The End of an Era in Louisiana Archaeology

Tom Eubanks, 2004

Or What I Learned During My Time in the Louisiana Regional Archaeology Program . . .

The Fall 2013 Newsletter of the Louisiana Archaeological Society had bad news.  Louisiana’s Regional Station Archaeology Program is now effectively disbanded because of state budget cuts.  There remains one regional station in Northwest Louisiana along with the Poverty Point Station Archaeologist.  As Poverty Point was recently nominated as a World Heritage Site of UNESCO, hopefully the state will continue to fund the Station Archaeology Program at this premier earthwork complex in the New World.

From 1996 – 2003, during my seven years as the Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point, under the direction of the late State Archaeologist Tom Eubanks and the current Manager of the Outreach, Regional, and Station Archaeology program Nancy Hawkins, my commitment to public outreach as an applied archaeologist was formed.  Both Tom and Nancy’s vision of public engagement never wavered.  In fact, it was under the 20 plus years of leadership by Nancy Hawkins that the Louisiana’s Regional program helped set the standard on which other state archaeology programs were built.

Nancy Hawkins

During my tenure as the Poverty Point Station Archaeologist, I was first able to respond to the challenge I received in my first field school experience – to act as a public servant who performed tasks that were relevant to those whose tax dollars paid my salary.

One of my first experiences in public outreach in Louisiana archaeology was with Debbie Buco, a very enthusiastic Talented and Gifted teacher from Baton Rouge.  Nancy put me in touch with Debbie who was using the archaeology of Poverty Point to teach natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences to her second through fifth grade students.  After my first few conversations with Debbie, I was not certain how I could fit into her work, but I knew I wanted to tap into her enthusiasm.  For a period of several months in 1997 I had a regular email exchange with her students answering questions about the prehistoric life at Poverty Point.  What did the Indians eat?  What did the kids do for fun?  What were there houses like?  As we went back and forth via email, I learned valuable lessons on how to use archaeology to engage with the students.

Buch elem
In-class presentation, Buchannon Elementary, Baton Rouge, 1997.

Toward the end of the 1997 school year, I made the trip to Debbie’s classroom at Buchannon Elementary in a clearly underserved section of Baton Rouge.  When I walked into the classroom, I was humbled by the enthusiasm the students had for a visit from the archaeologist who had been writing to them about Poverty Point and drove all the way to their school for a visit.  After climbing inside the palmetto hut they built inside their classroom along with at least three of the students, we began a conversation in the less cramped setting outside the structure.  I asked the question:

“so, if you built this house outside and came back in a hundred years after it had rotted away, how could you tell it was ever there?”

To which there was silence at first and then a response –

“by the rotted sticks . . . no the postmolds . . . yeah, by the postmolds”

the students concluded in unison.

We talked about that some, then I held up a bladelet and asked:

“Do you know what this is?”

and I expected responses like “a rock” or at best a knife or tool, but the students responded immediately in unison with the same confidence that they knew 2 + 2 = 4:

“A microlith!”

Though impressive, it was not that the second through fifth grade students had learned to memorize the names of artifact types they had only seen in pictures, or that they could understand formation processes better than some undergraduates in Introduction to Archaeology classes I have taught.  Rather, archaeology had set the students on fire in learning to read, conduct scientific experiences and more.  Ultimately Debbie Buco produced the volume Poverty Point Expeditions, a workbook that uses archeology to teach physics, scientific experimentation, story telling, and more.  Nancy saw to it that the Louisiana Division of Archaeology produced thousands of copies of the book for distribution to teachers throughout the state.  A streamlined version of the book is available online.

Palmetto house built by students at Buchanon Elementary, Baton Rouge, 1997.

Nancy organizes Archaeology Month in Louisiana and during my time at Poverty Point it was always a big deal.  I enjoyed the opportunity to take the archaeology show on the road as it were for up to two weeks every year.  My m.o. was to arrange for a school presentation during the day and then a public presentation at a library or other civic center in the evening.  I have spoken in a good number of the small Louisiana towns that might have only one traffic light and a small library.  I have posted before about some of my very memorable classroom experiences during Archaeology Month.

I learned a lot about public outreach from the library meetings in the small towns where farmers and surface collectors would come to show what they had plowed up.  During these presentations, I came to appreciate the interest avocational archaeologists had not just in their “arrowheads” but for their true respect and interest in the prehistory of the fields they plowed each year.  I spoke several times at the public library in Belzoni, Mississippi, just down the road from the Poverty Point Culture Jaketown site.  In one talk I discussed how Carl Alexander, an avocational archaeologist who collected at the Poverty Point site, would label where he had picked up many of his artifacts.  I noted that because Carl recorded the provenience of his collections, today we could better understand how the different ridges and sectors of the Poverty Point site were the locations of different types of activities in prehistory.  I showed how a large percentage of the whole projectile points were found in the north end of the site, perforators on the southwest sector of ridges, and the ubiquitous clay cooking balls had their greatest densities along the edges of the Bayou Macon.  I then asked:

“Do you all see a similar pattern of artifact types in the different areas where you collect around the Jaketown site?”

And the collectors nodded in agreement and began to talk about the clusters.  The next year when I spoke at the Belzoni library a couple of the collectors reported they had begun to take note of where they were recovering different types of artifacts.  Today there is a small museum in Belzoni where some collectors have donated portions of their collections from the Jaketown site.

Back at Poverty Point, for school group visits during Archaeology Month, I developed a 20-minute program for when a couple thousand school children jammed through the site each day over a three-day period.  My assigned station was to show how archaeologists used artifacts to interpret prehistory.  I talked about how archaeologists primarily examine the garbage left by the people who lived at the site.  To illustrate that process I would take a made bucket of dirt and artifacts and dump the content through a set of large to small nested geologic sieves.  I would then invite the students to pick out a piece of garbage from the sieves moving from large to small, and guess what the garbage represented.  In so doing, we covered everything from trade and exchange based on raw material types, subsistence from faunal remains, tool manufacture, and more.  For the last station in the 20 minute presentation I would scoop some light fraction (the stuff that rises to the top) from a soil sample placed in a barrel of water.  I said that the bits of seeds and bone were:

“not ‘like’ what the people were eating at Poverty Point nearly 4000 years ago, but the very food the people were eating”

Without fail for seven years, even the most restless student would grow quiet and strain to see those bits of prehistoric garbage.

I could ramble on with many more examples of the lessons I learned in applied archaeology and public outreach during my time as a part of Louisiana’s Regional Archaeology Program.  I am in debt to the Louisiana Division of Archaeology for giving me the opportunity to learn these skills.  Though the Regional Archaeology Program may be gone, the 20 years of work by Tom Eubanks, Nancy Hawkins, and all of my archaeological colleagues in the state will surely result in new and innovative directions for the preservation and presentation of the rich cultural heritage of Louisiana.

I got a call the other day asking for an archaeologist to come to a 5th grade class to talk about hunter gatherers and how archaeologists interpret prehistoric sites.  In the corner of my office, I see that I am still using that same bucket of dirt, replenished on occasion, to talk about the same prehistoric garbage I started with over 15 years ago in Epps, Louisiana!

AmeriCorps Turns 20 & What That Means For Museums

amcorps anniversary

As anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I am a huge fan of AmeriCorps NCCC who just celebrated their 20th Anniversary.  Click on the above link to watch a video about the significance of that event.

In the past two years, AmeriCorps NCCC Teams have come to play an essential role at the C.H. Nash Museum in helping to carry out our mission.  This October 23rd we will welcome our fourth eight-week AmeriCorps NCCC Team.  The Teams live in the Museum’s repurposed residential complex we have named the Community Service Learning Dormitory.

Over the two-year period,  we have evolved an effective three-prong approach to service in Southwest Memphis with AmeriCorps NCCC Teams.

Service in the Southwest Memphis Community

The teams work with the Westwood Neighborhood Association who identify elderly and U.S. military veterans on fixed incomes in need of residential clean-ups to prevent their property from being in violation of city codes.  The teams also perform minor to moderate repair work on roofs and other exterior structural repairs on houses for the elderly and veterans.  For example, this fall’s team will spend about 10 days working on the house of an 88 year-old WWII military veteran who has lived in his home since 1953 in the Walker Homes neighborhood of Memphis.  Walker Homes was launched in the late 1940s as a neighborhood for returning African-American WW II Veterans.

In the past two years we have focused on expanding the role of other community residents in working with the AmeriCorps Team.  For example, this past spring the River 7 Team met regularly with Boys and Girls Clubs in the area.  The Team’s work was also supported both financially and through employee volunteering from the new Electrolux facility located near the Museum.

Service in the T.O. Fuller State Park

Each AmeriCorps NCCC Team also completes infrastructure improvements at the T.O. Fuller State Park located next to the Museum.  The tasks include trail maintenance, painting, and other special projects.  For example, the River 7 Team planted over 800 trees in a new ecological habitat being created at the Park.  The Teams also help in Park community events such as the Annual Easter Egg Hunt and Halloween activities.

The AmeriCorps service at T.O. Fuller has added significance for two reasons.  First, the Park was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Today, AmeriCorps is a legacy of that organization.  Second, T.O. Fuller State Park plays an important role in the cultural heritage of the Southwest Memphis community as one of only two facilities in the United States built in the 1930s as a State Park for African-Americans in the Jim Crow-era segregated South.

Service in the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa

The AmeriCorps Teams at Chucalissa have carried out innumerable tasks including rehabbing the community service learning dorm, building benches and picnic tables, building a replica prehistoric house, trail maintenance, reconfiguring the repository space, artifact processing and much more.  This fall the team will build a pergola-type outdoor activity space, rain shelters along our trail system, and several components of our new Landscape Literacy project.

Community Service and Relevance

The AmeriCorps Team members exemplify some of the very best commitment to service of the millennial generation.  We are particularly pleased with the increased community engagement in the AmeriCorps NCCC projects.  I enjoy that the Teams bring a willingness for flexibility and expanding the box of normal thinking.  These qualities have been critical as the Community, the Park, and the Museum work together on collaborative projects that align with their individual missions.  For example, this fall the AmeriCorps Team will take part in the community reclamation of an abandoned cemetery that draws on the archaeological and cultural heritage preservation expertise of the Museum.  The AmeriCorps Team was also the link that allowed the Museum and Community to collaborate in creating a banner exhibit on U.S. Military Veterans unveiled at the September 11 Day of Service in 2012.  The AmeriCorps NCCC Team highlights the relevance and partnership that comes to the fore in community service learning projects.

So . . . A hearty congratulations to AmeriCorps NCCC on their 20th Anniversary!  Check out their website to see how your organization can partner with this fantastic organization.

AmeriCorps NCCC: The Best of the Millennial Generation

In the last post I highlighted the team members of the River 7 AmeriCorps NCCC Team, hosted by the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa for eight weeks this spring.  I have posted before on the role of AmeriCorps NCCC Teams as a means for community outreach in museum contexts.

For this week’s post I highlight Ana Rea, the Team Leader for River 7.  I thoroughly enjoyed working with Ana during the Team’s round here in Memphis.  She exemplifies the best of the millennial generation’s commitment to service and living into the solutions.  Ana will be leading the River 7 NCCC Team next in Gainesville Florida and then in West Virginia at the Boy Scout Jamboree.  If you are in those areas, track down Ana and her team members to see an excellent example of community service in action.


by Ana Rea

My name is Ana Rea and I was raised and had lived in Greenville, TX since the age of 9 and had never left my small town until I joined AmeriCorps NCCC. After attending Texas A&M-Commerce for one year I decided to take a break and really discover what it was that I wanted to do with my future. I began working at a local dance studio where I became heavily involved in community engagement and community service. Part of my duty as the office administrator was to find opportunities for our dance competition group to be involved with serving others. Annually, Academy of Dance, Music, and Theatre, the studio I worked for, hosted a benefit dance gala that donated all proceeds to the local non-profit organization C.A.S.A. (Court Appointed Special Advocates). C.A.S.A. is an organization that provides advocates for abused and neglected children so that they may thrive in a safe and loving home. I found myself looking forward to this event every year as I was in charge of planning and supervising every aspect of the event. Knowing that I was putting together an event that would help children live in a safe environment was my inspiration to making the event a success every year. That’s when I began to discover what my passion was; helping those less fortunate and community service. After a few years of working at the studio and having some experience in planning benefit events, my family and I decided to create our own fundraiser. We involved the community in celebrating International Day of Peace with various activities like a “Soccer for Peace” tournament, fun activities for the kids, music, food, and a raffle with donated items from local businesses and the renowned Major League Soccer team FC Dallas. The event was a success and we were able to raise a monetary donation for C.A.S.A. to promote peace in children’s homes. Again, an event like the one my family and I put together really solidified what I was meant to do. I began the search for volunteer programs that could give me a better understanding of what I aspire to in a career. That’s when I found AmeriCorps NCCC. This program was very appealing not only in the sense of being able to serve others but in the fact that it is a domestic program that helps communities all over the United States. I was born and raised in Mexico City until the age of 9 when my family decided to move to the U.S. I wanted to begin my journey of “paying it forward” in the country that I now call home, the country that has given me so many opportunities for success and the country that has made me the person who I am today.

AC Electro
Ana with three River 7 Team Members (white shirts), Southwest Memphis community residents, and Electrolux officials who provided financial and volunteer support to the River 7 projects.

It would only be fair that I served my home first. I am currently serving in my second year of AmeriCorps NCCC Southern Region as a  team leader for River 7 and so far, I have been privileged enough to serve in the states of Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Some of the projects that I have been part of include disaster response for Hurricane Isaac,  the Hattiesburg tornado, energy conservation work with Greenlight New Orleans, environmental stewardship projects in mountain top removal sites in the Appalachian mountains, rebuilding homes after Hurricane Katrina and currently working with the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, the Westwood Neighborhood Association and T.O. Fuller State Park in Memphis, Tennessee. I plan on continuing the path of service to others with an open mind and learning something new every day.

Ana can be contacted at

The AmeriCorps NCCC River 7 Team & Community Outreach

Team pic
AmeriCorps NCCC River 7 Team with Southwest Memphis homeowner.

Today starts our final week of eight with the AmeriCorps NCCC River 7 Team at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  River 7 is the third AmeriCorps NCCC Team our Museum has hosted since 2012.  The three teams have operated in a unique partnership with the C.H. Nash Museum, the Westwood Neighborhood Association, and the T.O. Fuller State Park.  The Team worked in the Westwood neighborhood with elderly homeowners to help with landscaping and structural repairs.  At T.O. Fuller State Park the Team planted over 1000 trees and installed signage along the six miles of trail.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, the Team helped reconfigure the museum’s library and repository and completed the refurbishment of a residential facility that will house future community service teams.  The AmeriCorps NCCC River 7 Team also worked with employees from the newly constructed Electrolux plant who volunteered and provided economic support for the home repair projects in Westwood.  Click here for additional information about the River 7 Team.

The AmeriCorps NCCC exemplifies the very positive role that millennials play in our country today.  AmeriCorps partnerships with museums allow cultural institutions to live into one of their defining principles set forth by the International Council of Museums as “. . . institutions in the service of society and of its development.”

As the AmeriCorps NCCC River 7 Team gets ready to leave Memphis and head for their next eight-week round in West Virginia, I asked the nine Team Members and their Team Leader to explain why they joined AmeriCorps NCCC.  Here are their responses.

William Custus (left) and Corbin Beastrom (right)

My name is William Custus. I am 22 yrs old. I’m originally from Baltimore Maryland but I now live in Washington DC. I joined AmeriCorps NCCC on February 11th 2013. The reason I joined AmeriCorps is because I believe in making a difference in people’s lives, and shaping communities to become safer, smarter, and healthier.

Corbin Beastrom is a former college student from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After three years in academia, he dropped out of a world defined by in-class essays, titular student government, and DC internships to embark on what he refers to as, “his first sabbatical.” Following graduation from AmeriCorps NCCC Corbin plans to lead a nomadic lifestyle comprised of graduate school, organic farming, and coffee.

Kaneesha and KT
Kaneesha Frazier (left) and KT Ainsworth (right) get their first taste of crawfish at St. John’s Episcopal church in Memphis.

My name is KT Ainsworth and I am 18 years old and from Bend, Oregon. During my junior year of high school, my dad received a heart and kidney transplant. The community took time out of their busy lives to help my family and make sure my siblings and I were cared for. Seeing just how much a community of people were able to positively affect a family’s life made me want to carry the kindness forward. That is why I joined AmeriCorps NCCC. Seeing the difference my team makes every single day is what pushes me to keep going. I love what I do and who I do it for.

My name is Kaneesha Frazier and I am from Columbus, Ohio.  I joined AmeriCorps NCCC to help strengthen communities. I heard about AmeriCorps NCCC from my school Youth Build in Columbus and I plan to continue my college education in criminal justice upon completion of the NCCC program.

Bobbie Jean Keller (left) and Raymond Smith (right)

My name is Bobbie Keller, I am 19 years old and before AmeriCorps NCCC I lived in Long Beach, Mississippi. I was affected by hurricane Katrina in 2005 and ever since then I have had a desire to pay it forward. AmeriCorps NCCC is the perfect program for me, I get to travel and volunteer.

Hello my name is Raymond Smith. I am 19 years old and from Chicago Illinois. I joined AmeriCorps NCCC in February 2013. I joined because I heard that there was a program that helps communities in need and respond to disasters. I have a passion for helping others and to see that it makes me happy. I also joined to help change and decrease the crime rate by getting out into the communities setting an example for others so our world could become a better place.

John Cipollo (left) and James Burks (right)

My name is John Cipollo. I am 23 years old and I am from Bristol, Connecticut. I joined AmeriCorps NCCC because I wanted to give back to the community.

I am James Burks.  Well my reason for attending AmeriCorps NCCC was to help others and at the same time better myself. I also was interested in the traveling to see and visit different places. I was born in Chicago, Illinois but moved to Park Forest, Illinois. I have other sisters and a brother, but I am the youngest of them all. I wanted to venture off and see what I can do with my life. I like all kinds of sports.  I am 20 years old and I like to chill and have fun. I want to make a difference in our community and I plan to try my best to do that.

John Hamburger (left) and Robert Gurley, President of the Westwood Neighborhood Association with Ana Rea, Team Leader for River 7 (right)

My full name is John Dale Hamburger III, and I am originally from Grand Island, Nebraska but for the past two years I have lived in Chadron, Nebraska going to Pine Ridge Job Corps. The reason I have come to AmeriCorps NCCC is due to the opportunity I have been presented to help others like when I was in Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at Grand Island Senior High school. I feel great helping others and when something like AmeriCorps NCCC presented itself to me, I just couldn’t give it up so easily. Also cause I have always wanted to travel to other places and get to know others. Plus I can’t lie – I also did it for the College opportunity and I wanted to make a difference in my family by being the first person out of both sides of my family to finish a four-year college.

My name is Ana Rea and I was raised and had lived in Greenville, TX since the age of 9 and had never left my small town until I joined AmeriCorps NCCC. After attending Texas A&M-Commerce for a year I decided to take a break and really discover what it was that I wanted to do with my future.  I am currently serving in my second year of AmeriCorps NCCC Southern Region as a  Team Leader for River 7 and so far, I have been privileged enough to serve in the states of Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. I plan on continuing the path of service to others with an open mind and learning something new every day.

You can contact the AmeriCorps NCCC River 7 Team at –

Exploring Alternative Volunteer Opportunities

Participants in the Emerging Leadership’s Service on Saturday volunteer program at the University of Memphis

I have thought a good bit about volunteering lately, in part because of the evolution in how this process works at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  I posted before about our Museum’s irregular staff that includes a range of volunteers, student interns, and community service participants.  In the past year we saw a stagnation in our traditional once-a-month type volunteer program but a radical growth in the other components of our “irregular staff” category.  For example, our traditional Volunteer Saturdays now have a more modest attendance than two years ago.  At the same time, in 2012 the real hours contributed at Chucalissa by the total of these irregular staff continued to increase (@8500) and exceeded that of the regular staff (@8000).

The entry for volunteering at Wikipedia provides some insights on the shift we are seeing.  The entry notes that volunteering:

is generally considered an altruistic activity and is intended to promote good or improve human quality of life. In return, this activity produces a feeling of self-worth and respect; however, there is no financial gain. Volunteering is also renowned for skill development, socialization, and fun. It is also intended to make contacts for possible employment. Many volunteers are specifically trained in the areas they work . . .

What I like about this entry is that the very essence of the action is focused on the volunteer and not the agency.  That is, in the case of museums the institution is meeting the need and providing a service for the volunteer.  Intuitively, that understanding seems to flip the traditional concept of volunteers as those providing the service.  However, the institution being the provider in the service relationship is the essence of the Participatory Museum.  This understanding is stated in the opening paragraph in a recent article on volunteers:

To begin, we start with a question: If there were an opportunity for an unlimited number of paid staff at museums would we still recruit volunteers to assist in collections work? In this paper we answer that question with a resounding yes. In fact, we suggest that with increased paid staff, the quantity of volunteers should increase as well. We base this assessment in recognizing the shift of museums from being collections driven to centering on the visitor experience (Anderson 2004:2-5), an educational approach that is constructivist (Hein 2006:347-349) and that acknowledges the role of free-choice learning (Falk and Dierking 2002).  (R.P. Connolly & N.B. Tate, 2011,Volunteers and Collections as Viewed from the Museum Mission Statement. Collections, 7(3), p. 325-346)

The flipping of roles makes the museum responsible for addressing the public needs whose cultural heritage the museum presents and preserves.  In this capacity, it becomes incumbant upon the museum to provide opportunities for volunteering that align with how the public organize their volunteering capacity.

Besides the traditional, consider a few of  the other types of volunteers we now serve at the C.H. Nash Museum:

  • Avocational Organizations – I previously posted about the work of Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society.  Also, for nearly ten years the Southwind Garden Club has planted seasonal floral arrangements at the museum.  In a two-year effort, the Club created an arboretum at the site with plans for expansion in the coming months.  Over a similar period, the Friends of Chucalissa provided integral support in coordinating special events and fundraising for the Museum.  Particularly as the public pursuit of informal lifelong learning continues to grow, avocational and social groups will expand their outreach for volunteering opportunities.
  • Scout Youth Groups – Through both regular volunteer service activities and program requirements, Boy and Girl Scout groups have built, painted, or maintained a variety of facilities, both large and small at our Museum.  We maintain a regular list of possible projects for these groups to choose from.  As youth discretionary time becomes more structured with a host of competing activities, we might expect that youth groups will continue as a primary outlet to experience volunteering in the formative years.
  • Community Service Learning –  Through programs such as the University of Memphis Emerging Leaders, area high schools, alternative spring breaks, students at all levels take part in curriculum-based volunteer activities that last for anywhere from 2 hours to several days in length.  This type of volunteering proved instrumental in creating our medicinal plant sanctuary, landscaping at the Museum, exhibit creation, and in community outreach/cleanup projects.  Community service/learning continues to increase both informally and through formal educational curriculum with no evidence of reaching a plateau anytime soon.

The above examples can be less predictable than recruiting the traditional volunteer docent who will show up like clockwork every other Tuesday and Saturday.  However, in the same way that to remain relevant to the public that we serve, museums are shifting more to family programs in response to the reduction in the school “field trip” experience, we must also provide new and creative volunteer opportunities that are relevant to the public needs.

Without a doubt, the most exciting conferences I have attended for the past two years are the Volunteer Tennessee Annual Meetings that explores many of these possibilities.  I will post about one of my favorites, the The Corporation for National and Community Service, separately.

What innovations have you incorporated into your volunteer programs? 

Community Service & Learning in Musuems

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helpful resources on this subject include:

What are your experiences with service and service learning activities?