This year, the Archaeological Institute of America’s National Archaeology Day has become International Archaeology. The event will occur this coming Saturday, October 19th. This year’s 200 collaborating organizations are hosting an impressive array of activities ranging from special exhibitions and presentations at the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia to Family Day Activities at the Bosque Museum in Clifton Texas. At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we made an intentional decision this year to focus on what we do best for International Archaeology Day – our basic programming and activities. If you are in the Memphis area, stop by on the 19th.
International Archaeology Day is also an opportunity to reflect on the state of the discipline in 2013. Today, archaeologists often face an uphill battle to convince elected officials in the United States of the discipline’s worth. Popular media such as Antiques Roadshow, American Digger, and American Pickers continue to focus on commodification of cultural heritage – how old is it? is it real? and how much is it worth? In typical “What is Archaeology” classroom presentations, presenters often need to clarify that archaeologists do not dig up dinosaurs nor are the missions of Indiana Jones and Laura Croft typical job descriptions in our profession. And, as I posted recently about the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, we see effective programs on the chopping block for public funding.
Are we winning or losing the battle for the presentation and preservation of cultural heritage?
Consider that two of the better known state archaeology programs that appear to be thriving, at least relatively speaking, are those of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey and the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN). One of the things that these two organizations do exceptionally well is public outreach. The Survey in conjunction with the Arkansas Archeological Society holds an annual certification program for avocational archaeologists, where the public have the opportunity to be trained in a range of field and other research methods by the professional community. Although I am confident that many professionals will scoff at or be outright offended at such practices, a review of the program points to the very real contribution the certification has made in Arkansas. In Florida, FPAN also offers several programs for the public such as the Cemetery Resource Protection Training (CRPT) that actively engage communities in the process of preservation.
These programs go beyond passive lectures or hands on activities to fully engage the public in an active learning and participatory process. This trend of an active or participatory engagement is particularly strong in the museum The Paul Hamlyn Foundation in the United Kingdom has developed excellent models for direct engagement in museums and working with collections. The Connecting to Collections Online Community here in the United States archives several webinars that explore involving the public in preservation tasks through direct collections work, oral history interviews and other methods.
A distinct difference in the above programs and what I have considered community outreach for much of my career is the direct engagement of the public in the process. That is, instead of a lecture, the above programs engage in a dialogue where the public become a true part of a participatory process. The participation is not simply for the sake of a hands-on experience, but one where the public become stakeholders in the process of presenting and preserving their cultural heritage. In this way, museum exhibits and other cultural heritage presentations move from being about the community to being of the community.
Consider how such an engagement might work based on a recent article about a five-year process at the C.H. Nash Museum:
Finally, we consider the relevance of our cultural institution to the community of prime importance. We believe that if in 2007 we had asked the residents of Southwest Memphis what the C.H. Nash Museum meant to them, in all likelihood, their response would have focused on how some of “our children visit for school field trips and Chucalissa is where the Indian Mounds are located.” If we ask that question today, we hope the response will include “Chucalissa is the place where there is an exhibit on the cultural heritage of our community; where there is a resource center on our community history; the place where we hold our Black History Month celebrations; where our traditional foods garden was planted last year; where the AmeriCorps Teams that work in our community live; and also where the Indian Mounds are located.”
I will add that all of those products were co-created by the Westwood Community and the C.H. Nash Museum. We hope to use International Archaeology Day on October 19 to explore more possibilities for being relevant and engaging with the public to whom our museum serves.
Two years I posted about the opportunity of using National Archaeology Day as a response to shows like American Digger. This year’s International Archaeology Day is again an excellent opportunity to actively engage with the public who will ultimately decide the fate of the world’s cultural heritage presentation and preservation.