Tag: archaeology

Museums as Third Places

Open Field seating area at the Walker Art Center

Lately, I have thought a good bit about the idea of  Museums as third places – not work or home, but places where people regularly go to socialize and be in community.  Ray Oldenburg published on this concept a while ago.  He suggests that today’s coffee house best typifies the third place concept in North America.

Specific to museums, Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog took up this discussion in June of this year.  In the Museum 2.0 blog posts written by both Simon and guests, along with comment feedback, there was much back-and-forth on whether museums are able to function as third places.

But why is the third place an important discussion for museums?  At the C.H. Nash Museum, the third space idea is relevant as we attempt to build more engaged relationships with our visitors and in our role as a social asset in southwest Memphis.  The engagement is not just a matter of building attendance and revenue streams, but rather, as central to our function as a community stakeholder and partner.

Here are a couple of museums where the third place concept seems to work.  At the Sunwatch Village, a circa 1200 – 1500 AD American Indian site and museum near Dayton, Ohio, Site Manager Andy Sawyer developed regular gatherings of the Native American community via the Miami Valley Flute Circle for concerts and socializing.  These public concerts have a strong community building component.  Visitors are encouraged to bring their picnic dinners, visit, and turn the gathering into a true social event.  The Flute Circle is different from the typical Festival or Powwow event in their regularity (monthly) and the community component of both Native and non-Native participants.  Conceptually, the Flute Circle is similar to a series of Sunday evening concerts in the park or coffee house acoustic performances, only in a museum setting.  Of added significance at Sunwatch, is the relevancy of a Native American musical form being played at a traditional Native American site.

Another example of the third place is at the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis’ Open Field described as “an experimental project of the Walker Art Center that invites the public to help transform our big, green backyard into a cultural commons. It’s a place to share experiences, interests, and talents and celebrate the creative assets and collective knowledge that abound in the Twin Cities.”  During my recent Saturday visit to the Walker Art Center, the activities in the Open Field consisted of a coffee shop/lounge type space for refreshments and visiting, an area for hoola-hoop contests, drawing, lounging, WiFi and such.  Also going on was and a very cool Red 76 participatory project of building a school in the Open Field made completely of surplus materials from the Walker Art Center.  There is no fee to take part in any of the Open Field activities.  During my Saturday visit, the participation seemed largely as an add-on to folks who were already visiting the sculpture garden or the Museum itself.  However, when considering the potential draw from the nearby Loring Park complex, the Open Field of the Art Center could very much become a regular social destination for folks.

The Sunwatch and Walker Art Center are two examples of how the third place concept is applicable to Museums.  Third places seem a logical direction for museums in an era of heightened demands for an engaged visitor experience.  Pragmatically, as museum staff sizes either stagnate or shrink, developing venues as third places where visitors become more active as institutional stakeholders is an important step.  In this capacity, the distinctions between volunteer, visitor, participant and stakeholder likely will develop more grey area.

What are your thoughts or experiences on Museums as Third Places?

Measuring Program Success

A couple of months ago I had a conversation with a colleague who questioned how can we measure the success of public outreach programs in archaeology.  Specifically, she asked “How do we know that one shot archaeology week/month events are meaningful to the participants the day after?  How can we tell if the events are successful?”

I have thought about her questions more of late.  How do we measure success?  At the C.H. Nash Museum, this question was particularly relevant as we completed our recent Museum Assessment Program sponsored by the American Association of Museums.

Here are some thoughts on measuring program success:

  • Our staff concluded that attendance numbers and revenue dollars should not be the primary measure of success.  It’s nice to see income come closer to offsetting our expenses but as a small nonprofit, we know that even doubling our attendance is not going to allow us to break even.
  • Rather, we are thinking of ways to measure how well our programs and outreach align with our Mission Statement.  The alignment is not readily measured in dollars and cents and attendance numbers.  We also expect that to the extent we demonstrate an aggressive alignment with our mission, donor giving will increase.
  • Educational and outreach opportunities are central to our Mission Statement.  Schemes of pre and post testing visitors knowledge might not be a good gauge of success – particularly for our adult visitors.  A recent article in the Boston Globe reported that the simple presentation of facts is not an effective means to change an individual’s perspective on an issue.  But the article revealed an interesting point – the testing involved presumed experts telling people their assumptions were in error.  The article did not discuss instances when individuals participated in a process of discovery about alternative explanations for a set of phenomena.  The process described in the article is like standing up in front of a town meeting and saying that the beloved founder was a real scoundrel.  An alternative and more engaged approach might be to provide the town folks copies of the beloved founder’s diaries, testimony from his/her spouse, etc. etc and let the citizens decide if he/she was a scoundrel – an engaged participatory approach.
  • Specific to the Archaeology Week/Month event, here is an example – in years past I gave Archaeology Month presentations in Belzoni, Mississippi, location of the prehistoric Poverty Point Culture’s Jaketown site.  The bulk of the site remains in private hands and is routinely collected by avocational archaeologists.  In my presentations, I talked about the distributional patterns of artifact types at other Poverty Point culture sites.  Attendees heads nodded in agreement about such patterns at Jaketown as well.  After the talk, several of the collectors would tell me about the patterns they noted.  We visited a bit, then I packed up my slides and drove the several hours back home to northeast Louisiana.  I went back the next year for Archaeology Month with the same general story, resulting in more nodding heads, and more talks and visiting after the presentation – but despite my suggestions, none of the collectors thought to actually record the location of their newly collected materials.  In hindsight, it’s probably the height of professional arrogance to think that a once a year preaching the Archaeology Gospel should result in everyone being saved.
  • This comes full circle back to the conversation with my colleague on how to measure success.  First, such changes likely are measurable only over extended periods of time.  Perhaps the point is that we really should not expect more from Archaeology Month/Week events than success as measured by attendance data.  Perhaps the real success is the extent that we use the Archaeology Day event as an opportunity to begin building a relationship with folks on an engaged and long-term basis where the less tangible measures can be made.
  • We seem to have a choice –  if we are expecting more substantive successes, then we likely will need to begin investing in more long-term strategies and commitments.  For example, at the C.H. Nash Museum, we have gone from 5-10 people showing up for our monthly Volunteer Day events to over 40 this past month.  We can talk about our short supply of staff and competing priorities, but building engaged relationships with these volunteers flows directly through our Mission Statement.  To do otherwise is counter to our mission.  The more sustained engagement today with the 40 is where we will develop the stakeholders who down the road will become advocates and participate in the Museum’s Mission.
  • So, in addition to attendance and revenue numbers, are good measures of success the number of volunteer hours over time, feedbacks in social media, number of letters written to elected officials on cultural resource preservation, and so forth?

How do you measure your success in public outreach?

The Networked Nonprofit

I previously posted about Beth Kanter’s blog and Allison Fine’s Social Good podcast.  Together, they just published The Networked Nonprofit, a volume that brings together the basics of their message on social media.

So, how is this relevant to Archaeology, Museums or Outreach?  A few thoughts.  First, archaeologists, somewhat begrudgingly in many instances, are coming to embrace the digital age.  A good bit of our internet presence is geared toward dissemination of information to other archaeologists.  For example, here in Tennessee, Kevin Smith maintains an excellent resource with the Tennessee Archaeology Network.  Of late, archeologists are starting to push info out to the public in a digital format.  For example, Panamerican Consultants recent Lamar Terrace webpage is an excellent resource written and designed with a general readership in mind.

Next, from  the Museum end, the digital presence is more firmly in place, largely due to the public orientation of the institutions.  Finally, the relevancy of the Outreach component to digital media is often perceived as a means for cheap product or event promotion and a resource to make money.  This perception is akin to my earlier post on the Myth of Volunteers as Free Labor.  Rather, as an outreach tool, social networking provides an opportunity to truly engage with audiences in new ways, build community, relationships, and carry a mission forward – all of which can produce increased revenues attendance, but it’s not free.  Oh . . . and all the above in combination – Archaeology, Museums & Outreach – pretty much operate in the nonprofit world.

So why is the Networked Nonprofit relevant?  In a short 200 pages (inclusive of notes, glossary, resources, and index) of highly accessible and well-illustrated discussion, Kanter and Fine lead readers through the process of conceptualizing an organization’s coming into the age of social networking.  From initially addressing the Luddite myths of this newfangled digital thing, such as “Our constituents aren’t on-line . . . Face-to-face isn’t important anymore . . . social media isn’t core to our work . . using social media is hard . . . and time-consuming (pp. 8-9)” the authors present a clear and concise discussion of social networking and building networked communities.  For example, in Chapter 5 – Listening, Engaging and Building Relationships – the authors walk the reader through the utility and process of becoming networked.  The last section of the book deals with the mechanics of functioning as a networked nonprofit.

The book contains lots of case studies and most chapters end with very useful reflection questions.  The 20 pages of end notes and resources is largely composed of on-line references.  The book is ideal for the beginner to social networking and also for those who have worked at this for a while in a piecemeal hit or miss fashion.  I consider myself in the latter camp and have simply decided that the potential of social networking is incredible and it’s time to really get serious about the process in a strategic long-term way.  The Networked Nonprofit is a tool to frame those discussions.

So, I come back to asking what has all this got to do with Archaeology, Museums and Outreach?  I am convinced that viewing our discipline’s institutions as networked nonprofits is important – and perhaps a considerably more than Kanter and Fine perceive as well.  True, their case studies tend to focus more on social issue organizations, charities, causes, and so forth.  However, the application to the nonprofit nature of Museums and the growth of public or applied archaeology/anthropology is quite relevant.  I suspect that other disciplines will use the The Networked Nonprofit as they build on-line networked communities and relationships.

You can review the first few chapters of The Networked Nonprofit online at amazon.com  – see if Kanter and Fine’s approach works for you.

Gaming & Museums

In early 2009, the Center for the Future of Museums hosted a webcast lecture by Jane McGonigal on Gaming and the Future of Museums.  The gist of the presentation was that given the amount of time folks, particularly the youth, invest in playing online games, how could museums tap into this trend to further their mission?

A load of archaeological sites host games of varying quality.  The Society for American Archaeology’s  Fun for all Ages lists some game pages.  Mr. Donn provides a whole suite of archaeological online games from the very simple to the reasonably complex  At Colonial Williamsburg the Dirt Detective is a very simple and straightforward educational attempt.

Perhaps more along the line that McGonigal advocates are several other games:

Wolf Quest is available in both Mac and PC formats and provides an action game environment with education on wolf ecology.  Players track scents, mate, and pretty much do just about everything a wolf does during its life cycle.  Although I am not an expert on wolf biology, the game appears authentic and does not rely on glitz to keep the player engaged.  I cannot imagine playing at this game for a bit and not coming away considerably more knowledgable about wolves – and it’s a free download.

The McCord Museum in Montreal provides historic era gaming options to online visitors.  McCord uses an increasingly popular option for museums in online gaming that allows the visitor to “tag” items on display to develop more reliable and robust keyword searches.  The McCord Museum games also include role-playing, observation, and quiz type games.  Overall, the McCord Museum offerings are quite engaging and provide a considerable information on the historic era Montreal and interacts with their broader on-line presence.  For example, the quiz game includes an image of an Iroquois headdress, ultimately connecting to the digital collections catalogue containing 40 odd other headdresses curated by the Museum.  Less complex than Wolf Quest, McCord-type offerings can be created through basic Dreamweaver programming skills.

Perhaps the most low-tech but ultimately the most community engaging gaming is the recently launched Interrobang a joint project of Nuvana, Microsoft, and the Smithsonian.  Interrobang is geared toward K-12 grades who choose real-time missions from those listed on the Interrobang site.  In collaboration with other team members, players develop a plan to achieve the mission.  The team then performs the mission, uploads documentation to the website and describes the experience.  Missions are regularly added to the Interrobang website and include Trash Reincarnated where players visit a recycling center and gather information on the recycle process from curbside bin to ultimate reuse.  In State of Song players create, perform, and video document songs to teach the names, capitals, and features of U.S. states.  Teams receive points for each completed mission along with badges and listing of team scores on the web page.  Interrobang gaming is aimed at problem solving.  The on-line presence is quite low-tech and manageable with a minimum of digital experience.  It’s not clear how successful Interrobang has been during its brief lifespan, however, the content seems completely in-line with McGonigal’s approach to on-line gaming and museums.

What is your experience with on-line gaming, archaeology, and museums?

Museum Tours: To Guide or not to Guide

We had an interesting discussion in our African-American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis project today at the C.H. Nash Museum.  The students visited Davies Manor Plantation last Friday and were guided on the tour by the site manager, Nancy McDonough.  Today we talked about what impressed the students most about the visit.  Jasmine noted that being in the Big House was a powerful experience because she knew that as an African-American, the building was off-limits to her in the  slavery era.  A couple of students raised the absence of labels in the exhibits – something they enjoyed.  The lack of labels was in sharp contrast to the previous Friday visit to the Pink Palace, and the Friday before at the National Civil Rights Museum.  I noted that at the Tenement Museum in New York, all tours are guided and there are no labels anywhere.  (The National Civil Rights Museum and Tenement Museum are two of seventeen International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.)

Our discussion brought to mind some studies I recently read.  Survey results from Reach Advisors on Museum Audience Insights is quite revealing and perhaps surprising when it comes to guided and audio tours compared to self-guided tours with lots of exhibit labels.  (History News, quarterly magazine of the American Association of State and Local History reports a summary of the survey results in the current issue.)  The survey results suggest that at least a substantial portion of museum visitors want to be left alone to view exhibits, unaided by audio tours or guides.  In fact, the History News article reports that a double-digit percentage of visitors find audio and guided tours absolutely annoying!

Check the Reach Advisors web link for a wealth of survey data on museum visitation.  What surprises do you find in these data?

The Myth of Volunteers as Free Labor

I would like to take a bit of personal privilege in this post and get on my soapbox and preach a moment.  I came across an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that noted the increase in volunteerism over the past several years.  Coupled with other materials such as a recent report from the Center for the Future of Museums, even from a pragmatic perspective, volunteers will be integral to both Archaeology and Museums in the future.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, we are at the start of a process to revamp the very nature and approach to our volunteer program.

Here are a few practices we are addressing in our revision.  First, we are careful not to solicit volunteers in the abstract without a specific plan to follow-up and engage the individual. Over the years, I cannot begin to count the number of sign-up sheets I have signed to be a volunteer, never to receive any follow-up.  In a focus group I led several years ago, the “no follow up” factor was the most common complaint about the “volunteer fair” held by the organization.  In essence, I learned that one should not have a volunteer fair or put out a call for volunteers unless there is also a commitment to the follow-up.

Second, at Chucalissa we are mindful to engage with volunteers while on site and not treat them as anonymous cogs in an artifact sorting, counting, and weighing assembly line.  As an undergraduate years ago, despite hearing the steady drone from graduate students complaining about their overworked lives, after many attempts I finally found one who agreed to allow me to volunteer to help process artifacts from their excavation.  I remember being particularly irritated when the grad student turned out to be a no-show for the first session, apologizing later that they had forgotten about the event.  It seemed a daunting task just to find someone who wanted a volunteer!   Perhaps one of the most successful volunteer programs I encountered to date is at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History with their archaeology collections.  Every Tuesday morning for at least the last 20 years a regular group of volunteers meet to process artifacts.  I was impressed those 20 years ago that even as a newcomer, I too was welcomed and integrated into the group.  The Cincinnati experience is a good example of a third place type experience ala Ray Oldenberg that takes place in a museum.

At Chucalissa, we now write each volunteer a thank you note upon completion of their project.  The volunteer response is interesting.  Our thank you notes have generated volunteer thank you notes in thanks for us thanking the volunteer.  Last year we held a volunteer appreciation dinner where we reviewed museum accomplishments of the past year, plans for the coming year, and specifically detailed how volunteer support made it all possible.

This all leads me to the title of this post – the myth of volunteers as free labor is no more valid than the myth that funded grant proposals as free money.  This recognition goes to the very heart of a successful volunteer program.  The average number of employees in a museum in the US today is 7 and the average number of volunteers is 59.  (The reference here escapes me at this time – something put out by the AAM)  As paid staff decrease, these numbers speak to the valuable role that volunteers can and will play in archaeology and museums in the future.  Realizing that potential will take a considerable investment of time and effort in itself.

What steps do you take to assure a meaningful experience for your volunteers?

Summer Reading Resources

As classes end for the spring semester, I have caught up on some reading and resources.  A helpful new find is the Museum Education Monitor produced by M. Christine Castle.  The on-line monthly download runs some 12-15 or so pages.  The thrust of the publication is a listing of ongoing research, on-line journals, on-line discussion groups, blogs, research papers, resources, print journals, call for papers, and conference announcements.  What particularly intrigues me about the Monitor is that it includes a few of the links I come across during my regular internet browsing through sources such as the American  Association of Museums, the Center for the Future of Museums, and the American Association of State and Local History newsletters. However, the Monitor focuses very tightly on Education and Outreach.  Students and unwaged Museum workers can receive a complimentary subscription.  For those of us drawing a paycheck, the annual rate is $40.00.  You can also download a sample copy.  A great resource.

I am spending more time with Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum, a book I posted about before.  Simon’s book is without a doubt one of my top five “aha” moments in Museum Studies over the past year.  Here is why – First, the book goes well beyond the buzzwords of participation and engagement for the sake of participation and engagement.  The volume examines the concept from a mission driven perspective.  Second, the chapters are filled with case studies suitable and adaptable for museums big and small, put into practice short of blockbuster exhibits or doubling the work force.  Third, Simon provides weblinks to many of her references/resources in page footnotes.  Finally, the book is available on-line for free or $25.00 as a hard copy.  The on-line presence also provides the opportunity for ongoing discussions about the chapters – a factor that figured into Simon’s intent for the project.

So . . . check out these possibilities while relaxing at your third place wi-fi spot this summer!

Learning Through Webinars & Podcasts

This week I downloaded a bunch of podcasts from last September’s annual meeting of the American Association of State and Local History.  You can download the podcasts directly from the AASLH web page or through iTunes.  The podcast topics include Web 2.0 Technology and Social Media, Discovering Your Hidden Audience, Creating Diverse Partnerships, and so forth – about 20 in all.  The couple I listened to so far have, in one case been interesting – the Lincoln administration with some interesting comparisons with President Obama – and the other quite helpful in exploring how three different institutions use social media.  The social media podcast illustrates two ways I find this information tool useful.  First, the topical coverage is basic, in this case covering Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and so forth.  Second, the podcasts include case studies that offer insights on how to adapt and apply these tools to my own needs.

Cuts in travel budgets make conference attendance more selective.  To answer this challenge,  more and more organizations reach their membership through inexpensive or free webinars and podcasts of Annual Meetings.  For example, in addition to the AASLH, for the past several years the Society for Applied Anthropology posted selected sessions from their annual meetings as free podcasts.  Will the Society for American Archaeology be not more than just a few years behind this trend?

Free webinars include those sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution such as their Problem Solving With Smithsonian Experts kicking off this week.  The American Association of Museum also offers low-cost webinars, free podcasts, along with free webinars that ultimately end up on YouTube.

All of which raises the obvious – with so much stuff out there, how does one choose?  Here is my take on this point.  Gordon Wiley was considered the last “generalist” in archaeology.  As a discipline, we clearly are quite specialized.  Two decades ago I wrote my MA Thesis on the analysis of flint artifacts from a single site.  I now serve on a committee of a doctoral student who is testing a very specific type of non-destructive spectral technique for fingerprinting flint raw materials.  Specialties are now sub-specialized.  I find that podcasts, webinars, and the like are excellent resources from which I can choose resource information to which I will devote more time.  For example, with social media, podcasts and blogs are very helpful in directing me to specific resources that answer specific questions.

How do these resources answer your research needs?

Tools for Public Participation

Easter Egg "gather" at Chucalissa

In the past couple of weeks I have come across several very cool tools to promote public engagement whether in museums or broader archaeological contexts.  First, is the recent publication of The Participatory Museum by Museum 2.0 blogger Nina Simon.  I posted earlier about Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog.  Ms. Simon is clearly on the cutting edge in the practical, hands-on, and applied participatory end of Museum work. I always enjoy her outside-the-box thinking that is firmly grounded in practice. The volume is an excellent resource to kick-start creative thinking from conceptualizing through to implementing and evaluating visitor participation.  The book is useful for both museum and field settings.  As well, her most recent posts on Museum 2.0 blog review the book’s creation process and are equally insightful on that rather unique participatory experience.

Another fantastic idea I learned about this week came from the Social Good podcast of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.  The concept is the Dashboard web page from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  What I find so intriguing about the page is the opportunity for building transparency and relationship with volunteers, visitors, and web-surfers alike.  Here are a couple of examples I intend to use for employing this tool in archaeology.  Last year at the C.H. Nash Museum we launched monthly Volunteer Saturdays.  Thus far, with well in excess of 500 volunteer hours, we processed many thousands of artifacts.  A dashboard entry for this activity shows the volunteers that their 2 hours here and there are part of the greater whole.  Second, a dashboard entry with hours volunteered and artifacts processed shows the visitor to our website that we have an active volunteer program in which they too can take part – or minimally, appreciate that we have a dynamic presence in our community.

In the April issue of our museum’s monthly e-newsletter, Chucalissa Anoachi, we launched a project to digitize a considerable amount of our archived photographic and research records.  A dashboard entry on pages/images scanned will not only promote the active nature of the project but also point to a product that is a resource available for public use.

I see the potential of applications such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art dashboard as  a tool to move a core of folks from the being casual visitors and volunteers to stakeholders in a process.  As well, highlighting the ongoing nature our programs demonstrates our role as an active cultural resource asset in our community.

How might the Dashboard concept apply to your visitor engagement?

Collections on-line: Quality vs. Quantity

We are in the process of a major library reorganization at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  In the reorganization we intend to begin digitizing the 50 years worth of accumulated photographic prints, 35 mm slides, negatives, and to systematically organize more recent digital images.  Also, we will scan our archive of research reports, often written by students for course requirements, but containing a wealth of primary data.  Further, we aim to digitize the University of Memphis, Department of Anthropology’s Occasional Paper series that contains archaeological research and conference proceedings from the past 20 years.  Initiating the process raises the issue of how to disseminate these materials once digitized – or to the point, what do we do with all this stuff once placed in a format that better accommodates transfer and access.  We could put it all up on the internet, but, even discounting considerations of logistics and ethics, should we?  Does such wholesale uploading of material address the public outreach part of our mission?  What is the appropriate solution?  Is more always better?  A couple of months ago we posted photos from 1960s Chucalissa  field schools on Facebook.  The photos generated much interest and feedback from the folks in the 40-year-old photos.  Is our public outreach goal simply to have interaction or is there more to it than that?

On-line visual representation across the field of anthropology is quite varied.  An example of an engaged and informative online photographic presentation is the Edward S. Curtis Collection at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress.  Besides the images, and lots of them, the site also presents a set of essays that contextualize the Curtis photos in time and space.  The Field Museum in Chicago is one of the institutions that has placed many photographic galleries of their collections online.  For example, photographs of collections from the World Columbian Exposition are online but there is very limited provenience or interpretive information despite the several introductory essays. My takeaway is that the online Field Museum collection has lots of pictures of things but little in the way of meaning.  The British Museum galleries however provide detailed information on many of the  artifact images presented.

A cursory examination of anthropological collection websites shows considerable variation in the presentation of images online.  This observation raises questions about the very nature of these public access resources.  If we have 50 years of photographs is it important to have each and everyone available online?  What considerations come into play when considering community engagement and outreach in the access to collections on-line?


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