Public Accountability in Cultural Heritage Studies – Now More Than Ever.

MAGS artifact3Public or Applied Archaeology will play an increasingly important role in presenting and preserving cultural heritage of the United States in the coming period.  As readers of this blog are aware, I advocate for demonstrating the public relevance of archaeology and museums.  With a future certainty that discretionary spending will be increasingly cut, cultural heritage programs that best demonstrate their utility to the public, will stand the best chance of surviving.

Below are several links that show how this might work, first around the issue of metal detecting:

  • Maureen Malloy, Manager of Public Education at the Society for American Archaeology is the lead author on a paper that evaluates the SAA role in advising on the National Geographic Channels Diggers program.  The reality cable tv show featured avocational metal detectorists, often considered by professional archaeologists as a significant bane to their existence.  Maureen presented the paper, Diggers Evaluating Diggers: A Collaboration between SAA and the National Geographic Channel, at last year’s SAA Annual meeting in Orlando.  In the paper, Maureen and her co-authors trace the evolution of Diggers, demonstrating the positive impact that professional archaeologists were able to bring to the show’s content.  The paper effectively argues for an engaged presence as a means to increase attention and action on the archaeological concerns in such programming.
  • Matthew Reeves presented the SAA Webinar Working With Metal Detectorists: Citizen Science at Historic Montpelier and Engaging a New Constituency.  Matt discusses the training program for the Montpelier detectorists and their work at the Montpelier site.  The webinar is available for free to SAA members here.  If you are not an SAA member but would like access to the webinar, drop me a note to see about making arrangements.  Matt also recently published an article on the subject that provides considerable detail on the Montpelier project.
  • The SAA For the Public webpages has a resource link dedicated to metal detecting and includes articles such as Reality Television and Metal Detecting: Let’s Be Part of the Solution and Not Add to the Problem by Giovanna Peebles.  The page contains nearly two dozen other links on metal detecting, public engagement, and related legal issues.
  • I would be remiss if I did not note the BBC comedy The Detectorists that is available on Netflix.

A couple of other recent links relevant to public archaeology include:

  • Elizabeth Reetz, chair of the SAA’s Public Education Committee, recently posted a PowerPoint file Effectively Communicating Archaeology to the Public In Three Minutes or Less that contains information about advocacy work in archaeology.  Of particular value, Elizabeth’s presentation addresses a point raised in Maureen’s SAA paper – how archaeologists and the public often talk on two different levels with two different sets of vocabularies and expectations.  Elizabeth’s presentation is a great way to kick off a discussion on launching an advocacy campaign.  And speaking of advocacy, check the Resource Guide for the just published volume I edited with Beth Bollwerk, Positioning Your Museum as a Critical Community Asset.  The Guide contains over 30 Advocacy links to better guide public engagement in cultural heritage work.
  • Finally Doug’s Archaeology recently posted a set of videos of papers on Community Archaeology from a recent conference of The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, the leading professional body representing archaeologists working in the UK.  The papers address and evaluate a diversity of community-based cultural heritage projects.

What other resources will you use to demonstrate the relevance of your cultural heritage projects funded by the public we are meant to serve? 





Applying Archaeology with the Public

excaThis semester I am teaching Applied Archaeology and Museums at the University of Memphis.  This course addresses my primary research interests – the preservation and presentation of cultural heritage and its use as an empowerment tool for the public.  Since I last taught the course two years ago, the resources for this empowerment tool multiplied exponentially.  A good bit of the growth comes from digital technology put in the service of human needs.  (Note this understanding of technology, well articulated by folks such as Clay Shirky, is at odds with the neo-Luddite perspective.  See here for my rant on all that.)

Access to the products of digital technology is not always simple or readily available.  Jason Baird Jackson posted an interesting piece on the high costs for accessing academic publications in a growing open access world.  The post includes a link to The Scholar’s Copyright Addendum Engine that allows an author to retain specific distribution rights for their published work.  Sherpa is a searchable database that lists distribution rights by journal that authors retain for open access distribution.  Here I am less interested in discussing specific open-access issues, and more some of the current venues and perspectives in which cultural heritage information is presented to the public.

On the digital end:

A common point for these new opportunities is that even in my low-tech and financially strapped museum existence, all are practical possibilities where the primary limitation is not technology but labor to produce the products – a situation that can circle back to volunteerism and community service learning.

A second common point is that products of these technologies are accessible to a public with a wi-fi connection and basic internet surfing skills.

However, when considering the products that will live in real-time contexts created by students in my Applied Archaeology and Museums course this semester – after all, isn’t that what applied is all about? – I am concerned that the products be relevant to public interests and needs.  Consider:

  • I had a back-and-forth with a recent graduate of our applied anthropology program who lamented that she felt well-prepared to write lengthy academic reports but her employers really only wanted the punch line impact statements, something her academic training left her unprepared to produce.
  • I am working with a student who is developing an exhibit for a county museum based on a several thousand piece surface collection curated in our museum repository for the past 30 years.    The intern was excited by my preaching about the need for the exhibit to be relevant to the public, including avocational archaeologists who visit the museum.  To that end, we discussed how the exhibit could interpret prehistoric trade and exchange, site function, and time period of occupation – all based on typical artifacts collected from the land surface after spring plowing or a good rain.  However, as a well-trained anthropology undergraduate, the student was reasonably obsessed with making certain she typed her projectile points accurately.  Her training made it hard to accept that the primary public interest of similar shaped points, from the same time period, manufactured at the same location, likely used for the same function, was not the correct typological name ascribed by an archaeologist several thousand years after the tools production.  An exhibit that is not typology focused is not “dumbing down” to the public, but rather, functionally interpretive and different.  That is a lesson from our co-creation with avocational archaeologists.

Co-creation with the public is a critical part of making resources relevant – whether digital or real-time.  Co-creation has become a buzzword in museum contexts for the past number years, as popularized by Nina Simon in her Participatory Museum volume.   My colleague Elizabeth Bollwerk and I have organized a fifteen paper session Co-Creation, the Public and the Archaeological Record  for the Society for American Archaeology Annual Meetings this April in Austin, Texas.  The session abstract is:

Co-creation in public archaeology is a means to engage and empower citizens to become stakeholders of the archaeological record. In museum contexts Simon (2010:278) writes that the purpose of co-creative community projects is “to give voice and be responsive to the needs and interests of local community members; to provide a place for community engagement and dialogue; and to help participants develop skills that will support their own individual and community goals.” The papers in this session discuss a variety of recent archaeological projects that implement the co-creative model. The contributions demonstrate how co-creation moves beyond “hands-on” educational experiences or typical volunteer programs because participants are invited to play an active role in designing and constructing the final products to address their needs and interests. Co-creation aligns with current emphases on informal, life-long, and free-choice learning models that foster public engagement in the preservation of cultural heritage resources. The papers in this session also explore the benefits and challenges of using this method and provide examples of best practices for implementation. Finally, these papers speak to the impact of co-creation on the discipline and how the process increases the ability of archaeology to contribute to debates on contemporary issues.

We are pleased that Carol McDavid, a pioneer in this process, including her work at the Levi-Jordan Plantation (link to 1998 website) will serve as a discussant for the session.

How do you envision co-creation in archaeology?

“It’s also about how the story gets told”: An ethnographic look at public archaeology programs in southern Maryland

This week I am pleased to present a guest post by Ennis Barbery on her public archaeology research in Maryland.  Taking an ethnographic approach, Ennis explores the relevance and authority in the expanding role of public archaeology.  She notes that the very concept of what makes up public archaeology is not universally agreed on by either the public or archaeologists.  Ennis is a graduate assistant in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maryland and can be reached at ebarbery(at)

“It’s also about how the story gets told”: An ethnographic look at public archaeology programs in southern Maryland

by Ennis Barbery

Ennis Barbery
Ennis Barbery

Who has the authority to tell the stories of the past? What gives an individual or group that authority? These questions are constantly being negotiated and re-negotiated in different contexts. Ethnographic research that I conducted during the summer of 2012 while serving as an intern for the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail begins to address these questions. As one of my primary projects, I interviewed, observed, and participated at a series of archaeology sites. My more specific research questions centered on how different archaeologists and others define and practice “public archaeology,” and I found that each archaeologist, volunteer, and staff member I spoke with defined public archaeology slightly differently.

I spent time at these research sites interviewing archaeologists, staff, and volunteers (15 individuals total) but also taking on the role of a volunteer, and these experiences of participation yielded another insight: in many cases, the programs archaeologists designed and practiced did not seem to reflect their stated definitions for what public archaeology is and why it is important. In this brief reflection, I explain some definitions of public archaeology as used by those I interviewed and identify a few factors that may contribute to archaeologists conducting programs that do not reflect how they define public archaeology.

Star-Spangled Banner
Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail signage at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, June 2012

First, to provide a little more context, the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail traces the story of War of 1812 battles and troop movements in the Chesapeake Bay region. Its branches connect national parks, state parks, museums, historic house sites, and other establishments. One branch—the one that follows the Patuxent River through southern Maryland—connects a series of archaeology sites with “public” components:  Mount Calvert Historical and Archeological Park, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, and Pig Point (a site of the Anne Arundel County Lost Towns Project).   To varying extents, these programs on which I focused my ethnographic research invite non-experts to be part of their research processes and, in this way, each of them identifies as “public archaeology.” (An introduction and downloadable guide to the public archaeology along the Patuxent is available here.)

Although there are many facets of public archaeology (community meetings, excavation site tours, educational programming etc.) the part of public archaeology on which I have focused my research is the interaction between volunteers, archaeologists, and staff. Drawing from readings about public archaeology, this interaction stood out to me; it seemed to have the most potential to involve non-experts in a meaningful way (cf. Moyer 2004; Shackel 2004; Colwell Chanthaphoh and Ferguson 2008; Little 2007; Potter 1994; Chambers 2004). In one example that Moyer (2004) provides, local community members became involved as volunteers in creating interpretive products for the Bowne House in Flushing, New York, and—through their participation—Moyer concludes that they made the stories of this historic site more relevant for the concerns and interests of the other local community members.

With this example in mind, I went into my ethnographic research with the expectation that archaeologists’ definitions of public archaeology would include the kind of interaction that Moyer (2004) describes in which experts and non-experts work together to coproduce heritage knowledge, products, and stories. I wanted to see whether such acts of coproduction would really make heritage sites more relevant for local community members.

Patuxent River from Pig Point
A view of the Patuxent River from Pig Point, July 2012

However, the archaeologists I interviewed along the Patuxent River demonstrated for me that not all definitions of public archaeology include this idea of co-production. One archeologist explained that his program constituted public archaeology because it allows volunteers to be involved in “real research” (June 27, 2012). He described giving volunteers opportunities to help excavate, clean and sort artifacts. When I spoke with a volunteer from this program she echoed this definition, emphasizing the processes of excavating, cleaning, and sorting “real artifacts” as opportunities that volunteers can take advantage of in public programs (July 24, 2012).

In defining public archaeology, another archaeologist I spoke with emphasized the ability of archaeologists to create a casual, conversational environment for site visitors and volunteers (July 19, 2012). He described how this type of environment can make non-experts feel at ease when asking questions, pointing out that the questions of non-experts can lead archaeologists to new research questions. Other archaeologists I interviewed explained public archaeology in terms that were more similar to my own ideas about why public archaeology is important. They spoke about involving volunteers in the processes of interpreting artifacts and even in writing text for museum exhibits in one case (July 28, 2012).  One archaeologist summed up her thoughts in this way: “Public archaeology is not just about participating in the excavating. It’s also about how the story gets told” (July 9, 2012).

This brings me to the most interesting part of what I learned this summer, even those archaeologists who defined public archaeology as including volunteers in more than just the technical aspects of excavation and artifact analysis—even those who specifically talked about public archaeology involving coproduction of heritage products like museum exhibit text—seemed to run programs that primarily gave volunteers opportunities to be involved in excavating and sorting artifacts.

I must qualify that there were some exceptions (volunteers who helped write site report history sections or painted watercolor artifact illustrations for museum exhibits) and that the activities of coproduction I was looking for and asking about my have occurred when I was not present. It would not surprise me that, as a relative outsider, I might not been have granted access into the contexts in which interpretation decisions are discussed with valued, long-term volunteers.

A volunteer holds a find at Mount Calvert Historical and Archaeological Park, July 2012

Nonetheless, the primary activities I saw volunteers participating in and talking about were excavating and artifact sorting. I sifted through my interview transcripts and fieldnotes looking for answers to why archaeologists who defined public archaeology as including coproduction of heritage knowledge might be struggling to include process that would constitute coproduction of knowledge in the programs they designed and managed.

One factor I identified is time. While training non-experts to help with the technical aspects of archaeology may ultimately save time for archaeologists, it takes time and energy to involve non-experts in discussions of how to interpret findings. Sometimes work must be done over again when an inexperienced non-expert initially tries to complete a task such as mapping, writing site report text, or writing exhibit text. Apart from the time this takes, interactions in which archaeologists may have to repeat work for volunteers can create awkward or embarrassed feelings between these individuals. As a participant in these programs, I can recall several days when I went home feeling that I was showing down the archaeologists work because they had to redo work that I had initially completed.

Yet another set of factors for why the programs I studied may not be coproducing knowledge with volunteers is that members of the public may not have the time and energy to become involved to the extent in which they would feel comfortable contributing in this way. With one exception, all the volunteers I interviewed were retired professionals. This demographic pattern attests to the fact that becoming involved in public archaeology programs as a volunteer can constitute a significant time commitment, especially when volunteers become involved to the extent that they have actually gained the skills and knowledge to help coproduce heritage products.

Ultimately, this research contributes to discussions of the potential benefits of public archaeology programs and the realities of time and resources that constrain those programs. Moreover, I hope that this research also brings up questions that should be answered with further research: questions about how coproduction of heritage products can make a site more relevant for the local community and even more basic questions about who has the authority to participate in creating heritage.


Chambers, Erve, 2004, Epilogue. In Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology. Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers, eds. London: Routledge: 193-208.

Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip and T. J. Ferguson, 2008, Introduction. In Collaboration in Archaeological Practice: Engaging Descendent Communities. Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and T. J. Ferguson, eds. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press: 1-34.

Little, Barbara J., 2007, Archaeology and Civic Engagement. In Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement. Barbara J. Little and Paul A. Shackel, eds. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press: 1-22.

Moyer, Teresa, 2004, “To Have and Enjoy the Liberty of Conscience”: Community-Responsive Museum Outreach Education at Bowne House. In Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology. Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers, eds. London: Routledge: 85-100

Potter, Parker B., Jr., 1994, Public Archaeology in Annapolis: A Critical Approach to History in Maryland’s Ancient City. Washington, DC: Smithsonian InstitutionPress.

Shackel, Paul A., 2004, Working with Communities: Heritage Development and Applied Archaeology. In Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology. Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers, eds.  London: Routledge: 1-16.