Poverty Point: Revealing the Forgotten City by Jenny Ellerbe and Diana Greenlee (2015, Louisiana State University Press) contains a set of photographs and essays on the 3500 year old prehistoric earthwork complex in northeast Louisiana, U.S., a recently designated World Heritage Site of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The book is a model for how to engage multiple audiences with information about an archaeological site.
Here is what you get in the 132 page volume:
About 100 photographs of the earthworks and artifacts taken over the last three years by northeast Louisiana native Jenny Ellerbe. As a fine art photographer, her images are creative, technically superb, and convey a strong sense of place. The total corpus of photographs provides a striking and comprehensive presentation of the physical site. Ms. Ellerbe is an accomplished artist.
Nearly 20 maps and figures that both contextualize the Ellerbe photographs and provide LIDAR, topographic, and other locational information for the site complex. These images include site location, intra-site organization, mound form, and prehistoric raw material resources.
In addition to images, each of the nearly 20 chapters contains essays by Ellerbe and Greenlee. Ms. Ellerbe writes from the perspective of a local resident fascinated with the prehistory of the region. As a lifelong resident of the region, she provides a critically important narrative about the place of Poverty Point that cannot be told and is simply not known by the archaeological community. Her perspective reflects a cultural heritage value that if adopted by Louisiana’s elected officials will lead to investing the necessary resources to preserve and present the Poverty Point earthworks in a manner appropriate to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The essays by Diana Greenlee complete the presentation in a rather unique way. Dr. Greenlee is the Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point who has accomplished considerable scholarly research at the site over the past decade, including the World Heritage Site designation. For this book, her writing style is not that of a peer-reviewed journal, but is precisely the tone and content appropriate for a broader audience. Dr. Greenlee provides an ideal model for engaging the public in the science of her discipline. For example, she gives a complete and understandable account of the remote sensing investigations of the large circular features in the plaza of the earthwork. She details the physical difference between a posthole and a postmold and explains the interpretive significance of the distinction. A two-page glossary includes entries for artifact, LIDAR, radiocarbon dating, pump drill and more. Perhaps most refreshing is that Dr. Greenlee speaks with the authority of her position, but also leaves room for speculation and further questions. For example, she notes that many refer to the large Mound A as the Bird Mound, though she sees a mushroom (which I agree) but concludes “There is no way to know, though, if that’s what the builders of Mound A intended. We can only speculate” (p. 59). Or consider her reporting on recent research that suggests Mound A was built in 90 days. She fairly presents the researchers’ claims, but notes she remains skeptical. She writes “I think that additional research, looking at more or different samples, could shed light on the issue. This is how science works and knowledge advances. You have a question, you collect the data necessary to answer the question . . . Often, answering one question raises other questions” (p. 60). How incredibly refreshing and such an instructive and inviting representation of archaeological research!
I thoroughly enjoyed Poverty Point: Revealing the Forgotten City. The photos are beautiful and instructive. The text illustrates the value of the earthwork from multiple perspectives in a manner that will be enjoyed and appreciated by the general public and the archaeological community. Jenny Ellerbe and Diana Greenlee do not talk to separate audiences but to all audiences – an impressive accomplishment and a true model for how archaeological research can be presented to maximize its value.
The $39.95 LSU Press price ($28.45 at amazon.com) is the only drawback from a wide distribution of the volume. Hopefully, a less expensive paperback will be forthcoming.
Also, as full disclosure, I served as the Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point from 1996 – 2003, but I don’t get anything from the sale of the books. 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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!
I posted last week about the Applied Archaeology and Museums class I taught this past semester at the University of Memphis. Forty percent of the course grade is from the final project that students propose and complete. I offer several possibilities and discuss projects from previous classes to help stimulate the students thinking. The criteria for the final project include that the product must be broadly based in archaeology or cultural heritage studies and must ultimately live in area museum. Here is one example of a completed project:
A prompt I gave for a possible project was a near empty exhibit case in the classroom building where many archaeology classes occur. I noted the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa curated an abundance of unprovenienced stone tools in our educational collections that could be used in creating an exhibit for the case. Two students, Garrett Ballard and Rachael Starks, proposed and created a stone tool exhibit that explored function and stylistic changes through time. The exhibit has three shelves. One shelf of their exhibit contains projectile points ranging from Paleoindian through Mississippian. Individual artifact labels include the age of the artifact and a linked QR code contains interpretive information. One shelf contains a series of untyped but numbered bifaces with a single label that asks “Which of the artifacts are really arrowheads?” the popularly assigned term for any triangular-shaped stone tool. A QR code links to a resource that illustrates and explains the function of each tool and identifies the true arrowheads. The third shelf contains a set of ground stone tools and labels that contain functional and raw material information.
The students pulled the stone tools from an unprovenienced surface collection curated at the Museum. Robert Ford, a University of Memphis Alum, and the best lawyer in a one lawyer town in rural Arkansas donated the collection in 2000. Ford donated the collection for use in educational projects. The several thousand diagnostic stone tools that range from Clovis to Mississippian points remained untouched in the repository for over 10 years. Mr. Ford was not pleased and called me one day asking about the artifacts. Having come to the museum seven years after the donation was made, I was unaware of the donation. When I located the materials in the repository, we made quick work of utilizing them in several of our educational programs.
Besides physically creating the exhibit, there are a few key lessons the two students gained from the project. First, they took away a keen understanding of the value and potential of archaeological resources locked away in museum repositories. Second, as undergraduates they created an exhibit that is of interest to them and their peers. Third, they created a meaningful product that will live on after the semester is over – an act in itself that is empowering.
Here are some of Garrett Ballard’s thoughts expressed in his process paper on the exhibit creation:
Ultimately, we all had common interests and decided to pursue a common goal that would satisfy all the parties involved; I would get to create an exhibit using authentic Native American projectile points, Rachel would get to incorporate website design, social media, and QR codes, you (Connolly) would get a Chucalissa exhibit installed at Johnson Hall, and lastly, Robert Ford’s artifacts would get plenty of educational use through our exhibit . . .
I was slightly overwhelmed by the number of artifacts in the collection, and was very concerned about how I would manage to convey a message to the viewers of the exhibit. Luckily, I believed you sensed my frustration and sent me the Serrell Reading to help. Serrell’s guide has been critical in our research design, and has helped me not only to make better interpretive labels and an overall comprehensive exhibit, but it also showed me the importance of having a “Big Idea”.
Armed with a “Big Idea” and a fresh delivered copy of Noel D. Justice’s Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points, the next few visits to the repository proved to be enjoyable and result driven as the project was coming together and pieces started to fall into place . . . While going through the collection I took care in the handling, photographing, and cataloguing of a range of different types of tools and projectile points, increasing my own knowledge on the subject matter in the process.
I consider this exhibit process a big success as an applied educational opportunity for Garrett and Rachel. In the process:
A point reinforced to me is that in such projects, my role is to provide logistical expertise and guidance, but allow the students creativity to come to the fore. In so doing, they arrived at concepts, such as the Which is an Arrowhead . . . shelf that likely would not have occurred had I dominated the process. When given such latitude, I find students enjoy the freedom, but also experience an initial sense of frustration as Garrett notes. However, with guidance, students work creatively to find solutions and directions.
I would not have chosen the colors or fonts that Garrett and Rachel used for the exhibit. But then, their peer group are the primary audience for the exhibit, not me.
Other exhibits created by the students in this semester’s class include:
Michelle Dallas Faulk organized and created didactic panels for an exhibit of ceramic sherds and obsidian tools from central Mexico. The exhibit is located in the same hallway as the Stone Tool display created by Garrett and Rachel.
Carolyn Trimble created a small exhibit on stone tools supplemented with information through linked QR codes for the Morton Museum in Collierville, Tennessee a suburb just east of Memphis. The Morton Museum Director contacted me about creating asmallexhibit on the prehistory of the area. We were able to use
artifacts in our repository from two prehistoric Collierville sites excavated through Cultural Resource Management projects. A QR code link reports the sites and contextualizes the prehistory of the suburb for museum visitors.
In next week’s post I will report on other types of student projects created in the Applied Archaeology and Museum class from this past semester.
This week’s post is an interview with Kimberley Popetz, the Director of Education at Maryland’s Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. Kim directs an innovative, intensive and engaging volunteer and public outreach program at her Park and Museum. I found Kim’s interview responses very informative on multiple levels. The breadth of Kim’s career path is informative for today’s cultural heritage professional. Kim’s work also exemplifies the interdisciplinary potential of archaeology and museum studies. The Jefferson Patterson program demonstrates the value of long-term development with a diversity of public engagement. And if you want to experience the very essence of a Participatory Museum, read Kim’s answer to the last interview question below!
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your responsibilities at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum?
My goal when graduating from school was to find a job that would let me teach about archaeology outside of a classroom. When looking for that job, a kind soul who interviewed me said that I had more education experience than any other candidate. But, while I had a Master’s degree in anthropology, I had no practical experience in archaeology so they couldn’t hire me. I set out to fix this discrepancy by landing CRM jobs while also working in museums part-time. After working in CRM for many years, I turned my attention fully to the museum world and succeeded in reaching my goal when I obtained my current position.
Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum (JPPM) is Maryland’s State Museum of Archaeology. As Director of Education I oversee the planning and implementation of our public and school programs including our Discovering Archaeology, Tidewater Lifeways and Kids’ Work programs; assist in exhibit development; develop and run long and short-term outreach programs in the local schools; develop and promote our traveling trunks program; assist with public events, speaker series and workshops; and create and run our docent program. Because we have a fairly small staff I also oversee visitor services and do development work to support my programs.
How are volunteers recruited and retained in your public archaeology programs?
Odd as it may seem from the outside, I don’t run the public archaeology program at the museum. The land for our facility was donated because of the large number of archaeological sites contained on it—we have approximately 70 known archaeological sites dating from 9,000 years ago through the early 20th century. Because of this we have someone on staff dedicated to running the public excavations as well of supervising any other sort of excavation on Park land. His name is Ed Chaney and here’s how he answered this question:
We use archaeology volunteers in two different ways, so there are two answers to this question. For our formal, two-month long, annual Public Archaeology Program, we recruit volunteers in many ways. We advertise on our website, in the newsletter of the Archeological Society of Maryland, in local newspapers, and in the outreach material produced for Maryland’s Archeology Month each April. We generate flyers that are distributed at our Visitor Center and the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory (MAC Lab, located on JPPM grounds), at special events, and at local libraries, etc. We get positive word-of-mouth advertising – for example, on home-school websites. As for retaining these volunteers (and really, we think of them more as participants in an educational program than as strictly volunteers), we mainly work at giving them a quality experience. Because the program has been running since 1996, we have developed a core of certain groups – camps, classes, etc. – that return year after year, and this also holds true for some families and individuals. Every year we also have many new participants who join us for a single day to see what archaeology is all about.
During the rest of the year outside of the Public Archaeology Program, the MAC Lab uses a small number of volunteers. That number is kept low because we have a limited amount of work appropriate for volunteer assistance. We recruit these volunteers through announcements in the newsletter of the Archeological Society of Maryland, and through the efforts of the JPPM Volunteer Coordinator. As a general rule, we try to find off-season volunteers who have already done archaeology before, or who are college student working on a degree in an archaeology-related field. For those who don’t meet those criteria, we encourage them to participate in the summer Public Archaeology Program so they can figure out if they really are interested in archaeology, and so we can evaluate if they will be able to help us the rest of the year. To retain off-season volunteers who are doing a good job for us, we invite them to staff events (such as our luncheons and holiday parties) and to the annual JPPM Volunteer Awards dinner, and we try to work with them to find projects that are both interesting to them and beneficial to us.
One of your public archaeology projects involved high school students using curated collections to create exhibits for public libraries and museums. How did you recruit students for this project?
We’ve been working for over three years with a local high school teacher’s archaeology class. Jeff Cunningham’s classes have researched and created three cell phone audio tours for JPPM on topics ranging from the Native Americans that used to inhabit the land along the Patuxent River in Maryland to the War of 1812. Last year he came to me and asked if I would be willing to help him create the content for a class called Historical Investigations. The idea for the class was to pull together a group of students really interested in history who wanted to gain deep knowledge about one or two specific historical moments as opposed to the broad overview they receive in their regular history classes. The students had to be invited to take the class by Jeff or recommended to him by another teacher or guidance counselor.
How has your Museum’s outreach to the general public evolved over the past few years?
More and more we’ve come to recognize that we have to work much harder to involve the local community. We’ve been focusing on creating a wider variety of programs that appeal to a broader spectrum of the public. Our marketing coordinator has really stepped up her efforts to make sure the community is aware of our offerings both by taking advantage of the various social media out there but also by reaching out more to local groups and creating word of mouth advertising. We’ve made large strides in making our facility welcoming and open on a more regular basis than in the past, and we’ve begun collaborating regularly with other community players to create exhibits and presentations that go to the people, instead of asking them to come to us. Lastly, we work hard to listen to what the community needs and wants before creating programs so that we know that we’re filling a gap.
Having said all of this, I think the biggest way we’ve drawn in the wider community is actually through our project based school programs. We celebrate the student’s achievements with openings that showcase their hard work and bring relatives, friends and community members who were involved in the process to our site. Because we’re fairly isolated on a small peninsula, we often get comments at these events about how wonderful the facility and grounds are and how folks didn’t know we were here, but will definitely be back.
What do you consider your most successful recent efforts in public outreach or community engagement?
In a little less than a month, I hope that I’ll be able to say that the final project for the current high school class will be one of our most successful efforts. In October, we presented the students with the opportunity to document and present objects that haven’t been touched since their excavation in 1980. At that time, a new Federal Reserve Bank was under construction in Baltimore, MD. Construction crews began uncovering multiple archaeological features and archaeologists were called in to salvage the information about a Baltimore neighborhood that had long since been destroyed. It was a wet cold February when the archaeologists were called in and they were given no more than two months to save what they could before the construction equipment went back to work. Over twenty features were uncovered and the documentation and artifacts associated with those features has sat untouched until now.
As the state repository for artifacts, we’ve had this collection sitting on our shelves for over a decade (our collection storage wasn’t built until the mid-90s and state collections were housed in multiple locations all over the state up to that point) but haven’t had the manpower to do any sort of research. Patricia Samford, the Director of the MAC Lab, chose one feature, a privy, for the students to examine. They have cataloged all of the artifacts, researched the neighborhood, looked at maps, visited the National Archives for more extensive assistance, mended artifacts and done minimum vessel counts among other things. They have each chosen an artifact or aspect of the site for further research and they will be the authors of the final report on the feature that will be archived along with the collection. They are currently designing an exhibit to share with the community what they’ve learned. The exhibit will be on display in our local public library for 10 weeks beginning in May. We’ll launch the exhibit with a party open to the community, to celebrate what they have accomplished.
How has the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum incorporated social media and a “virtual” presence in public outreach and education?
Two years ago we launched a section of our website devoted to kids in hopes of making archaeology more accessible to people who can’t make it to our physical site but wanted to learn more. We offered prizes to encourage people to offer feedback and make the pages better. We also have a Pinterest page where you can see things related to all different aspects of the facility. In a couple of weeks we’re planning to use the Pinterest page as part of a professional development workshop for teachers by asking them to submit new ideas for teaching elementary students about the War of 1812 that others can use in their classrooms. We use our Facebook page to promote programs and events at our site but also to pass along articles, blog posts and other information we think our followers would find interesting. We love to see the photos that visitors post after attending a program, event, or just visiting the grounds. We also have a Facebook page.
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned over the years with the volunteer program?
I created our 10 week training course for our docents and have found them to be some of the most interesting and enthusiastic people. I have learned so much from them that it’s hard to distill it down to one or two ideas. I would say that museum staff should really take the time to listen to their volunteers. Every year we have a wrap up meeting at the end of our busy fall season. We provide a homemade dinner for all of the docents and then ask them to give us some tough love and let us know what worked and what didn’t work and how we can make the docent program work better for them. We also ask for their input on our programming and events and what they would like to see in the future. Their answers often surprise me and allow me to see what we do in a different light. We try to follow up on as much of their feedback as possible. Some of the ideas they suggest aren’t workable because of various time or physical constraints, but we have had some great successes following through on other ideas.
What do you consider to be the biggest obstacle in developing effective educational outreach?
Finding the staff time and funding to execute a program well. Compared to many small museums, I have a big staff—three full time educators plus myself. But we have a commensurately large program and have been pushing ourselves to offer and do more every year. Making time to find funding that could potentially bring on additional staff is the only way I can see right now to expand our offerings into new areas without cutting some of the programming we already do. We did this recently when we created a new traveling trunk called Through the Perilous Fight—Life during the War of 1812. The funding we received allowed us to hire a curriculum writer to develop the lessons that travel with the objects in the trunk and guided our decisions on what to include while saving us from devoting hours to curriculum development in-house. The trunks are now available for teachers throughout the state of Maryland to rent at a nominal cost, expanding our reach while not appreciably expanding the amount of staff time needed to maintain the program.
None of this is revolutionary in any way. But staying on top of the planning and grant cycles so that we can launch these types of outreach projects is a constant struggle for most educators.
Do you have any words of wisdom for archaeological and museum professionals to enhance their outreach work?
Do as much as you absolutely can to find out what your community wants and needs. If your programming is created because you think it’s a good idea it may or may not work. But if your programming is created to address a need in your community, especially one that has been voiced by community members, it will almost certainly succeed.
Kim can be contacted at kpopetz(at)mdp.state.md.us
This semester I lead a seminar in Applied Archaeology and Museums at the University of Memphis. The first point of discussion in this past Monday night’s class was responding to comments made to my blog post on the Spike Network American Digger program. The comments were equally divided between those who opposed the concept of American Digger and those who believed the program is a legitimate response to the inability of the government or the archaeological community to address individual interests or preservation needs.
At first students commented that the supporters of American Digger need to be better informed on the importance of context and provenience for recovered archaeological materials. They also saw the need for education on why cultural heritage should not be for sale to the highest bidder. They suggested that the supporters should volunteer at an archaeological site to better understand proper excavation techniques. While these suggestions were of much value, the responsibility was laid only at the feet of the American Digger supporters. I was surprised that the students did not consider the legitimacy of the concerns expressed by American Digger supporters. I raised examples of what I perceive as a disconnect of archaeologists from the public they serve:
Last year while visiting a large archaeological site during a public “Archaeology Day” event, I walked up to one of several excavation units and asked the student excavators a question about their work. They responded they did not know what they were excavating, they were just told to dig there. The student excavators returned to chatting about their social plans for the evening. The four archaeologists I recognized on the crew were busy scurrying about doing other things. I asked the seminar class, were I a casual visitor to the “Archaeology Day” event, what would my takeaway be? The obvious answer is that despite the invitation for the public to visit the excavations, the archaeologists and students involved were not really interested in engaging the visitor. Was this an isolated incident? That is irrelevant to the visitor.
During a long ago class lecture in my BA program, the Dr. PhD instructor stated he would no more deal with an amateur archaeologist than he would an amateur medical doctor. What is the takeaway of the students to that class lecture?
After a bit of discussion along these lines, the class concluded that those who support and oppose American Digger could dredge up horror stories of past and present activities ad nauseam to defend their positions. The class then turned to consider how to preserve material culture while accommodating the public desire and interest to engage in archaeological research and antiquities. Here are some solutions we came up with:
We agreed on the need to acknowledge the stated concerns of the blog comments of the American Digger supporters, but not their solutions.
The gentleman who wanted an archaeologist to look at his property prior to construction and grading presumably wanted the work done at no cost. Likely, lack of response from “the local archaeological departments” resulted in part from a lack of resources to conduct the investigations. There is a catch to such public expectations. If the gentleman contacted a private consulting firm, then he should expect to pay for the services in the same way as for the services of an architect or construction company. If he contacted a public entity, then either the institution is adequately staffed for such work but is not doing their job, or the institution is short-staffed and cannot respond to noncritical situations. If the latter case is true, then the landowner has a responsibility to ask why and the institution has a responsibility to explain. In many cases, in this era of “no new taxes” the voting public has simply refused to fund cultural heritage services. If the voting public does not fund those services, they cannot expect those services to be performed. Education around this point is critically important.
The class also discussed the need to promote the public work of community based archaeologists. For example, one of the favorite parts of my job with the Louisiana Division of Archaeology was the two weeks each year spent on the road speaking in small parish libraries and schools throughout the state. The Arkansas Archaeological Survey hosts a suite of programs that are excellent models for community engagement. The seminar students pointed to one of our course readings, a profile of Linda Derry, Alabama community archaeologist extraordinaire, published recently in the Society for American Archaeology’s publication the Archaeological Record (p. 19). A Boy Scout merit badge in archaeology requires a minimum of 8 hours training by a professional archaeologist who receives no compensation for their services. These examples only scratch the surface of public outreach by professional archaeologists.
The seminar students concluded that productions such as American Digger do not spring up out of thin air. Yes, some archaeologists can be elitist and focused solely on their own research interests. In the same way, there are irresponsible pothunters such as those who created the debacle at Slack Farm. However, the majority of archaeologists and landowners want to see cultural heritage preserved and available to all. We need to develop a norm where cultural heritage is preserved, not just when it impinges on an archaeologist’s pet research project or only when in the personal interest of an individual landowner. Cultural heritage value must be considered an important part in our quality of life and not as a discretionary point that is last funded and first cut based on fluctuations in the economy. Cultural heritage professionals must be accountable as public servants charged with preserving and providing access to the cultural heritage of their community. At the same time, that public must fund the professionals to perform those tasks.
National Archaeology Day, October 20 2012, is an opportunity to engage in that conversation. We have the luxury of six months to begin discussions and engage with the entire public to build toward the event. If we take advantage of this opportunity, we can launch a movement that will extend beyond October 20th and plant the seeds for a rejuvenated national campaign toward valuing a public cultural heritage. To the extent such a movement and consciousness grows, the dollar based American Digger mentality will be replaced with a public responsibility, appreciation and passion for preservation of our communities cultural heritage.
I recently visited the Fort Ancient State Memorial where in 1992 I excavated the “most interesting thing I have ever found” in my archaeological field work. I remember the event well because the discovery caused me to truthfully answer the questions every field archaeologist has been asked hundreds of times “Finding anything?” and the related “What is the most interesting thing you have ever found?” On that day 20 years ago, I got asked both questions.
Here is the story – the incident occurred in the summer of 1992 at the end of a hot and humid August day. I was tired, the mosquitoes were vicious in the ponding area I chose for excavations. My dissertation research involved documenting the pond and ditch system configuration along the 3.5 miles of prehistoric embankment walls constructed by prehistoric Native Americans some 2000 years before. Data from soil cores demonstrated that the original constructed form of the interior ditch did drain into the connected ponding area. But I was puzzled by some odd stratigraphy from an excavation unit placed at the base of a gateway opening in an adjacent embankment wall. In the unit, I was excavating considerably deeper than the adjacent pond base and still not reaching culturally sterile subsoil. I was going through various contortions of logic to explain the cultural materials found at the deeper levels. But then, I came down on a hearth, one meter below the level I should have encountered culturally undisturbed soils. Burrowing rodents or other “natural formation processes” could not drop an intact hearth one meter below the anticipated base of cultural occupation.
I got out my trusty JVC soil probe, a manual contraption capable of extracting intact soil samples to a depth of 5m below ground surface. I worked till dusk extracting soil cores from areas of the pond not previously surveyed. I determined that the a considerable part of the landscape was filled and sculpted by the prehistoric engineers to create the ponding area. Specifically Native Americans in prehistory filled in a five meter wide erosional ravine beneath the current pond base. This conclusion was counter to the prevailing wisdom that the prehistoric engineers simply followed the preexisting contour of the natural landscape in their construction plans. Over the next few years testing at other areas of the site showed similar modifications, ultimately suggesting that the above ground mounds and embankment walls at Fort Ancient represent perhaps only 2/3 of the total soil that was moved in building the earthwork complex.
So on the late August afternoon in 1992 when an elderly couple came up and asked “Finding anything?” I pulled some flint tools from the artifact bag laying in the screen to show. To the follow-up “What’s the most interesting thing you have ever found?” I decided not to talk about the row of six bladelets laid side by side next to pit feature, or the three-layered limestone pavements outside the earthwork complex – instead, I told about the landscape modification I had just stumbled upon. It wasn’t glamorous, it didn’t shine or sparkle, but to me it was a marvel of prehistoric engineering. Standing on the edge of the pond and swatting at mosquitoes as dusk turned to night, the couple was as amazed and interested as me.
I learned a big lesson that day in archaeology. We sometimes think that digital supersedes the tactile, that Indiana Jones trumps the mundane, that false certainty is better than asking the visitor “what do you think?” This last point is particularly relevant. I discussed this before with headless Poverty Point figurines. I believe that it is our task as archaeologists and museum professionals to make these issues relevant to the public who pay our salaries. Often times that can be as simple as taking the time to tell the truth about our research and not assume that the public only wants to hear about what sparkles and shines.
By the way, today, in 2011, when asked about the most interesting thing I have ever found, I talk about a slate button I once held from the appropriately named Slate site near Yazoo City Mississippi. The button had a blind hole drilled from the back for attachment. I remain completely impressed that nearly 4000 years ago, folks in Mississippi used buttons in the same way that we do today!
What’s the most interesting thing you have ever found?
I have to admit a certain bias on this question of museums and fun. Off the top, I cannot recollect reading a museum mission statement that includes the word fun However, a recent blog post by Reach Advisors takes up this issue. They note that fun as a desirable attribute of a museum visit is often a generational issue – disfavored by those over 50, but favored by younger visitors. The Reach survey also notes that parents consider the fun their children have in museums as a means for learning. The Reach blog post assesses views on both the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for fun in museums.
Part of this might be how one conceptualizes fun. I always thought of the mind bending linguistic midterms of Dr. Joe Fred Foster during my undergraduate days at the University of Cincinnati as fun. Most of my cohort considered the tests torture. My granddaughter thinks the grocery store at the Memphis Children’s Museum is a blast and I see it as an early indoctrination into the consumerism of name brand over packaged stuff that ultimately ends up in land fills.
Over the past couple of weeks at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we have had a new kind of fun. We recently developed a hands-on program where students grades 5 and up work in pairs and are led through a process where they examine a selection of ten prehistoric stone tools ranging from scrapers to dart points to ground stone. The project leader asks the students to consider why the flint used is of different colors (trade & exchange), size and shape (function), basal notching or stemmed (style), and always including the caveat that the “experts” don’t have good answers to some of these questions. The program is tied to curriculum standards of the tri-state public school system. The program is a fantastic learning experience and goes well beyond hands-on for the sake of hands-on and was designed to maximize the participatory experience.
But, is this new program fun? Our focus group and trial tests would suggest that yes, the program is engaging, stimulates curiosity, captures the imagination, and so forth. If I transported myself back nearly 50 years to a 10-year-old me, I am confident I would call the program fun.
We end the new stone tool program with an opportunity for the participants to go outside and use an atlatl to throw darts. We make mention of how this was a primary hunting method prior to the introduction of the bow and arrow in the Southeast U.S. around AD 700. Throwing six-foot long darts with an atlatl is fun. This past Saturday, volunteers and site visitors stayed outside for two hours throwing the darts, well beyond the planned 20 minute initial demonstration and throwing opportunity. Natalye Tate, one of our graduate assistants takes the lead in these demonstrations. She currently holds the distance record at the museum (in the historic era anyway) and provides an excellent role model for young girls in what is typically considered a manly exercise.
I have suggested that given a choice between throwing darts with an atlatl or playing on digital touch tables, visitors would most often choose the atlatl. Is it because this is more fun? more educational? a unique opportunity? or all the above?
What are your thoughts on having “fun” at museums?
This week’s post is an interview with Bob Genheimer, Curator of Archaeology at the Geier Collections and Research Center at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Bob administers one of the longest running and most successful volunteer archaeology programs in the country. In addition to field excavations, volunteers assemble for several hours every week at the museum to process excavated materials. Back in the mid-1980s one of my first field opportunities was as a volunteer at the Center’s salvage excavations at the Madisonville Site. As an undergraduate student in anthropology, my academic institution showed little interest in having volunteers, but I was welcomed to participate with the regular group at the Museum Center. I have asked Bob to tell us a bit about the Center’s volunteer archaeology program.
First off, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do at the Cincinnati Museum Center?
My official title at the Cincinnati Museum Center is the George Rieveschl Curator of Archaeology. I oversee both archaeology and ethnology collections at the Museum. I have been involved in archaeology of the Cincinnati area since 1974, when I participated in my first field school at a Late Archaic base camp near the Ohio River. I have worked as an archaeological intern, survey archaeologist, a CRM consultant, and a collections manager before assuming my curator position in 2003. My interests in prehistoric archaeology include lithics and ceramics, with particular interests in Hopewell and Late Prehistoric assemblages. I also have a deep love for historical archaeology, and in particular, urban archaeology. Most of my research into historical archaeology has been associated with privies, early American ceramics and glass, and the Underground Railroad.
The Volunteer Program in archaeology at the Museum Center has been around for a long time. How did the program originate?
When I arrived at the Museum more than 20 years ago, the volunteer program was already in full swing. At the time, the Museum had a Volunteer Coordinator, who would advertise opportunities in the Museum’s quarterly magazine. It has never been difficult to get volunteers – the opportunity to work with artifacts in the lab, or help excavate a site in the field, holds a fascination for many people.
The Cincinnati Museum Center is probably not much different from many other mid-sized museums in that volunteers must form the core of the work force. Staffing levels and budgets are typically low, and volunteers provide the means of getting things done. And, in archaeology, that means doing all the non-romantic parts of the work.
How do your volunteers function today? What exactly do they do?
Our archaeology volunteers undertake a myriad of tasks. With ongoing field operations (we do a month-long field school every summer), many of their jobs revolve around fieldwork or lab work. They are instrumental in the field, providing most of the screening and record keeping, but the more experienced ones actually excavate units and features. Other volunteers take care of various logistical tasks. But, the one area that volunteers are most useful is in the lab. Based upon calculations derived from the operation of our field school, a minimum of 18 to 20 lab days are required for every field day. The volunteers do all the washing, sorting, numbering, and bagging of collections once they reach the lab. And, they do it with a real sense of professionalism and pride. Some of my volunteers do other things instrumental to the Department including data entry, photography, reconstruction, and inventory. I would be lost without them.
How are volunteers recruited and retained in the program?
Today, volunteers are mostly recruited via our Volunteer Services Department. This Department fulfills volunteer requests for all departments in the Museum, and currently directs approximately 800 volunteers throughout Museum programs. I also get volunteers directly through area universities and colleges, many times through connections with archaeology or anthropology departments. I currently have about 20 core volunteers, many of whom have been here more than 5 or 10 years, with a few who have been here nearly 30 years.
Throughout the years I have come to recognize two factors that strongly affect volunteer retention. The first is a sense of family. We all know each other, we know our spouses and kids names, and we even know our pet’s names. There is a strong social bond to volunteering, it is not just an opportunity to wash flint flakes, but to catch up on friends and stories. Without this bond, the volunteers have no connection, and are hence reluctant to remain for a protracted time. I will say that most of my volunteers are elderly, and hence share the bonds of age and experience. The trick is to integrate the elderly volunteers with younger, mostly college-age students. It doesn’t always work, but my experience has taught me that the two groups can get along very well. In fact, some of the elderly volunteers enjoy mentoring some of the younger members.
The second factor is harder to pin down, but involves a connection between the volunteers and their curator. Volunteers will be more productive, and will stay longer if there is a genuine bond between them and their supervisor. In essence, they have to respect you and believe in what your doing. And, most importantly, you have to instill in them a sense of worth and accomplishment. In my case, I try to constantly teach them what we are doing and remind them of the importance of their work. They have to know that you cannot achieve anything without them.
What are some of the significant accomplishments of the volunteer program over the years?
Their accomplishments are astounding! Since I began in 1990, archaeology volunteers have processed and catalogued hundreds of thousands of artifacts and artifact fragments from nine major field expeditions. They have entered much of this in an electronic catalogue. They have taken thousands of field and artifact photos. They have reorganized collections. And, they have participated in countless exhibitions. There are rarely “wow” moments in volunteering, but many, many small steps that allow a project to go forward and reach its fruition.
How are the volunteer accomplishments acknowledged?
It is well known that the Archaeology Department has one of the most successful and longest running volunteer programs at the Museum. On top of my encouragement and recognition, their accomplishments are constantly acknowledged by our Volunteer Services Department. Volunteers at the Museum receive recognition based upon time of service, including years and hours, as well as in broad categories of achievement that reflect their dedication and indispensable nature. Award receptions are held twice a year. Of note, I have two of the longest serving volunteers in the Museum, who consistently place at or near the top in years of service, total hours, and total hours within a fiscal year.
Ray Oldenburg talks about the idea of a Third Place – a place that is not work, and not home, but a place where people gather to socialize and be in community – sort of like the coffee house or Cheers stereotype environment. When I think back to my time volunteering at the Center, I think some of the attributes of this Third Place idea might be present with the volunteer group. Do you agree?
Yes. The archaeology lab is a gathering place where dissimilar people gather to have fun, tell stories, and play practical jokes. It is a place where politics are avoided, bad jokes are told, and lots of hard work is accomplished. I would like to say it is the archaeology that holds them together, but I know it is this unique social environment that allows them to be a community. And, as I said before, that connection or social bond, is perhaps the most important aspect of a successful volunteer program. That being said, maintaining this community becomes critical. All communities must be infused with new people and new ideas to survive. Maintaining a functional balance becomes important.
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned over the years with the volunteer program?
The biggest lesson has been that volunteers want to know how their little piece of the process (e.g., data entry or scrubbing rocks) fits into the big puzzle. Let’s face it, washing rocks, or putting tiny numbers onto flint flakes, is not exactly what they envisioned when they signed up for archaeology. But, it is all necessary, and its up to the curator or volunteer supervisor to show them the importance of their work. If a volunteer questions why she should write numbers onto animal bones, I show them a faunal list from a similar site so they can appreciate the knowledge that can be derived from properly curating the collections.
Another lesson that is quickly learned is that supervising volunteers takes time and dedication. Anyone who believes that volunteers will simply walk in and do the work you are not willing to do has not supervised many volunteers. Volunteers have to be procured, trained, encouraged, and rewarded. It can take up a significant part of your time. As a result, you must apportion your time and volunteer core appropriately. If you have too few volunteers, you will spend an inordinate amount of time training, with few results. If you have too many volunteers, they may accomplish much, but you will have little time to produce and assemble the results (e.g., publications and exhibitions) of their labor. In my experience, I have found it works best to establish a volunteer manager of the lab. This experienced person directs the efforts of the volunteers, and in many instances can answer their questions or explain their task.
What are your future plans for archaeology volunteers at the Museum Center?
I would like to get them more involved in fieldwork, but with many of them of advanced age, it will require recruiting some younger people.
Any words of wisdom for other institutions that are trying to get their volunteer groups off the ground?
Be realistic about how many volunteers you can supervise and train. And, clearly identify what you want accomplished. I would set small scale goals and evaluate your volunteer team before undertaking a massive enterprise. And, remember that little of what you intend them to do involves the romantic parts of archaeology. You have to instill a sense of excitement and purpose, and let them share in those “wow” moments when they occur.
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 gender, technical 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.
I read a post this week on how early museum visits can impact career choice. This got me to thinking again about our museum mission. Once I overheard a museum staff member mention that there was an eight-year-old boy whose parent wanted to bring them to the museum for a behind the scenes tour because the child wanted to be an archaeologist. The staff member lamented they felt such a tour was a waste of time because “at eight the kid would probably change their mind a half-dozen times before they settled on a serious career choice.” The statement shocked me, to say the least.
I have always counted myself fortunate because my first field experience as an archaeologist was directed by the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis. Pat was adamant about public education in archaeology. Pat told us straight up that 10% of our grade was going to come from our presentations to visiting tourists at the Fort Ancient site in Warren County, Ohio. She designated one student as the tour guide each day. When visitors made their way to the units, you jumped out and presented the detail on the research project. Pat always eavesdropped on your presentation and offered a critique after the fact. The tour was a big deal to her. And there were a lot of eight-year-old kids in attendance.
I have a standard line I rattle off about if it weren’t for the visitor, our museum would be a repository or a research center – that it’s the visitor that moves us into that different space. And I also know I can get quite selective about how I engage with visitors. As a museum director whose primary function is not on the floor, I can be pretty selective in how and when I engage visitors. I do enjoy our Volunteer Day activities where I try to actually practice what I preach. I always get some pretty phenomenal lessons in this experience from volunteers, students, and staff.
Take Ron Brister, who was part of the field crew at Chucalissa in the 1960s and then went on to a phenomenal 30- year career as Collections Manager for Memphis’ Pink Palace. Ron is now retired and has returned full circle back to Chucalissa as a volunteer. Ron is a critical source of knowledge in organizing our 50 years worth of accumulated “records” that range from excavation field notes to 40-year-old student papers on botanical analysis at the site. But one of the most visible role’s that Ron plays is as tour guide and informal lecturer to the assembled group for our Volunteer Day activities. Each Volunteer Saturday, Ron provides an impromptu presentation and handouts on some aspect of the cultural materials that the volunteers are processing, whether the difference in lithic raw materials, stone tool form, or ceramic types. As well, Ron leads a tour of the open excavation trench where visitors can view 500 years of Native American prehistory. The excavation trench is now closed to regular public viewing because of preservation concerns.
Here is my takeaway for all of this that ties back to my last couple of posts. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that Ron had to propose to me his Saturday Volunteer Day role – I did not immediately link his skill with our need. Now on Volunteer Day instead of the Director, breezing through the room for a quick impromptu presentation and tour of the excavation trench, Ron fills that role in a much more thorough and relaxed manner. As well, Ron is considerably more qualified than me to do lead those activities.
This ties back to my Volunteers as Mission post from a couple of weeks back. Ron is integrated as a volunteer not just because we have stuff to do, but because our Mission mandates that we offer participatory opportunities at our Museum. Ron is passionate about our Museum and the Chucalissa archaeological site. If we did not have a “need” Ron would still want to participate and our Mission mandates that we accommodate that want. For me this translates into focusing on volunteers as mission. I need to move from “we need to paint the inside of our Museum Hall, who can we get to do that?” to “we have 80 some odd folks who volunteered in the past six months at the museum, how do we keep them engaged?”
And here is where it comes back to the career choice I started out this post with. As you can see from the photo above, Ron clearly enjoys working with others. He gets and completely appreciates that when he is leading the excavation trench tour with the Volunteer Day group, that often includes an eight year old child, he may very well be talking to someone who 20 years from now will remember when he led them into this dark and dusty trench that contained 500 years of Native American house floors stacked on top of each other, and they were hooked.
My suspicion is that there are many more Ron Brister’s out there if we slow down and look. I will end this string of posts by simply noting that I believe the successful museums of the future will treat their volunteers as the same precious resource as the cultural materials hanging on the walls, inside the exhibit cases, and on the repository shelves.