map cases to a new location, tore out the sinks and cabinets, and laid a new floor.  (River Two Team member Chelsea Crinson (who was voted NCCC Team member of the year for the Southern District Go Chelsea!) designed and supervised the painting of one wall to approximate the covered excavation trench at the Chucalissa site.  For safety reasons, we no longer permit public visitation of the trench that was originally excavated in the 1950s.  Our idea was to mount actual size digital images of portions of the trench (e.g., buried living floors, evidence of basket loading, postmolds,) at the appropriate locations on the wall Chelsea designed in the BADLab.

Transition to BADLab with AmeriCorps painted wall trench.

Then we stepped back and looked at the incredible work the AmeriCorps Team had done and began rethinking the project.  Ron Brister, who first worked at Chucalissa in 1966, and for whom the renovated BADLab is named, made a suggestion – what if instead of mounting digital photographs to the BADLab trench painting, we mounted sediment peels from the actual excavation trench.  In this way, we could bring the actual excavation trench into the BADLab exhibit.

Ron’s suggestion got everyone thinking more.  We wanted to highlight the contribution our museum could make to cultural heritage in the Memphis area that complemented but was not redundant with offerings at other venues.  Bringing the excavation trench inside was one such contribution.  A second opportunity was expanding the use of the thousands of unaccessioned and unprovenienced prehistoric and historic cultural artifacts we curate in our education collection.

I wondered – could we use a curated educational collection in the BADLab to tell the complete story of an artifact from the field to the museum.  Such a hands-on exhibit would allow us to explain the importance of provenience, the time period and function of the occupation, and so forth – and we could use a 20 foot section of wall and counter space to tell the story.  I considered the Fred Jobe collection of artifacts from Lincoln County, Tennessee, that I have posted about before and how they might fill this role.  Since their accessioning in 1982, these 3000 artifacts had remained in our repository unused.  But since 2012, the collection has been the subject of 3 student projects, volunteer day activities and a temporary exhibit at the C.H. Nash Museum.  I was particularly intrigued because the Jobe farm artifacts are reportedly collected from part of a Revolutionary War land grant.  As a minor league baseball player turned farmer, the recently deceased landowner, Fred Jobe, was a human interest story to go along with the 3000 unprovenienced cultural materials he donated to Chucalissa in the 1980s.

circa 1960s Residential Ridge Excavation Exhibit at Chucalissa
circa 1960s Residential Ridge Excavation Exhibit at Chucalissa

My thinking correctly raised the eyebrows of several of the graduate students at the Museum:

  • Brooke Garcia, our Graduate Assistant who works with collections noted that the Fred Jobe collection was in fact accessioned and our Collections Management Policy did not allow for accessioned collections to be used for hands-on educational exhibits.  Nor did the Policy allow for the deaccessioning of materials for such purposes.
  • Our Graduate Assistant Nur Abdalla, who worked with the Jobe artifacts and created the temporary exhibit expressed concern about the security of the collection in the BADLab.  She also noted that we had offered to install the revised exhibit in the Lincoln County Museum in Fayetteville, Tennessee, near the Fred Jobe farm.
The Hands-On Lab at the C.H. Nash Museum in 2008

Nur and Brooke raise important questions:

  • The accession vs. deaccession point is important.  We all agree that today, given the same information about the Fred Jobe collection we might only accept and inventory the artifacts for use in educational projects.  Today, we would not accession the collection.  (Without the detail, we assume that the collections are from the Fred Jobe Farm, but we do not have any direct paperwork that support that case.  The filed site forms do not list the cultural materials noted on the accession forms.)  We do have provisions in our Collections Management Policy to deaccession materials that do not fit our Collection Plan criteria.  The Fred Jobe collection falls into this category.  In fact, we have other collections that were accessioned in the 1970s and 80s with absolutely no provenience information.  We could deaccession these materials as well.  Related, Robert Janes considers this issue from a perspective of museums lack of sustainability in part through unlimited collections growth.  Should we deaccession all such materials, including the accessioned prehistoric vessels curated in our museum with provenience information listed only as FOP (found on premises)?
  • Since 2008, we are aware of perhaps 5 projectile points that have gone “missing” from the hands-on-lab exhibit.  I suspect at least an equal number of ceramic sherds have been pocketed or lost.  This low number is attributed to our official policy that the visitors to the hands on lab must be accompanied by a museum staff.  None of the missing artifacts were accessioned or have any provenience information.  We have hundreds, if not thousands, depending on artifact type, of unaccessioned/unprovenienced artifacts from our educational collections to replace the missing pieces.  Is this loss a reasonable exchange for the thousands of visitors who have had a real-time tactile experience with the prehistoric materials?
  • I am attracted to the idea of using this particular collection from the Fred Jobe farm in our upgraded BADLab because there is a compelling and relatable story to tell along with the artifacts.  Alternatively, we could use other unprovenienced/unaccessioned collections to tell other stories.  Should we even be using these types of collections in creating hands-on, or any other type of exhibits?

I will appreciate your consideration, comments, and questions as we grapple with this issue in the coming months.  For the rest of this year, we will be working on the sediment peels!

Coproduction & Co-creation with Volunteers

collection-distortA few weeks ago Ennis Barbery wrote here about coproduction with the public in archaeology.  In museums, Nina Simon has published on the co-creative process in The Participatory Museum.  In an interview, Natalye Tate a former Graduate Assistant at Chucalissa noted, “Our role at the museum is to broker ideas to bring in volunteers who are members of communities, and ask what do you want to see, what do your kids want to see and what’s the direction you want to take this collection . . . our job is not to be the creators, but to make sure the process gets done and gets done well.”  These three concepts converge in a direction that we are moving at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa with our “volunteer” experiences.  For the past four years a combination of volunteers and graduate students worked diligently to re-inventory the archaeological collections curated by the University of Memphis.  Many volunteers were eager for the opportunity to just touch, count, and inventory the prehistoric and historic materials.  As well, we are always quite intentional to explain the significance of the specific tasks that volunteers perform.  However, we continue to frame the volunteer tasks as preparing the materials for an “other” whether professional or student, who will take the process to the next step of analysis and interpretation.

On March 16th we will begin a process where the “other” will be the volunteers themselves.  The aim is for the volunteers to select an unreported or under-reported curated collection from our repository, undertake a complete analysis of the collection and associated records, and create an exhibit based on the materials for an area library or other public venue.

For example, during our Saturday Volunteer Day last week,  a volunteer was inventorying a collection of several thousand projectile points and ceramic sherds of a surface collection from Lincoln County, Tennessee.  A landowner donated the materials to the C.H. Nash Museum in 1981 from the uncontrolled surface collections made over several decades on the family farm.  Like so many of our collections, the artifacts were dutifully accessioned, counted, weighed, labeled, placed in plastic bags, then in boxes never to again see the light of day except during spot inventories every few years.

This past Saturday the collection provided me the opportunity to deliver one of my infamous “Why what you are doing is more important than eating a plate of worms” impromptu ramblings.  I noted that although the collection was unprovenienced except to the landowners plowed fields, the projectile points in the collection represented an age range of several thousand years.  The Native Americans made the tools from a variety of raw materials that outcrop throughout the Midsouth of the United States.  Further the several hundred artifacts typically called “arrowheads” actually included dart points, drills, knives and host of other tool types.  Based on their website, the Lincoln County Museum located near where artifacts were collected does not appear to have a prehistoric exhibit.  I noted that the collection that the volunteer was inventorying would be an ideal set of artifacts to develop an exhibit that could illustrate many aspects of Native American lifeways in prehistory including stone tool technology, trade and exchange, and settlement patterns.

Nice idea, but how will this happen?

Ten members of the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS) have signed up to volunteer once a month to work on such projects.  The first meeting will be March 16.  MAGS was actually formed over 60 years ago as a group of avocational archaeologists who conducted some of the first excavations at the Chucalissa site.  In fact, Kenneth Beaudoin, an avocational archaeologist wrote the first report on Chucalissa that reported those excavations.  MAGS published the report in 1952.  Although MAGS evolved over the years to focus on geology, a strong archaeological interest remains.

Each Saturday session will provide instruction on archaeological interpretation and analysis techniques.  We will also involve graduate students from our Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program to assist in the construction of exhibits.

There are two important results from the above process.  First, our goal is to move closer to the model envisioned by Natalye Tate in her interview of a couple of years ago.  That is, the volunteers will take on more of the decision-making in the coproduction or co-creative processes.  The volunteers will become more familiar with the collections we curate and their skill set will increase along with their possibilities for taking on a more active role in future projects.

An even more important result is that the C.H. Nash Museum and collections we curate become more relevant to the public who we serve.  Consider the added relevance from the above scenario.  The donated collection that remained unused since 1981 will:

  • Provide members of MAGS the opportunity to take part in a project in which they have an expressed interest as part of their lifelong learning experience.
  • University of Memphis students in both archaeology and museum studies will gain valuable applied experience in material analysis, exhibit construction, and public outreach.
  • The Lincoln County Museum will install an exhibit on the prehistory of their region to more holistically interpret the rich cultural heritage of their region.
  • The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa will become a more relevant institution to all of the above publics that we serve.

How can your collections and practices better demonstrate relevance to the public you serve?

Archaeology and Open Authority

The guest post below is written by Elizabeth Bollwerk.  I met Beth a couple of years ago in the session “Reimagining the Engaged Museum” at the Society for Applied Anthropology Meetings.  In that session she presented on using the Omeka web publishing platform for engaging communities in museum exhibits. A recent graduate of the PhD program at the University of Virginia, Beth has continued her work in this area.  Below she reports highlights of the 2012 Museum Computer Network Conference especially as related to archaeology and community outreach.

I recently attended the Museum Computer Network (MCN) Conference in Seattle, Washington. For those of you who aren’t familiar, MCN is an organization whose goal is to “support the greater museum community by providing continuing opportunities to explore, implement, and disseminate new technologies and best practices in the field”. In this post I will discuss some of the issues that arose during the conference that pertain to Archaeology, Museums, and Outreach.  I should note one of the great things about MCN is that a lot of the conference content is online. MCN videotaped all of their sessions and these will be available via their youtube channel in a few weeks.  In the meantime I have linked to some of the relevant slideshares, blogs, and twitterfeeds throughout this post to help provide more context for my discussion.

At the Ignite program that kicked off the conference Lori Phillips introduced one of the issues that resonated with me and many others: the question of open authority and museums.  This question was revisited throughout the conference and was widely acknowledged as being one of the underlying themes.  Although open authority is relevant for a wide range of disciplines, Lori’s presentation dealt with the issue of balancing curatorial/expert authority with the broader goal of making museums more open areas of learning and idea sharing, i.e. forums not temples, bazaars, not cathedrals.  As readers of this blog are well aware, there has been a substantial movement to make museums into forums or bazaars where information is not simply disseminated from experts to the public but is actively created through the sharing of ideas from both sides. The question of where “experts” and “scholars” fit into these projects has been somewhat controversial.  While some have argued that curators aren’t needed as gatekeepers, Lori took a more balanced perspective, arguing that we need to make museums both temples and bazaars.  It’s not that crowd sourced or curated projects don’t need scholarly curators, it’s that curators need to share authority, knowledge and expertise in a constructive way AND be open to how the public’s knowledge can broaden our understanding of a subject.  (Those interested in the subject can follow on twitter at #openauth.)

While I think this is a relevant question for any museum, my background in archaeology made me ponder how open authority could impact the discipline and its role in museums. Archaeology has been shifting towards embracing open authority since the post processual movement in the 1980s.  The incorporation of descendant communities has opened up new opportunities for integrating different perspectives.  Additionally, a growing movement in support of public and engaged archaeology has incorporated the public into field and lab projects.

However, open authority is more than just encouraging experts to share their skills and knowledge with a wider audience. One of the aspects of open authority that I find so promising but simultaneously challenging is finding productive ways to integrate “audience” knowledge that can help advance research. One session at MCN that highlighted some projects accomplishing that challenge was the Open Science, Citizen Science – Unleashing the Power of Community Collaboration to Create New Museum Science.  (you can follow the conversation from the session on twitter #mcn2012sci.)  This session focused on crowd sourcing projects that draw from the knowledge of amateur naturalists, astronomers and hobbyists to crowdsource data analysis or data correction.  Arfon Smith in particular discussed the Old Weather and Milky Way projects, which use citizen scientists to transcribe and organize data for researchers. This work helps researchers get through the initial sorting process which otherwise might take days or weeks.  However, curators/researchers are not removed from the process.  Instead crowdsourced entries and cataloged items are tagged as “unchecked” until a curator can double-check the assignment. These activities add value to museum collections, particularly the research collections that are often not on public view.

Another big take away of the crowdsourcing session was from a survey that asked project participants what their motivation was for engaging with these projects.  Overwhelmingly, responders said they participated because they loved knowing their work and knowledge was helping push research and science forward. Clearly these projects seem to be beneficial for both “experts” and “amateurs” alike.

This made me wonder, can we do something like this in archaeology?  No archaeologist is blind to the fact that the internet and social media have opened a number of forums for individuals to exchange information about artifacts.  There is clearly a large audience who has an interest in the material culture of the past and wants to participate in researching and analyzing it.  It is also clear that many of these “amateurs” have a great deal of knowledge about the material culture they are interested in.  In my experience public projects nearly always benefit from volunteers because of the new perspectives and varied expertise they bring to the project. But these projects also need good leaders who are familiar with the material to keep everything running smoothly, hence the need for both the temple and the bazaar. 

Unfortunately not everyone with archaeological interests has time to volunteer at archaeological sites or labs.  This makes me wonder if there’s some way for archaeologists to harness the wider public interest in archaeology into virtual projects where they can work with citizen scientists.  Today there is more archaeological information available to the public on the World Wide Web than ever before. Digital archaeological archives such as The Digital Archaeological Record, the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery, the Chaco Research Archive, and the Comparative Archaeological Study of Colonial Chesapeake Culture, are just a few examples.  These projects have made archaeological information that was once hidden away in museums and archaeological repositories available to scholars and increasingly to archaeological graduate and undergraduate classes.  But can we take another step and engage the public with these databases? There is no question that making collections available for teachers or allowing individuals to learn about sites and artifacts is valuable, but can we open the gates to ensure the knowledge sharing goes both ways?

A great non-digital example of such a project is the Archaeological Metal Detector Training Course led by Matthew Reeves at Montpelier earlier this year.  I think this statement from the Society for Historical Archaeology blog best sums up the potential for projects like this: “At the end of the week, we had a dozen metal detectorists who not only understood how site integrity can be attained through the use of metal detectors, but they were devising new techniques for how this process could be improved.” Incorporating these individuals into discussions of archaeological techniques not only improves their understanding of our methods but their expertise can help improve our methods.

So while archaeologists are taking steps towards open authority on the ground, I’m wondering how can we also make online spaces both temples and bazaars.  I welcome any thoughts or ideas.

Elizabeth Bollwerk can be contacted at eab7f(at)

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?

Google Art and the Virtual Museum Game

It’s been a while since I have posted anything about virtual museums, so here goes with a couple of new offerings and a couple that have been around . . .

Google’s Art Project went online February 1.  The reviews have rolled in that address issues of gendertechnical aspects, accessibility, and those with limited enthusiasm for the concept.  ArtInfo links to a good range of that discussion.  Besides seeing works from institutions I will never likely visit, I am impressed that the Project allows me to examine paintings in considerably more detail than I would in the museums.  I am hard pressed to understand the difference between coffee table art books sold in museum book stores/gift shops and the online Google Art Project.  Both publications are repros that represent the image beyond the original form in the museum gallery.  The latter incorporates contemporary technology.  Neither replace the real visit.  I will never forget the time as a teenager rounding the corner at the Chicago Art Institute and seeing Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles face-to-face.  But my friends in Turkey who will likely never visit Chicago should be allowed something as close to that experience as possible.

The Hampson Virtual Museum has over 400 downloadable 3-D clips of ceramic vessels and stone tools from the late prehistoric Nodena phase sites of Northeast Arkansas, US.  This virtual offering is a truly impressive site with considerable contextual information on the materials present.  This feature is missing from the Google Art Project.  An important feature of the Hampson website is the ability to download the 3-D clips of this phenomenal artistry of the Native American cultures  for later research, educational, or other viewing purposes.  The virtual display of these vessels will certainly be grist for much discussion on the display of objects often considered the private and sacred cultural heritage of Native Americans.

As a kid growing up in Southwest Ohio, I recollect the occasional pilgrimage to the Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton for an air show that culminated in a display from the Thunderbirds.  The visits also included a walk through hangars that functioned as museum exhibits.  Today,  The National Museum of the United States Air Force boasts a virtual presence of panoramic views of their modern facilities and a technology ala Google Street View to explore some groupings of aircraft.  The webpage has podcasts of guest lectures and museum audio tours for on-site visits.  Though less visually spectacular than either the Google Art or Hampson Projects, the site is a an impressive resource on aviation history and the USAF.

Perhaps one of the coolest ideas on virtual museums is to create your own.  Rebecca Black brought the Museum Box site to my attention during our Museum Practices class this past fall.  Here you can load your own images, text, video files, and links, in rotating cubes within a compartmentalized box layout.  I scrolled through some of the museum boxes created to date.  I found that lots of schools are using this site for class projects of varying quality and complexity.  For some museum box is clearly just an assignment to get done, like some perspectives on life in general, yet other students and users are clearly inspired to create very cool displays.  Check this one out for possible classroom projects.

And finally, the world would not be complete without the Museum of Online Museums – thanks to Nancy Cook for bringing this one to my attention.

The long and short is that the ability for museum representation in the virtual world is becoming increasingly real.  The above sites represent a range of offerings from the complex to the basic and from simple observation to the fully engaged.  The more Luddite reactions against the virtual presence are on the wane in the same way that adages about “if humans were meant to fly they would have been born with wings” withered away.  Now is the time to consider how this technology may help our institutions to carry out our missions of outreach and engagement.

Your thoughts?

Creating Exhibits for all Age Levels

How many words should an exhibit label contain?  At what age level should the text be written?  In the Museum Practices course I teach at the University of Memphis this question always elicits responses ranging from the minimalist to the verbose.  Students are able to cite the canonical Museum texts (e.g., Serrell, Spencer) to prove their point.

A couple of years ago, I had a transformative experience on this issue.  In my Native People’s of North American course, for her class project, then University of Memphis graduate student Nora Bridges created an exhibit on Native American plant use for the C.H. Nash Museum’s Hands-on Archaeology Lab.  The lab exhibit is geared toward the young and old alike, but the emphasis is on a tactile exploration of how archaeologists interpret archaeological sites.

Nora initially produced a 2 x 7 foot banner display with over 1000 words of text and 49 references organized under headings such as Biodiversity Conservation, Ethnobotany and Applied Anthropology, and Prehistoric Plant Use in the Southeast.

We all agreed that the banner was not going to work in the hands-on lab as a primary introduction to plant use by Native Americans of the U.S. Southeast.  However, Nora had created a fantastic display that contained information of interest to a broad range of museum visitors.  How could we take the information Nora assembled and present it to that range of visitors?  Here was our solution:

  • We cut back, dramatically, the amount of text Nora provided for the plant use exhibit in the hands-on lab.   The display now includes step by step instructions on how to dye fabrics as done in prehistory, along with samples of the plant materials used as dyes and swatches of dyed fabrics.  This station in the lab exhibit also has information on ethnobotany and Native plant use and physical examples of plant materials used in creating basketry and as foods.  The ethnobotany station contains a total of not more than 150 words of text on a 2 x 4 foot display accompanied by the “hands-on” materials.
  • Next, we took the basic information from Nora’s original banner, deleted all the references, condensed the text, and created a 2 x 7 ethnobotany banner exhibit in our main museum hall next to existing plant material displays.
  • W are now preparing a two-sided rack card takeaway with “for more information” resources, including a link to our Museum website where  the full text of Nora’s original banner, along with her 49 references will be available to those seeking the greater detail.
  • Finally, along our nature trail, arboretum, and in our herb garden are over 100 plant species that provide opportunities to discuss the other aspects of ethnobotany included in Nora’s banner.  We are developing audio tours with drill down options where Nora will be able to further explain these topics.

The solutions above draw on simple and reasonably inexpensive technology to take a subject like ethnobotany and address the multiple interest levels of our museum visitors from elementary age children to adults.  These solutions are also flexible and can be readily added to or subtracted from as the need or new information comes along.  Given the ability to create exhibits at multiple levels, “it depends” may be the best answer to the questions at the top of this post.

How have you addressed this aspect of exhibit content?

Museums Starting Over

Robert Janes’ new book Museums in a Troubled World is a sobering, perhaps overly so, State of the Union for museums, as it were.  He questions the relevance of today’s museums in today’s world.  You can watch a video where Dr. Janes summarizes the general content of the book.  Whether you agree with his assessment or not he provides much food for thought.  In the video he challenges museum professionals to “Explore your assumptions, explore your particular strengths and attributes as well as your obligations.”  (For another approach that considers some of Janes’ themes watch  We Love Museums . . . Do Museums Love us Back at the Pinky Show.)

Although Janes addresses a host of topics in the short 200 page volume, in his introductory remarks he poses a couple of very basic questions: ” . . . 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).

From just a physical standpoint, these questions are relevant to our current direction at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  Our physical structure is a hodgepodge of buildings and add-ons constructed over the last 30-50 years.  Our knee-jerk thought over the past 10 or so years or so is the need to build a new state of the art museum.  But . . .  if we were to come at this from the perspective of starting over, what should be built?  Given trends in ecotourism, digital technology, preservation and conservation, coupled with economic and world realities, surely the newer bigger, badder approach should not be the first option.  Janes’ asking about the public role is certainly at the heart of current approaches toward community engagement and the participatory museum.

During my time with the Division of Archaeology in Louisiana, intriguing discussions were had about interpreting sites such as the completely undeveloped Middle Archaic Watson Brake, one of the earliest earthwork complexes in North America.  Given the many well-preserved prehistoric sites in the region, both publicly and privately owned, the discussion of development is rich with possibilities.  One of the responses from the Louisiana Division of Archaeology was to create a fantastic driving tour brochure of the prehistoric earthworks in Northeast Louisiana that leaves no footprint on the ground.

A challenge in the coming years for archaeologists and museum professionals will be to discuss the questions of relevance posed by Janes in his book.  Sitting back, considering what it would be like to start over and how the public should be involved seems a great starting point.

Your thoughts?

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?