A new website recently launched that promotes the Prehistoric Earthworks of the Mississippi Valley from Iowa to Louisiana. I have been thinking about the need for such a website or piece of promotional material for several years. As the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum in Memphis, I regularly meet visitors heading north or south along the Great River Road or I-55 corridors. When I ask, “Are you interested in other prehistoric sites along your route?” most often the response is affirmative. In the past, there was no single piece of information I could provide to guide that visitor. In fact, because the various prehistoric earthwork venues are scattered across several states, and typically, state agencies do not cross-promote, there was no single website devoted to these sites of American Indian cultural heritage either.
Although intuitive, survey data confirm that cultural heritage tourists overwhelmingly select their venues for visitation via mobile/web resources and/or word of mouth. Unfortunately, today the only mobile resource that truly synthesizes museum venues is Wikipedia but not in a manner conducive for planning travel. Individual states such as Louisiana have developed, or in the case of Mississippi, are developing prehistoric mounds trail tours. However, these projects, without exception, are restricted to intra-state sites, again ignoring many cultural heritage venues that are nearby but in adjoining states.
A single regional, or even national resource to promote prehistoric venues is a first step in addressing the problem. An ideal organizational form is based not on geopolitical boundaries but on natural or cultural parameters. For example, recent Civil War and Civil Rights trails follow sets of historic events that cross state borders. Given the north/south travel along the I-55 corridor and proximity to the Great River Road, coupled with extant prehistoric earthwork sites, the Mississippi River drainage is a useful natural and cultural feature on which to organize an interstate prehistoric mounds trail.
To put the idea into practice I involved students in courses I teach at the University of Memphis in applied anthropology and museum studies. Students in my classes always create some product that will live real-time in an area museum or digital space. For several years I suggested a student take up the task of creating a brochure that promoted the prehistoric earthworks along the Mississippi River. In my Applied Archaeology and Museums class in the Spring of 2014, a student took up the challenge and created the brochure. This past year, we applied for and received the Southeastern Archaeological Conference Public Outreach Grant to expand the brochure, print and distribute copies to the venues listed, and create a digital presence for the information. The Prehistoric Earthworks of the Mississippi Valley website and linked brochure are a result of that process. The hard copy of the brochure is an 11 x 17 front and back six-fold that will be available at all the listed venues within the next two weeks. (If you are a venue or cultural heritage agency that would like copies of the brochure, please drop me a note.)
In the coming months we will evaluate the traffic on the website, visitor comments, and check-in with the museums and prehistoric sites included in the brochure to get their feedback. We will then incorporate their recommendations into the website and a further revision of the brochure.
I will appreciate your comments on this project. Note that the website is specifically designed for viewing on mobile devices. What works? What does not work? What suggestions do you have to make the website or brochure a more effective resource for information about the prehistoric earthworks along the Mississippi River?