Implementing Co-Creative Projects

In my last post I talked about projects co-created during the Fall Semester by students in my Museum Practices graduate seminar at the University of Memphis.  This week I report on implementing those project in Peru.

This past January, my colleague and a student in the graduate seminar, Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza and I traveled to the Hualcayán, Peru to deliver several of the products from the student projects.  Below is a report on some of the products discussed in last week’s post that we delivered during our January visit:

  • SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) Analysis and Strategic Plan for cultural heritage development in the Hualcayán community – We delivered thirty copies of the document written byElizabethCruzado Carranza andClaudiaTullos-Leonard to community leaders and other interested residents oftheHualcayán community.  The five goals in the strategic plan addressed the cultural heritage needs the community expressed over the past several years.  The plan lists objectives under eachgoalto be accomplished in the first year or by the fifth year of the proposed Strategic Plan timeframe, set to
    Timeline Banners installed in Museo de Hualcayán.

    begin on July 1, of 2015.  In delivering the documents, we suggested that the community discuss the content between now and the July 1 timeframe start date to refine and amend the Plan’s content.  In this way, the Strategic Plan’s co-creation extends beyond the content but to include the implementation – an important step for the community’s ultimate role in administering a sustainable cultural heritage program in Hualcayán.

  • Museum Timeline Banners – We mounted and installed the six banners requested by Hualcayán teachers that present a linked local, regional, and international timeline.  U of M students Christian Roesler and Mariah Selitsch researched, designed, and printed the banners.  The products are of a professional quality, address specific topics raised by the Hualcayán teachers – all for under $75.00 US, thanks to the Museum Practices students.
  • oralhisthual
    Delia, a Quechua woman interviewed by students for the oral history project.


    Oral History Project — A true highlight of Elizabeth and my visit was meeting with Hualcayán high school teacher Leodan Abanto Alejo Valerio whose class collected community oral histories over the Fall Semester of 2014 (Spring Semester in Peru).  I posted before about the genesis of this oral history project.  Leodan’s student interviews exceeded our expectations.  We were somewhat concerned if the notoriously shy Hualcayán students and area residents would be able and agreeable to having their stories recorded.  However, because of the co-creative nature of the project their hesitancy was for the most part avoided.  Some interviewees preferred only to have their voice recorded, but overall the students collected nearly twenty individual 10 to 20 minute histories from community elders.  Elizabeth will synthesize those histories into a book form that will report the founding and history of the village and discuss the natural and cultural resources of the Hualcayán community.  By July of 2015, we will print 200 copies of the history for distribution to community families and for use in the school.  By the end of 2015 we intend to produce a DVD of the recordings in Quechua and Spanish.  At the suggestion of one community resident, the DVD will also contain published articles, written reports on the archaeology of the area, along with a copy of the virtual exhibit in the Hualcayán Museum opened in August of 2014.  (If you would like to make a much-needed donation to this project, please visit the PIARA website.)

  • In January, Elizabeth and I also met with the Women of Hualcayán artisans who are creating woven, sewn, and embroidered crafts that are currently sold at two locations in the United States.  The project was launched in the summer of 2014.  Alicia Anderson, one of the Museum Practices students, thoroughly researched fair-trade and other similar small start-up projects to determine best practices toward a sustainable operation for the women artisans.  In January, we were able to discuss a range of options with the women on how they wished to move forward. The conversation assured that community expectations aligned with the actual possibilities for the project.

An important aspect of our trip to Hualcayán in January was for two archaeologists to make the trek to the rural community, located a 12-hour commute from Lima, for purposes other than those directly related to their archaeological research.  The sole purpose of our January visit was to respond to the community’s expressed needs.  We went to Hualcayán in response to John Cotton Dana’s (1917:38) prophetic co-creative call nearly one century ago to “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs.”  I suggest the same call is applicable for outreach work in applied archaeology as well.

Why Fund Museum Professionals with Public Dollars?

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?

DStarkThis year, Deanna Stark a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology wrote a particularly compelling response that contained many excellent talking points and examples.

Why Should Governments Fund Museums?

by Deanna Stark

It is not the role of government to fund only those things that provide a return on investment; government must also fund things that provide quality of life. This basic tenet of the Keynesian approach was the prevailing thought prior to the emergence of neoliberal policies. Even in the current SRI budget model talks here on campus, President Rudd acknowledges that not every department makes money for the university. But those things—like the library—make us a university, and he has pledged to continue them. This is an excellent model from which to begin.

As a former teacher, I know with absolute certainty that cultural experiences outside the everyday routine are vitally important. They show children that there are so many possibilities in life beyond what they currently know. One of my favorite events was taking the children of Kingsbury Elementary School on a field trip to hear a symphony performance at the Cannon Center. To hear the discussion on the bus was both endearing and heartbreaking. “Where are we going?” “Are we in another state?” “Is that the ocean?” These kids, who live in Memphis, had never even been downtown to the Mississippi River.

When we walked into the Cannon Center, they were enthralled by the reflective metal sculpture outside, and had a wonderful time seeing themselves differently. Going inside was like visiting a castle; the audible ooh-ing and aah-ing was quite dear. But when it was time to get everyone to the restroom before the performance began, I understood that this was more than just a field trip. You see, the restrooms are really nice, and the children were concerned that they weren’t allowed to use them. They didn’t think they belonged there.

They reminded me of myself as a sophomore whose university choir was on tour in Western Europe. I couldn’t believe how busy Munich was or how beautiful the sound in Salzburg’s Dom Platz Cathedral was or how moving it was to actually visit the Anne Frank House. It made me truly aware of another whole world, and shaped my educational goals. Fifteen years later, I was in Germany doing research for my dissertation. Without that first experience, though, I doubt I would have really believed it was possible for me.

Later, as a mom to a brown son who was interested in dance but not in being bullied for it, I looked for ways to tend that flame. When the Alvin Ailey Dance Company came to town, I saw my chance. He saw handsome strong brown and black men dancing in a way he’d never seen before. His posture was magnificent for almost two weeks!

When my Dad got sick, he had to live in a nursing home. It was a terribly difficult time for me, but it was devastating for him. Luckily, he lived in a place with wonderful staff members who planned interesting activities for every single day of the year. The activity directors were a teacher’s dream; they presented a different theme each month, and planned all sorts of real and virtual activities. When it was France’s month, the residents got to take a virtual tour of the Louvre. (This, admittedly, wasn’t really my blue-collar Dad’s style; but the point is that it was a meaningful experience for many other people.)

Museums are unique among cultural experiences in that they teach us about human history. Immigrants who visit the Tenement Museum understand that they’re not alone. People who visit open-air museums like the Pink Palace Crafts Fair or even Colonial Williamsburg learn how things were made in the past—by hand. When visitors go to the National Civil Rights Museum or the United States Holocaust Museum, they understand a bit of what people endured.

Museums bring us great joy, allow us to wonder, and fuel our ambitions. I’ve seen children’s eyes light up when they figure out how something works at a children’s museum. (The Anchorage Museum has an amazing children’s section that spans two floors.) And if you’ve never been around an entire class of 6th graders at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, you have missed the delight of seeing a young girl realize that she could really truly be an astronaut like Dr. Mae Jemison. Does anyone ever go to the Field Museum and not have a Jethro-in-the-big-city moment upon seeing the T-Rex skeleton?

I’ve spent an hour staring at the intricacy of the border surrounding George Seurat’s Sunday in the Park with George in the Art Institute of Chicago, and I’ve marveled at the beauty and strength that Diego Rivera was able to paint in his large Mexico City murals. Seeing so many Van Gogh paintings in one place was a highlight of my last trip to Europe. (I know the Dutch Masters are more high brow, but Van Gogh’s paintings, especially some of the darker, starker works, appeal to me much more.) I’ve also been absolutely mesmerized by both Georgia O’Keeffe’s clean-lined cityscapes and her intricate floral paintings.

For me, the reason tax dollars should pay museum salaries is a simple one: museums enhance our quality of life. Whether they inspire us, cause us to reflect, make us laugh, or light the spark of lifelong learning, museums cannot be replaced. If museums are not good investments in a country’s population, I can’t imagine what would be.

Deanna Stark can be contacted at dmstark(at)

Museum Studies Programs and Small Museums

Check out my guest post this week Museum Studies Programs and Small Museums, a Win-Win Collaboration at the American Association of State and Local History blog.

small museums

Public Accountability in Cultural Heritage Studies

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U.S. Military Veteran participants in Black History Month Celebration at the C.H. Nash Museum – photo featured in Museums and Social Issues volume

For the past few years I delivered a presentation on professionalism to a proseminar of incoming Anthropology graduate students at the University of Memphis (UM).  In preparing for the first time I gave the presentation, I sent an email to 50 professionals in my address book including those who worked as faculty, corporate and nonprofit administrators, and clergy.  In the email I asked this question:

If you could tell graduate students about one professional standard that is routinely violated but is of critical importance as they embark on their careers – what is that standard?

I was pleasantly surprised to receive 34 responses from a representative sample of careers:  2 Clergy, 3 Government officials, 6 University Professors, 7 University Administrators, 7 Non-Profit Administrators, and 9 Private Industry Administrators.

Now I routinely open the proseminar session by asking the students to speculate on the most common response professionals give to my question.  Typically, students raise issues such as the need to show up on time, wear appropriate clothes, and so forth.  In three years, no student has identified the top standard listed by over 60% of the professionals – Publishing Research Results and Public Accountability.  The responses from the professionals included:

. . . Many ‘academics’ do not give enough consideration to their responsibility to inform the public about their work.   Lip service and a few talks or even fewer publications are given by some, but being esoteric and admired by your colleagues is considered to be so much more important . . .

Despite the mantra of “publish or perish,” . . . far too many professionals fail to finish projects . . .

I will admit to being quite surprised by the priority given in this response as well.  In fact, the 34 professionals responses ranked Being on Time/Prepared and Appearance/Demeanor as 4th and 5th behind Responsiveness/Accountability and Giving Thanks/Acknowledgements, the 2nd and 3rd in their rankings.  Though certainly not a scientific study, the results were quite revealing and aligned with the response from a focus group in which I recently participated.  The College of Arts of Sciences conducted the focus group consisting of area employers who hire UM graduates.  The gist of the focus group was to determine how the College can better prepare students for employment.  Of the ten people in the focus group, the unanimous top response was the need for improvement in oral and written communication skills.

What does all of this have to do with Archaeology, Museums and Outreach?  These results remind me of the need for cultural heritage professionals to remain relevant to the communities we serve.  At the same time we need to demonstrate and share that relevance.  A few weeks ago, I received a surprising comment on this point.  We recently published a paper The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa: Community Engagement at an Archaeological Site.  The paper summarizes and evaluates the last five years of the Museum’s engagement as a participatory institution with the underserved community surrounding the Museum.  The journal Museums and Social Issues published the paper in a thematic set of papers (Volume 7, Number 3, 2012 Opening(ing) Authority Through Community Engagement) based on a session I organized two years before at a professional conference.  As an editor of the volume I received an extra hard copy of the journal and gave it to Mr. Robert Gurley, the President of the Westwood Neighborhood Association, the collaborating partner featured in the paper.  Mr. Gurley read an earlier draft of the paper and was pleased to have the published hard copy.

Mr. Gurley approached me a few days later saying that he showed the volume to other community members and four individuals wanted to buy a copy.  I noted that copies were $25.00 each, but I would be happy to provide pdf copies of the manuscript at no cost.  Mr. Gurley replied that the community members were proud to be featured in the “book” and wanted to have an actual copy.  He also noted that he had read several of the articles in the volume and enjoyed knowing how our type of community/museum collaboration was carried out at other locations in the U.S.

Ultimately, I cut a deal with the press and got 10 copies for 19.00 each.  All ten copies were sold in the community within one week.  I must admit I was quite surprised that ten individuals in this working class community were interested in paying 19.00 for an 18-page article on a collaborative project in their neighborhood.

Flowing from this example, I will return to this theme next week to consider other opportunities to address the Public Accountability and Responsiveness standard considered top priorities by the professional community.

What opportunities do you take to share your research with the public?

The Relevance of Cultural Heritage Professionals

A few months ago I posted a Museum Practices seminar student, Leila Hamdan’s response to the following question:

Put yourself in the position of John or Josephine Q. Public. In the current economic chaos, the bank is foreclosing on their home, they have lost their jobs, and the city just reduced their public services. In referring to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the House Budget Committee recently arguedthat “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 as 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?

Since that time, I have asked these questions of my students more often in both formal and informal settings.  I believe that the ability to articulate the relevance of cultural heritage professionals to the issues facing our country today is critically important.   The essay below is a portion of the written comprehensive exam answer to my questions for University of Memphis Anthropology Graduate Student Mallory Bader.  For her practicum project in Anthropology, Mallory coordinated last fall’s AmeriCorps Team project at the C.H. Nash Museum.  As well, for the past two years, she served as a graduate assistant at the C.H. Nash Museum.  And I should add, today Mallory successfully passed her written and oral comprehensive exams for her M.A. degree in Anthropology at the University of Memphis.  Below is Mallory’s answer to the above question:

MBader1by Mallory Bader

Our world is rapidly changing due to globalization and modernization. Cities are shifting, economies are collapsing, and violence threatens us daily. Citizens often question the value of museums and the government entities that support them such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.  It is often said that museums are places for the elite, making these taxpayer-funded organizations doing a wealth transfer.  However, I would argue that this is not true.  Museums have historically been viewed as places for the elite, but that model is shifting towards a new museum that is more participatory and engaging.  Additionally, museums offer many services to the public that do not benefit only the elite or wealthy citizens, such as educating youth and protecting natural resources.  As an emerging museum professional, my work in museums is not a wealth transfer and the benefits that John and Josephine Q. Public get for their tax dollars are immense and real.

The shift of demographics in America has been reflected in museums.  The United States is now a majority-minority population and is becoming more diverse daily. In museums, people of color and low socio-economic status have not always felt welcome due to the stigma of museums as places for the elite. However, many programs have been instituted that are shifting the visitation of museums. The Center for the Future of Museums publishes a state of museums article that details the various ways museums are reaching out to increasingly diverse audiences.  Museums are adding front-line staff that speak multiple languages, offering free or reduced admission to visitors receiving public assistance, conducting outreach into areas that have historically not been museum visitors, and many other things.  This is one way that museums are not simply enjoyed by people of higher income.

As an emerging museum education professional, my job is to educate youth and adults on a variety of topics. Similar to a teacher, I must provide an engaging and stimulating learning environment that builds on core curriculum standards.  As a museum educator, I feel that my job is a public servants job, just like a teacher would be. In addition, I would argue that other museum professionals such as collections managers are also public servants by protecting the natural and cultural resources of our nation.

Although at this time, I do not know where my career will end up in museums, I can say with certainty that my position is not just another example of this wealth transfer.  At Chucalissa, I have provided quality educational programming to thousands of students in my two years at the museum. John and Josephine Q. Public directly benefit from this through having students graduate more prepared, more engaged, and ready to enter the workforce.  In addition, I have assisted with community outreach projects that help with community development projects that make Memphis a better and healthier place to live.  My future career in museums is not set, but my plans include projects similar to the ones I have conducted at Chucalissa. In addition, my long-term goal is to operate a science museum that focuses on providing STEM education to underserved students.  This will help to provide a better prepared workforce in our world that is increasingly reliant on technology. My partner in this project has a PhD in Materials Chemistry from CU-Boulder. Together, we have applied to the National Science Foundation for a Graduate School Innovation Challenge to present a model of service learning and outreach for STEM education through museums.

Both she and I have been committed to justifying our positions as researchers at taxpayer funded institutions by engaging in outreach during our careers.   These are the various ways in which my position and research within museums are benefiting John and Josephine Q. Public

Mallory can be contacted at mbader(at)

Baby Steps in Making Museums & Archaeology Relevant

Below is the modified text of a presentation I gave this past Saturday at the Student Committee Workshop on public education and outreach in archaeology at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference Annual Meeting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  

My introduction to public outreach in archaeology occurred in 1986 at the Fort Ancient Earthworks in Southwest Ohio during my first field school experience.  The instructor, the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis, based 10% of our course grade on how we interacted with the tourists/visitors who came to the excavations.  Each day Pat assigned one student the responsibility to answer visitor questions.  Pat was reasonably rigid in all that she did in the field, including how the students interacted with the visitors – you best be able to explain the research questions and your specific task in the excavations. Pat also posed a very interesting challenge to us that year.  She said something very close to “If you cannot explain to the visitor why their tax dollars should go to support these excavations or keep the Fort Ancient site open, you might as well go home.”

That challenge has remained with me to this day.  Over the years it has morphed into questions like the one posed to me during my MA Thesis defense a long time ago by Barry Isaac who asked “Why is reading your thesis more important than eating a plate of worms.”  For a long time the best I could come up with was to respond that the research was interesting and answered many questions about past cultures that we did not know.  That in conducting research at the places like the Hopewell earthwork complexes of the Ohio Valley we could foster a greater appreciation of the complex prehistoric Native American cultures of the region – regardless of the fact that in those years the Native American community was actively protesting against the Ohio Historical Society and their site excavations.

In the years since, those questions or challenges have remained in the forefront of my mind.  Here I will briefly explore some of the responses I have come up with since 1986.  However, I will note that in our training of students in the classroom today, I think we are still not terribly good at getting at this point.  During my questioning of graduate students during brown bags or thesis presentations, I fear that I come off more as the old curmudgeon when I pose my obligatory “plate of worms” or “taxpayer support” question/challenge.  I find that most students today are no better prepared to respond than I was 25 years ago.  I see that as a problem.

Interest and intellectual engagement are certainly important and relevant.  One of my favorite examples in this area was an experience I had with Poverty Point figurines nearly 15 years ago.  Past conventional wisdom had it that these 3500-year-old artifacts may be fertility symbols and that they all represent females.  But for a whole bunch of reasons, today we know that dog won’t hunt.  During show and tell classroom visits, I often posed this question to grade school students – What do you think these figurines are all about?  The answer I got from a 5th grade girl during a presentation at St. Leo’s Elementary school in Lafayette Louisiana was interesting.  Our exchange went something like this:

Me – So what do you think these headless figurines are all about?

She – They didn’t have camera’s back then did they?

Me – No they did not.

She – Well maybe instead of having a picture on the mantle of their grandma or grandpa who lived far away, they kept this statue and when the person died they broke the head off because they were dead.

Me – Hmmm . . . that sounds like a pretty good idea.  I like it.  Has anybody else got any other ideas?

. . . and the fact is, the 5th graders response better accounts for the actual presence of the figurines in the Poverty Point archaeological record than the conventional wisdom passed along by archaeologists.  As an aside, I have remembered that story for the past 15 years.  I have recently wondered if that student, now in her twenties, also remembers that story, and if having her interpretation legitimized proved meaningful to her.

But in moving from simple engagement and curiosity, I consider some of the best resources on this issue are the applied archaeology volumes such as those edited by Paul Shackel, Erve Chambers, and Barbara Little, to name but a few.  These volumes are filled with case studies where archaeology is used as a source for empowerment of indigenous communities.  A distinct component of these studies are the collaborative and co-creative processes where the archaeologist and the indigenous community work together in the research.  Natalye Tate and I recently published a substantive piece on this in the journal Collections.

Let me summarize how this process can work where I am employed as the Director of The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa a Mississippian Temple Mound Complex in Memphis Tennessee. The Chucalissa site was discovered in modern era of Jim Crow politics when in the 1930s the CCC was building a segregated park for the African American community of Memphis, then known as the Shelby County Negro Park.  When the temple mound complex was encountered during the construction process the surrounding 40-acres was removed from the park development and became an enclave of academic research.

In 2002 a small 1920s era African-American farmstead was excavated at the Chucalissa site.  Because the site museum interpreted only the prehistoric  Mississippian culture and to a lesser extent the contemporary Native Americans in the form of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the materials from this farmstead excavation were stored away.

Note that the community surrounding the Museum is 90% African American and we record more visitors from that zip code 38109 than any other.  In the summer of 2010, we received a grant to employ nine area high school students to create an exhibit on the farmstead excavations.  Our grant proposal goal was simply to create a single exhibit case on the excavations.  The five-week process exceeded our expectations dramatically.  In addition to the exhibit case itself, the students collected 30 hours of oral history interviews that they edited into a 20-minute documentary, created timeline banners of the African American experience in southwest Memphis and began a resource center.

So, the grant funders and everyone agreed they got their money’s worth out of the project and we got a great exhibit, but I don’t see that as the real success story – rather, the real success of the project was in the co-creative process.  The museum staff provided the technical expertise, but the students created the content and had the final decisions in all aspects of the exhibit creation.  The only stipulation was that the exhibit had to focus on the excavation materials and the broader African American experience in Southwest Memphis.  The students selected the artifacts that would be in the display case, chose the community leaders to interview, researched the timeline scripts, and even determined the color of the wall paint.

In the same way that National Archaeology Day should simply be a node on an annual continuum of public outreach, so was this exhibit creation.  As an archaeological and cultural heritage museum we have ongoing projects with the surrounding community that predate and postdate the exhibit creation.  These projects include regular volunteer day activities in processing of prehistoric and historic cultural materials, a traditional medicinal plant sanctuary and dye garden, special programming, hosting Black History month events, community service projects and more.

There are two punch lines here in response to Pat Essenpreis’ challenge years ago.  First, the community surrounding the C.H. Nash Museum now very much understands how and why their tax dollar expenditures that support the museum are relevant.  I vividly recall a community meeting I attended 5 years ago.  The President of the Westwood Neighborhood Association abruptly challenged a University of Memphis colleague’s proposal saying “Don’t tell me what the University of Memphis is going to do for our community.  The last time you came and did your research you were here for two years and all we got was a map on the wall.”  That sentiment was replaced by the same individual announcing at the farmstead exhibit opening “We need to let more people in the community know about our exhibit at the Museum” along with collaboration on numerous other projects.

The second and equally important point is that we as the museum staff and archaeologists could not have created the exhibit that the students created nor could we have collected the information on the African American CCC crew, accessed the cultural memory that is now in place at the Museum, or interviewed the neighborhood candy ladies, simply because those data reside exclusively in the community.

I would like to consider  one other point on community engagement and public outreach.  In a recent post, I presented  the essay of Leila Hamdan, a graduate student in my Museum Practices seminar this year to illustrate the relevance of museums to the public.  The final line of Leila’s essay is where I find myself today in responding to the challenge Pat laid out to students in her field school 25 years ago.

Our challenge is to engage and demonstrate to the public the relevance to the preservation and presentation of their cultural heritage.  In so doing, we can create a public who will demand that the cultural heritage professional in fact preserve and present those materials and that the resources are made available to carry out that work.

And to everyone who responds with something like – nice idea – now let’s talk about the real world, I conclude with the advice given by Richard Dreyfuss to Bill Murray in the film What About Bob?  – it is all about taking the baby steps and consistently so.  We have just concluded extended community outreach through National Archaeology Day, and here in Louisiana Archaeology month – we need to continue that process all year.

Outreach as a process not an event

l to r, Jasmine Morrison, Tabitha Barlow, and Davarius Burton discuss the creation of their exhibit in the Summer of 2010.

For those who have followed this blog for a while, you are familiar with the 2010  Strengthening Communities Grant Initiative at the C.H Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  I have posted about this project as being like a node on a continuum of community engagement.  I am reminded of that fact this summer in several ways.  First, Jasmine Morrison, one of the student participants in the 2010 project, who also continued as a project volunteer in the summer of 2011, this summer is a visitor services employee at the Museum.  She brings to the Museum her experience and skills learned during her first year as a Communications major at the University of Tennessee at Martin.  Her employment at the Museum this summer enhances her formal education through a hands-on application with our visitors.

Also, this past week, Davarius Burton, another of the 2010 student participants dropped by with his composition notebook from the project to discuss those aspects of the exhibit he wants to continue working on this summer.  Davarius will conduct more interviews with community leaders.  He also plans to create a stand alone website that will feature and expand on the work of his fellow students from the 2010 project.  Like Jasmine, Davarius brings a wealth of experience to the table for this next phase of the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis project.  Davarius will enter the University of Memphis this fall as a student in architecture.

Finally, the current issue of the Society for Applied Anthropology’s newsletter contains the article Applied Archaeology and Community Engagement that reviews the past five years of our community outreach at the C.H. Nash Museum.  We are excited about what the next five years will bring as we continue to build a community based relationship for our Museum.

This all fits well with an adage I enjoy “It’s a process, not an event.”

Students as “Irregular” Museum Staff

The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa is a small facility with a full-time staff of four, supplemented by three graduate assistants each semester and the occasional temporary employee.  Perhaps the theme I write about most in this blog is the role of the interns, volunteers and students who are crucial to our Museum Mission that mandates we offer “exceptional educational, participatory, and research opportunities” to both the University of Memphis community and the public.

For our annual Volunteer Appreciation Day dinner, I always do some quick computations to report the important role of volunteers in our operation.  For example, I noted that in 2010 the number of hours expended at the Museum by what I refer to as the “irregular” staff composed of graduate assistants, interns, and volunteers nearly equals that of the four regular staff members (6750, 7850 hours respectively).  When I walk through our Museum, I quickly fill a legal size page enumerating the projects completed by this irregular staff.

I recently reviewed the last three years of our student projects.  Without even including the considerable contribution of Graduate Assistants, we hosted:

  • 7 Graduate and 11 Undergraduate Internships
  • 13 Graduate Level Projects through the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program
  • 3 Masters Level Practica
  • University of Memphis students who routinely take part in Volunteer Day activities
  • Class visits & projects of the Governor’s School, Fresh Connections, and the Departments of Earth Sciences and Anthropology
  • Student researchers using collections curated at the C.H. Nash Museum curated

These types of interaction are crucial for developing organic links with our governing authority, The University of Memphis.  Developing and sustaining these links takes a substantial investment on the part of the regular staff .  However, I am convinced that these relationships are precisely how we can be most relevant to the University.  In so doing, we move beyond a bricks and mortar expenditure to engage with students as an integral part of  the University Mission.

The engagement is often simply a matter of taking advantage of opportunities in the University setting.  Here are two examples – this semester I am teaching an Applied Archaeology and Museums undergraduate/graduate level course.  Enrolled students will complete one major and two minor projects.  For the major project, students will collaborate with the Public Education Committee of the Society for American Archaeology to update and redesign the Society’s public education webpages.  The webpages were created several years ago and are in need of a thorough revision.  For one of the minor projects, students will create a proposal to promote the prehistoric and historic cultural heritage of Memphis’ DeSoto Park that contains Mississippian era mounds and Civil War era structures.  Currently this city owned facility does not offer any interpretation of the built environment other than a single National Historic Register marker.

I believe that such projects are critical to educate students in service learning.  As archaeology and museums continue to grapple with how to demonstrate their relevance and involve the public in meaningful participatory experiences, engaging students directly in those projects is an incredible opportunity to take the classroom beyond the campus walls to educate those who will be the policy makers of tomorrow.  And then there is the bottom line question – does it work?  Can we take students from classes or as interns and create quality products for museums and other professional settings?  The total of my experience over the past few years strongly suggests that, with a commitment to mentoring, yes we can.  Stop by the C.H. Nash Museum to see if you agree!

What opportunities do you see for engaging students in your work?

From Me to We: Museums & Communities

In academia today there is a tension between the importance of interdisciplinary studies compared to single discipline research.  Although universities encourage collaboration across disciplines as an effective means for applied research individuals are evaluated and rewarded for production within their own departments.  To see the range of the discussion on this point, google interdisciplinary studies on the Chronicle of Higher Education website.

This tension can also be framed within a me vs we approach.  In a strict disciplinary approach, departments are viewed as individual “me” silos concerned foremost with their own self-interest and often with little concern about what happens outside of their own walls.  The interdisciplinary approach is considerably more engaging as a web of interaction that plays off of multiple partners.  In this capacity, the product of the interdisciplinary whole is more than the sum its individual departmental components creating a group synergy.

I have thought about the need for an interdisciplinary approach for a cultural heritage development in project in Orange Mound, an African American community of Memphis Tennessee with roots extending into the late 1800s.  The Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis is currently assisting the Orange Mound community in the creation of a local component for the traveling exhibit The Way We Worked from the Smithsonian Institution.  Orange Mound community discussions around the exhibit immediately raised possibilities for other cultural heritage projects.  In Memphis, there are many individual neighborhood possibilities but little in the way of a collaborative approach.  For example, typical cultural resource management archaeological projects result in gray literature reports and boxes of cultural materials, but little in the way public access or presentation.  A notable exception includes virtual presentations such as the Lamar Terrace project.  As well, for the past five years, the Rhodes College Crossroads to Freedom Project has collected oral history from the African American community.  I have posted before about community cultural heritage the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa collaborated on in Southwest Memphis.  But there is little or no effort to develop an interdisciplinary consortium of collaboration for these types of projects

Interdisciplinary projects have demonstrated considerable worth in broader community development.  For example, at the University of Memphis a colleague, Katherine Lambert-Pennington recently received national recognition for her work in this area.

When considering cultural heritage projects such as at Orange Mound, an interdisciplinary approach seems the most fitting.  The Collaborative for Cultural Heritage and Museum Practices (CHAMP) at the University of Illinois is one such example.  A quick scan of the CHAMP faculty demonstrates the broad interdisciplinary approach that the Collaborative can bring to any issue.  Consider the breadth of those faculty and their resources to envision any cultural heritage or museum project.  Consider how that interdisciplinary set of skills and ability will benefit the greater whole.  I suspect that there are few cultural heritage projects where going it alone will produce a better product.  However, such the multidisciplinary approach necessitates that we all move out of our individual silos and into a web of interconnection with others.

How can you benefit from a collaborative interdisciplinary relationship?