Tag: archaeology

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly About Blogging

glyphSo Doug, over at Doug’s Archaeology, launched a blogging carnival leading up to the Blogging in Archaeology session at the Society for American Archaeology 2014 meetings in Austin.  The idea is that Doug will pose a question each month to which folks will respond.  Doug will then summarize the individual posts at the end of the month, and post the set of links.  The carnival and SAA session have the Twitter hashtag #blogarch.

So, if you are up to writing a response to the monthly question on your own blog send the link to Doug’s Archaeology and/or email him (drocksmacqueen@gmail.com) the link.  Sounds like party!

The December topic is the The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly about Blogging.

The Good – It’s really all pretty good.  In the last month’s post I talked about why I blogged and that says it all.

The Bad – The biggest downside is that blogging can be a real time suck.  I take the writing and content pretty seriously – at least from my perspective.  Most posts go through at least 3 or 4 major drafts and then a few more minor ones.  Although I like to think that the more substantive posts I write from scratch take me about 3 hours – it’s probably closer to 4 or 5 from the very start to pushing the publish button.  If I am publishing a guest post, an interview with someone else, or something short and directed like this post, I have maybe 2 hours invested in each post.

For posts I write, I now use only photos I have taken and played with in Photoshop.  I think my images are at least aesthetically pleasing, and most often relevant to the post, at least in my head.  Finding and creating the right image also takes time.  I also have a whole set of half-written blogs that I probably just need to dump as they are no longer relevant.  So, time commitment is really the bad part of blogging for me.

The ugly – Very few trolls have commented on my blog over the years.  I made a firm decision several years ago to always approve a comment and never delete a response unless it is truly offensive.  I began this policy with the C.H. Nash Museum FB page where I deleted one rather bizarre and somewhat offensive comment a few years ago and regretted doing so.  On FB I find that a reasoned dialogue with haters or negative Neds/Nancys has a neutralizing impact.  The same is true with my blog.  I recall only one instance of a rather strident and polar commenter who was not interested in a dialogue, but a platform.  The individual pretty much just went away when confronted with a reasoned response.  Engagement is an important part of the “social” in social media – blogs, FB, et al. should not just be used as a megaphone but in true dialogue.

Why I Blog About Archaeology

rails to trailsSo Doug, over at Doug’s Archaeology, launched a blogging carnival leading up to the Blogging in Archaeology session at the Society for American Archaeology 2014 meetings in Austin.  The idea is that Doug will pose a question each month, folks will blog away on their own blogs in response.  Doug will then summarize the individual posts at the end of the month, and post the set of links.  The carnival and SAA session have the Twitter hashtag #blogarch.

So, if you are up to writing a response to the monthly question on your own blog send the link to Doug’s Archaeology and/or email him (drocksmacqueen@gmail.com) the link.  Sounds like party!

Doug posed two questions for this month to which I respond below:

Why did you start to blog?

I wrote my first archaeology blog post four years ago (next week) that included in part:

In early November of 2009, I participated in a session at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference held in Mobile, Alabama.  The session focused on taking Archaeology into the Community.  The papers addressed diversity of issues including a traveling ArchaeoBus, site visitor programs, archaeology fairs, museum exhibit development, Native American representation, archaeology in the classrooms, and more.  The session was a blast!  I learned a lot was able to meet folks with an interest in what I think of as applied archaeology and engaged scholarship – basically a reciprocal and symbiotic relationship between us as museum/archaeology folks and the communities who through their tax dollars are our employers.

Besides exposure to innovative and creative ideas, a couple of other things stood out to me about the session.  First, ours was the only session at the Conference that directly addressed archaeology or museums as educational resources for the broader community.   Second, the first speaker at the session, Nancy Hawkins Outreach Director at the Louisiana Division of Archaeology and a 20-year plus advocate for Public Outreach, commented that it was nice to see “the choir” assembled – noting the small but loyal cadre of advocates for the mission.

However, coming away from the Conference, I am optimistic that there are quite a few more singers in the choir in the Southeast United States.  One important idea was that the session participants stay in dialogue, reach out to others, and continue the conversation.  This blog is meant to be a part of that process.

So that was four years ago.

And the second question Doug posed, Why do you keep on blogging?

Just recently, I was quite surprised that my college chose my blogging as the basis for a “Faculty Spotlight” story, that read in part:

Dr. Robert Connolly, Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department and the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa launched his blog Archaeology Museums and Outreach about four years ago. . . . The posts include interviews with cultural heritage professionals, reports on innovative research projects, book reviews, and more. Connolly notes that the post that received the most hits and reblogs was the recent “Thoughts on How to Get a Museum Job.”

In evaluating his blogging efforts, Connolly says “I am really somewhat lazy about promoting the blog. Primarily, I focus on a specific niche of the cultural heritage student or professional interested in public engagement. If you Google my blog title, you will not find another blog with that focus. So I definitely fill a niche and the interest continues to grow. Unique hits per post range from as few as 500 to many as 3000 per week.”

Connolly also believes that blogs are more accepted in academic circles today. He points to The London School of Economics and Political Science as one of the leaders in academic blogs. He also cites Paul Mullins’ blog Archaeology and Material Culture as an example of a blog with well researched and referenced posts. Mullins, chair of the Anthropology Department at IUPU and the President of the Society for Historic Archaeology is a strong advocate for considering alternative academic products as legitimate scholarship.

Archaeology, Museums and Outreach also provides Connolly with numerous networking and professional opportunities. “I have published three peer reviewed articles from invitations by editors who asked me to expand a concept I presented in my blog. The blog also brings national and even international exposure for the C.H. Nash Museum. A benefit of blogging that I enjoy a great deal is developing “colleagues” who I will likely never meet in person or even speak to on the phone. For example, I regularly engage with a vibrant network of museum professionals in Australia, one of whom has reviewed my article drafts prior to publication.”

Connolly acknowledges that reading and writing blogs can be a huge time drain and produce little. But ultimately, he sees a bright future for such user-generated content. This semester he is teaching an Undergraduate Honors Forum titled “Wikipedia as a Research Tool.” Like blogs, he is convinced that Wikipedia has a place in academia. “In my Museum Practices graduate seminar, we spend about 45 minutes of one class period discussing the ethics of repatriation using the Elgin Marbles as a case study. I had been using a brief chapter from an archaeological text as background reading for the students. A couple of years ago, I went to the Wikipedia page for the Elgin Marbles. I found a balanced and up-to-date 5000-word article with over 100 references that approached the discussion from multiple perspectives. I realized that for the purposes of a single class case study discussion, I knew of no better single resource than the Wikipedia entry.”

Connolly notes that the aspect of Wikipedia that most surprises the students in his current Honors Forum is the rigorous editing and referencing process in creating Wikipedia pages. “One aspect of user-generated content that I enjoy the most is the need for critical assessment of the printed word. We did an exercise on the first day of class this fall where the students were able to see that the Wikipedia entry on a particular topic was actually better researched and more reliable than a report on the same topic in the Smithsonian Institutions Contributions to Anthropology. We continue to move in a direction where the venue of presentation does not always determine the worth of the written word, rather the scholarship on which the text is based. Blogs and other forms of user-generated content clearly have a place in that discussion.”

That’s it for me in a rather large nutshell.  Ultimately it comes down to the exchange of ideas.  If I think about the most stimulating and interesting information I come across on a regular basis, the starting point, whether a research update, innovative approach to programming, a book review or whatever often is in the form of a blog post.  I enjoy participating in that process.

Classroom Resources in Archaeology

bikeThis past weekend I helped staff the exhibit table of the Archaeology Education Clearinghouse at the National Council for Social Studies conference in St. Louis.  Most attendees were middle through high school teachers.  Although light on the gadgets and wizardry often used at such events, our exhibit saw a consistent flow of interested teachers.  The “I Dig Archaeology” buttons, CD of lesson plans, topical and age-graded handouts of internet resources were well received by the participants.

Some of my most engaging conversations were with teachers who, independent of any contact with the professional archaeological community, were bringing the discipline into the classroom.  For example, drawing on field schools from their undergraduate days, two teachers talk about how they had gotten their respective principles to allow them to dig up part of the school yard and create mock excavations.  Contrary to the horror stories archaeologists often tell about such activities turning into treasure hunts to find cool stuff, the processes included the careful excavation, mapping, and interpretation of recovered cultural materials, like the experience posted about last year from Harding University.

With that in mind, I wanted to post links to some of my favorite online resources for bringing archaeology and cultural heritage into the k-12 classroom:

  • In 2013, one of the most vibrant and engaged public archaeological outreach programs belongs to the Florida Public Archaeology Network.  The resource page on their website is loaded with classroom based lesson plans and activities.  The 2011 Beyond Artifacts contains over 120 pages of classroom activities and lesson plans both on archaeology in general and specific to Florida.
  • The Society for American Archaeology hosts an Archaeology for the Public webpage with some 300 or so resource links.  One of my favorites is ArchaeologyLand that contains a set of activities that can be used as individual lessons in the classroom or as a suite of offerings in a fair-like setting.
  • The Archaeological Institute of America provides lesson plans that focus on the classical sites and archaeological methods.  These offerings are often quite in-depth and utilize video and other internet instructional resources.
  • Project Archaeology offers leadership training and a set of programs tied to curriculum standards.  For example, their Investigating Shelter volume ” . . . consists of nine comprehensive lessons guiding students through the archaeological study of shelter including a toolkit of archaeological and scientific concepts . . .”

The above resources are outstanding examples of bringing the discipline of archaeology into the classroom.

What are your favorite classroom resources?

New Opportunities with International Archaeology Day

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Hualcayán, Peru

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 RoadshowAmerican 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.

The End of an Era in Louisiana Archaeology

Tom

Tom Eubanks, 2004

Or What I Learned During My Time in the Louisiana Regional Archaeology Program . . .

The Fall 2013 Newsletter of the Louisiana Archaeological Society had bad news.  Louisiana’s Regional Station Archaeology Program is now effectively disbanded because of state budget cuts.  There remains one regional station in Northwest Louisiana along with the Poverty Point Station Archaeologist.  As Poverty Point was recently nominated as a World Heritage Site of UNESCO, hopefully the state will continue to fund the Station Archaeology Program at this premier earthwork complex in the New World.

From 1996 – 2003, during my seven years as the Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point, under the direction of the late State Archaeologist Tom Eubanks and the current Manager of the Outreach, Regional, and Station Archaeology program Nancy Hawkins, my commitment to public outreach as an applied archaeologist was formed.  Both Tom and Nancy’s vision of public engagement never wavered.  In fact, it was under the 20 plus years of leadership by Nancy Hawkins that the Louisiana’s Regional program helped set the standard on which other state archaeology programs were built.

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Nancy Hawkins

During my tenure as the Poverty Point Station Archaeologist, I was first able to respond to the challenge I received in my first field school experience – to act as a public servant who performed tasks that were relevant to those whose tax dollars paid my salary.

One of my first experiences in public outreach in Louisiana archaeology was with Debbie Buco, a very enthusiastic Talented and Gifted teacher from Baton Rouge.  Nancy put me in touch with Debbie who was using the archaeology of Poverty Point to teach natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences to her second through fifth grade students.  After my first few conversations with Debbie, I was not certain how I could fit into her work, but I knew I wanted to tap into her enthusiasm.  For a period of several months in 1997 I had a regular email exchange with her students answering questions about the prehistoric life at Poverty Point.  What did the Indians eat?  What did the kids do for fun?  What were there houses like?  As we went back and forth via email, I learned valuable lessons on how to use archaeology to engage with the students.

Buch elem

In-class presentation, Buchannon Elementary, Baton Rouge, 1997.

Toward the end of the 1997 school year, I made the trip to Debbie’s classroom at Buchannon Elementary in a clearly underserved section of Baton Rouge.  When I walked into the classroom, I was humbled by the enthusiasm the students had for a visit from the archaeologist who had been writing to them about Poverty Point and drove all the way to their school for a visit.  After climbing inside the palmetto hut they built inside their classroom along with at least three of the students, we began a conversation in the less cramped setting outside the structure.  I asked the question:

“so, if you built this house outside and came back in a hundred years after it had rotted away, how could you tell it was ever there?”

To which there was silence at first and then a response –

“by the rotted sticks . . . no the postmolds . . . yeah, by the postmolds”

the students concluded in unison.

We talked about that some, then I held up a bladelet and asked:

“Do you know what this is?”

and I expected responses like “a rock” or at best a knife or tool, but the students responded immediately in unison with the same confidence that they knew 2 + 2 = 4:

“A microlith!”

Though impressive, it was not that the second through fifth grade students had learned to memorize the names of artifact types they had only seen in pictures, or that they could understand formation processes better than some undergraduates in Introduction to Archaeology classes I have taught.  Rather, archaeology had set the students on fire in learning to read, conduct scientific experiences and more.  Ultimately Debbie Buco produced the volume Poverty Point Expeditions, a workbook that uses archeology to teach physics, scientific experimentation, story telling, and more.  Nancy saw to it that the Louisiana Division of Archaeology produced thousands of copies of the book for distribution to teachers throughout the state.  A streamlined version of the book is available online.

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Palmetto house built by students at Buchanon Elementary, Baton Rouge, 1997.

Nancy organizes Archaeology Month in Louisiana and during my time at Poverty Point it was always a big deal.  I enjoyed the opportunity to take the archaeology show on the road as it were for up to two weeks every year.  My m.o. was to arrange for a school presentation during the day and then a public presentation at a library or other civic center in the evening.  I have spoken in a good number of the small Louisiana towns that might have only one traffic light and a small library.  I have posted before about some of my very memorable classroom experiences during Archaeology Month.

I learned a lot about public outreach from the library meetings in the small towns where farmers and surface collectors would come to show what they had plowed up.  During these presentations, I came to appreciate the interest avocational archaeologists had not just in their “arrowheads” but for their true respect and interest in the prehistory of the fields they plowed each year.  I spoke several times at the public library in Belzoni, Mississippi, just down the road from the Poverty Point Culture Jaketown site.  In one talk I discussed how Carl Alexander, an avocational archaeologist who collected at the Poverty Point site, would label where he had picked up many of his artifacts.  I noted that because Carl recorded the provenience of his collections, today we could better understand how the different ridges and sectors of the Poverty Point site were the locations of different types of activities in prehistory.  I showed how a large percentage of the whole projectile points were found in the north end of the site, perforators on the southwest sector of ridges, and the ubiquitous clay cooking balls had their greatest densities along the edges of the Bayou Macon.  I then asked:

“Do you all see a similar pattern of artifact types in the different areas where you collect around the Jaketown site?”

And the collectors nodded in agreement and began to talk about the clusters.  The next year when I spoke at the Belzoni library a couple of the collectors reported they had begun to take note of where they were recovering different types of artifacts.  Today there is a small museum in Belzoni where some collectors have donated portions of their collections from the Jaketown site.

Back at Poverty Point, for school group visits during Archaeology Month, I developed a 20-minute program for when a couple thousand school children jammed through the site each day over a three-day period.  My assigned station was to show how archaeologists used artifacts to interpret prehistory.  I talked about how archaeologists primarily examine the garbage left by the people who lived at the site.  To illustrate that process I would take a made bucket of dirt and artifacts and dump the content through a set of large to small nested geologic sieves.  I would then invite the students to pick out a piece of garbage from the sieves moving from large to small, and guess what the garbage represented.  In so doing, we covered everything from trade and exchange based on raw material types, subsistence from faunal remains, tool manufacture, and more.  For the last station in the 20 minute presentation I would scoop some light fraction (the stuff that rises to the top) from a soil sample placed in a barrel of water.  I said that the bits of seeds and bone were:

“not ‘like’ what the people were eating at Poverty Point nearly 4000 years ago, but the very food the people were eating”

Without fail for seven years, even the most restless student would grow quiet and strain to see those bits of prehistoric garbage.

I could ramble on with many more examples of the lessons I learned in applied archaeology and public outreach during my time as a part of Louisiana’s Regional Archaeology Program.  I am in debt to the Louisiana Division of Archaeology for giving me the opportunity to learn these skills.  Though the Regional Archaeology Program may be gone, the 20 years of work by Tom Eubanks, Nancy Hawkins, and all of my archaeological colleagues in the state will surely result in new and innovative directions for the preservation and presentation of the rich cultural heritage of Louisiana.

I got a call the other day asking for an archaeologist to come to a 5th grade class to talk about hunter gatherers and how archaeologists interpret prehistoric sites.  In the corner of my office, I see that I am still using that same bucket of dirt, replenished on occasion, to talk about the same prehistoric garbage I started with over 15 years ago in Epps, Louisiana!

Thoughts on How to Get a Museum Job

Professionalism

Fitting for Labor Day here in the United States is a post about employment in the cultural heritage sector, specifically, museums.  Users of LinkedIn and various LISTSERVs often post discussions lamenting the lack of jobs in the Museum sector and the glut of students graduating from Museum Studies Programs.  In response, I often comment that although the employment picture is not rosy, there are steps job applicants can take to enhance their possibility for employment in the museum or cultural heritage industry.

Please note, I am aware that there are many individuals who have taken all the steps I list below and remain unemployed.  I accept that as true not just for museums but for many other industries.  My intent in this post is simply to offer examples of what has worked for some folks, not to discount or dismiss the very real concerns of those seeking employment.

As a starting point, today the employment picture is not particularly good for most job sectors.  The profession I left over 25 years ago as an industrial machinist now has a 26% unemployment rate.  Unemployment rates for telemarketers is 23% and actors is 28%.  On the low end of the spectrum astronomers, biomedical engineers, judges, and nurse practitioners all have less than 1% unemployment (see here for data).  For technical occupations in museums, the unemployment rate is reported at 5% in one source and 1.8% in another, both below the current U.S.  average of 7.4%.  I am not interested in defending the methods for computing unemployment rates – a controversial issue to be certain.  But the data show there is variation in rates of unemployment among job sectors and the museum industry appears better off than most.

Given these data, my experience as an employer of museum professionals, as an educator in a museum studies program, and observing internet employment boards leads me to conclude there are jobs out there – though not as many and of the types and geographic locations suitable to all.  However, I believe there are steps to better prepare oneself for the limited number of employment opportunities in museums.

First and foremost, the time to start thinking about getting a Museum job is not upon graduation with degree in hand, but before walking into the classroom on the first day.  An excellent framework to think of this process is laid out in The Anthropology Graduate’s Guide: From Student to a Career.  Don’t despair of the Anthropology in the title – the approach is the essence of the volume.  The book covers the critical importance of creating a skills portfolio, internships, volunteerism, and professionalism – all issues that must be considered long before applying for the first job.   A Life In Museums: Managing Your Museum Career from the American Alliance of Museums is also very insightful with a similar coverage of topics, though a bit light on resources.  Museum Careers: Fit, Readiness and Development is a free download from Virginia Association of Museums that has some basic Q & A info to help determine the type of museum work for which a person is best suited.  These are three examples written by professionals on how to get a job in the Museum sector.  If you are seeking employment or will someday seek employment in the cultural heritage sector, and you are reading this blog post but have not read the above resources, you should go over to amazon.com and order the first two titles immediately.

If you seek employment in a small to medium-sized organization that make up 75% of the museums in the U.S. today, you will be one of just a handful of employees.  If there is single consistent response to the LISTSERV questions on education and experience needed for the first job in a museum, the mantra is experience trumps degrees.  Therefore, a skills portfolio, published and conference papers, internship projects, and so forth can be the tipping point.

What have you done?  This question is critical and a point of departure I have with some folks when discussing paid vs unpaid internships.  Internships are the opportunity for hands-on training and experience.  Internships and volunteer positions should be negotiated agreements among all parties.  If one has a career interest in collections and has a choice between an unpaid internship assisting with condition reports and learning PastPerfect software vs a paid internship to arrange publicity for the opening of a blockbuster exhibit, which is the better deal?  Upon graduation when applying for jobs in collections, the resume line will read either a three-month position assisting with collections inventory and condition reports or arranging publicity.  .  . paid or unpaid will not be relevant.  A common response is that all internships should be paid.  Ideally, yes.  For small to medium museums with shrinking budgets, in the 2013 economy, that option is often not possible.

Flexibility is also key.  If you intend to work in a museum, and unless you live in a large metropolitan area like Washington DC or London, you may need to relocate.  This fact should not be surprising.  If you live in a city with 50 or fewer museum jobs, you might snag one of them eventually, but you will likely need to be mobile for the first few years.  Relocation is a commonly accepted fact for those with graduate degrees seeking jobs in academic institutions.  I raise this point as I am often surprised by the number of folks who seem surprised by this reality.

Flexibility in career choice within a museum is also key.  For example of the over 5000 respondents to the American Alliance of Museums 2012 Salary Survey, less than 1% were conservators yet nearly 12% were educators.  Assuming no bias based on job title in survey response, there are far fewer museum jobs for conservators than educators.  Knowing this fact the day before you take your first class is a valuable insight.

Careers, especially today, are processes and not events.  I am 61 years old.  I got my “dream job” at the age of 55.  That dream job resulted from my previous experience working in heavy industry, archaeological excavations, teaching, managing nonprofits and a few other things – all of which I enjoyed.  I have been perplexed on more than one occasion when unemployed graduates turned down a museum position offer because it was not their “dream job.”

In summary, yes, getting a job in a museum today is not easy.  And yes, academic institutions are into recruitment in a big way to bolster their sagging finances.  However, the student is responsible from separating the hype from the reality.  Know what you are getting into. I advise students that cultural heritage institutions will continue to be viable and vital institutions in the future.  However that future involves less thinking outside the box but expanding the boundaries of the box.  The Center for the Future of Museums and the Institute of Museum and Library Services host many reports and studies to contextualize the future employment in the cultural heritage sector.  Knowing this information is crucial the first day of class so that a student can tailor their academic career to suit the existing and future job market.

Finally, if you are looking for an unpaid 150-hour internship based in prehistoric collections research, educational programming, or community outreach that will provide all you need to then write a conference and/or published paper, we have a limited number of internships available at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.  Drop me a note at rcnnolly(a)memphis.edu to discuss.

Not Hating or Loving, but Empowering With Museums

Parque Litico

Parque Litico, Museo Arqueológico de Ancash, Huaraz, Peru

James Durston, the senior editor for travel at CNN recently wrote the op-ed Why I Hate Museums.  The piece generated a polarized reaction similar to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s 2011 trashing of Anthropology and Spike TV’s American Digger.  In a minority, are the reasoned responses that recognize Mr. Durston’s thoughts do not come out of thin air.  There is a basis for his concerns. When Durston’s fictive or real docents command “No photos” and “No food” I am reminded of my granddaughter’s loud admonishment by a guard at a Memphis art museum that a 10-year old cannot stand by herself in a gallery but must have an adult within a few feet – not for her protection but for the protection of the art.   As a blue-collar kid who first visited an art museum during my freshman year of high school, I tried to put myself in my granddaughter’s shoes on this formative lesson for her about how museums work.

Durston’s op-ed also sparked some fantastic discussions.  Dana Allen-Griel’s Engaging Museum post is an excellent example.  In responding to Durston’s critique on uninteresting and uninformative labels, she concludes “For those who simply want to view and reflect, you’ve already got “Vase: Iran; circa 15th century.” For everyone else, let’s work TOGETHER to make museums a little more “wow.”

Another good reference point for discussing Mr. Durston’s op-ed is from John Cotton Dana’s nearly 100-year-old publication The New Museum.  Dana writes:

Museum purposes and methods change daily, as do all other community enterprises in these days.  Therefore, do not try to develop a museum after a plan. Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs. (p. 38)

Below, I discuss implementing Allen-Griel’s “wow” factor and Dana’s community needs that often are a simple and low or no cost addition that address Mr. Durston’s concerns.

I am curious what Mr. Durston might think of one of my favorite museums – The Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine, Iowa.  I first blogged about the Museum a couple of years ago and last year posted an interview with the Museum Director.  In Mr. Durston’s op-ed he asked “Where’s the relevance?”  The Pearl Button Museum is the very essence of relevance for Muscatine, Iowa.  If you want to understand Muscatine’s past, present, and future, you will not find a better place.  The Museum is a participatory institution, not because you can rack pearl buttons as was done 100 years ago or leave messages on the memory board.  The Museum is participatory because the entire community’s collective memory and experience compose the very fiber of the institution.

From Muscatine, you can drive about 100 miles up river to Dubuque, Iowa and visit the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.  Here I suspect Durston’s comment holds that “Kids do seem to have a good time when pushing buttons, pulling levers and magnetizing soap bubbles (right up until they stop having a great time and turn into wailing bundles of hair and tears only a little more bored than the parents).”  I have been to this Museum once and doubt I will return.  The new section is squeaky clean with an aquarium and educational water playland for children.  I watched kids totally transfixed by the four-foot-long albino catfish.  But what I remember most about the visit were the large and presumably expensive digital touch tables that were all out-of-order.  The old section of the museum was, well the old section with lots of unconnected stuff without a coherent story.  I don’t recollect any docents or guides – just lots of families seeming to have a good time.

The next time I am driving down the Great River Road, I will stop in Muscatine, but will probably by-pass the Dubuque Museum.  I suspect lots of other folks will do the reverse.  That does not make either museum good or bad – just different.  This difference means that not all museums are equal and by design they will attract different visitors.

I thought about this difference several years ago in another setting.  A graduate student in my Native People’s class was to create a banner exhibit on prehistoric plant use in our newly established hands-on archaeology lab at the C.H. Nash Museum.  The student proposal was a 2 x 6 ft banner exhibit that contained a few images, hundreds of words in an 18 pt. font, with the bottom six inches composed of bibliographic references in a 14 pt. font.  The archaeology lab is geared to a 6th grade level.  The proposed banner layout was not going to work.  However, the student compiled very useful information, some of which would interest to  perhaps 2% of our visitors.  This incident allowed us to begin thinking about our exhibits differently.  We considered how a single concept like prehistoric plant use might be presented in multiple formats to different interest levels throughout the museum.  We took the original concept and created a revised banner of about 100 words along with images and other interactive materials for the archaeology lab.  We created a separate banner in our main hall that contained an abbreviated version of the original without the bibliography.  We planned for the bibliographic references to be accessible through a QR code or web link.  Finally, we planned to include information from the original panel into audio tour stations along our nature trail that includes many of the plant species discussed in the exhibit.  The audio tour can be drilled down at each stop for more information.  Might Mr. Durston consider such an approach as accommodating those wanting only the most basic label  information and visitors seeking considerably more relevant detail?

A final example that addresses a concern expressed by Mr. Durston is from my recent visit to the Museo Arqueológico de Ancash in Huaraz, Peru.  The Museum’s outdoor Parque Litico contains a large collection of Recuay Monoliths from Chavin de Huantar.  I toured the Museum with Peruvian archaeologist and PIARA Co-Director Elizabeth Cruzado  Carranza.  We discussed the representations in the Recuay Monoliths, but noted the museum had little interpretive information or labels about the pieces.  Although the outdoor setting contained benches to relax and view the stone carvings, I, and I suspect Mr. Durston, would find the exhibit lacking in contextual information.  At the same time, Elizabeth and I acknowledged the aesthetics of keeping the garden uncluttered of signage.  During our visit, we quickly hit on several solutions ranging from a single page handout with basic information on each monolith, a small multi-page guide, QR code links to a web page, or a smart phone audio tour.  All of the solutions can be cost-effective products created by interns or students.

In summary, Mr. Durston’s op-ed piece should not be dismissed as the grumblings of a curmudgeon museum hater.  In my experience, I have voiced many of the same issues as expressed in Durston’s op-ed piece.  However, I find at least two differences in Mr. Durston and my approach.  First, I accept that I will not enjoy all museums.  There is not one correct way to exhibit works of art, historic documents, or other cultural materials.  I appreciate that there are stuffy traditional mausoleum-like institutions and then there is my favorite art museum, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.  I appreciate that someone else might write “there are all of these experimental art centers, and then there is my favorite art museum, the tried, true, and traditional Met.”  Second, as a museum director and professor in museum studies, I have the opportunity to explore and educate students who are the next generation of museum professionals on the “wow” advocated by Dana Allen-Griel and the community needs raised by John Cotton Dana.

For these reasons, I do not necessarily love museums, but I do see the potential of museums as essential educational and empowerment tools in the preservation and presentation of cultural heritage.

When Pop-Up Museums Are the Answer

There is nothing terribly new about Pop-Up Museums.  The concept originated in the 1990s.  In a Museum 2.0 post, Nina Simon describes Pop-Up Museums as “a short-term institution existing in a temporary space; a way to catalyze conversations among diverse people, mediated by their objects.”  As just two examples, Pop-Up Museums exhibit the results of high school student archaeological excavations and the history of Apple products.

I am not interested in a dogmatic purity in the terms application, such as the conversation around what can and cannot be called a Third Place (see recent article by my colleague Natalye Tate on same).  Instead, here I consider how the Pop-Up Museum is useful for community outreach and engagement, particularly in archaeological and historical contexts.

posted before about the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society’s (MAGS) work with collections curated at the C.H. Nash Museum.   Since that blog post, the group chose to also create traveling archeological exhibits.  MAGS intends to create these mobile thematic exhibits in collaboration with students from the University of Memphis Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.  MAGS will use the mobile exhibits at the dozens of public events they take part in each year.  The exhibits will differ from the typical “traveling trunks” that often amount to magician’s kit with a bit of everything.  Rather the exhibits will be thematic (stone tools, ceramics, Paleoindian) or spatial (specific site) with didactic panels and cultural materials.  Ideally, these Pop-Up Museums will continue to evolve and grow based on the specific needs and opportunities for public outreach by MAGS.  The intended purpose of the exhibits is to engage the public and educate and build awareness of the archaeological resources and prehistory of their region.

I experimented with another type of Pop-Up Museum during my tenure as the Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point Earthworks in northeast Louisiana some 10 – 15 years ago.  The idea was to create small exhibits for Louisiana parish (county) libraries based on a specific Poverty Point site excavation, artifact type, or prehistoric activity.  The Pop-Up Museum would remain in place for a three-month period.  We envisioned that multiple and different Pop-Up Museums could rotate throughout the library system of northeast Louisiana.  Unfortunately, without the support of a MAGS-type avocational group or a university with a museum studies program, the plans were not implemented beyond a few libraries.  The purpose of the exhibits was to educate and raise awareness in the community surrounding the Poverty Point site about the massive earthwork complex.

The short video clip at the top of this page is from the Pop-Up Museum created in Hualcayán, Peru at the village’s first annual heritage festival held on August 3, 2013 that I posted about last week.  The Pop-Up Museum addressed immediate strategic vision of PIARA Directors Rebecca Bria and Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza and the Hualcayán community.  As reported in last week’s blog post, a substantive part of PIARA’s work is outreach to the rural community situated around, and in some cases on top of, an archaeological record that spans 4000 years of human occupation.  As is often the case in such situations, the community’s primary relationship to the archaeological record until recently was based in an economic incentive from artifact sales to collectors.  Most often, even archaeologists relate to such communities primarily through an economic relationship by employing residents in field projects or providing funds for community development projects.  While PIARA also employs Hualcayán residents and provides material support to community projects, the Directors consider the education and empowerment of the local community as an essential part of their research design.

The Pop-Up Museum at the August 3rd Heritage Festival served multiple purposes.  First, as shown in the clip above, the excavated cultural materials were contextualized and interpreted in time and space and not as an economic incentive.  The Pop-Up Museum was also a first step toward creating a permanent museum based in the Hualcayán community.   A permanent museum is part of both the PIARA and the Hualcayán community’s vision of a multi-component strategy to develop the region’s cultural heritage, ecotourism, and museum related opportunities to directly benefit area residents.  The success of the Pop-Up Museum was demonstrated in part by the steady stream of residents visiting throughout the Heritage Festival, and into the next day as well.

The examples above show how Pop-Up Museums as temporary institutions can:

  • educate, inform, and engage communities to identify with their past through cultural heritage exhibits.
  • incorporate the input and talents of avocational and student support.
  • present cultural heritage resources in a diversity of locales beyond that of a typical museum.

How have you used Pop-Up Museums in your work? 

Co-Creation from Hualcayan to Memphis

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Community residents examine artifacts from this season’s excavations in the “pop-up” museum at the First Annual Cultural Festival of Hualcayán.

I have blogged before about the Proyecto de Investigación Arqueológico Regional Ancash (PIARA) community outreach program in Peru.  This week I have the opportunity to participate and experience the program firsthand.  As well, this week PIARA Directors Rebecca Bria and Elizabeth Cruzado Carranza, and I are discussing collaborative projects that can involve PIARA, the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, and the University of Memphis Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.  We envision that these multiple agencies can participate in the co-creation of cultural heritage opportunities with the Hualcayán village and archaeological site.  We are discussing projects that can align with the missions of all agencies involved.

Hualcayán is located at 3150 masl in the Province of Huaylas, Department of Ancash, Peru flanked by the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra Mountain ranges in the Callejón de Huaylas valley.  The village is a rural agricultural community located in the midst of archaeological sites that span the last 4000 years of human history in the region.  Although there is a small museum in the nearby city of Caraz, the region’s cultural heritage is not promoted to its potential and archaeological sites are not protected.  In terms of tourism, Caraz and Hualcayán are viewed by most visitors as brief stopovers on their way to adventure tourism and trekking opportunities to lagoons and glacial peaks in the Parque Nacional Huascarán.

As discussed in the previous blog post, PIARA’s perspective on the cultural heritage development is in line with a co-creative participatory process with the community.  In fact, one of the reasons for the close fit for potential PIARA and C.H. Nash Museum collaborative efforts is the common perspective toward cultural heritage development of the two agencies.  Both institutions operate in communities that are generally considered underserved.  In the past few years, both organizations embarked on long-term programs of community engagement and empowerment through cultural heritage development.  As well, both organizations are situated in rich environs of cultural heritage resources.

Another important similarity is that both organizations have spent the past several years laying the groundwork for collaboration with their respective communities.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, that work is summarized in a recent article.  At PIARA that collaboration operates in a very similar manner.  For example, this past Saturday, August 3, PIARA was the initiator and co-sponsor along with the Universidad Nacional Ancash – Santiago Antúnez de Mayolo and the Provincial Municipality of Huaylas of the First Annual Cultural Festival of Hualcayán.  The Festival included visits to the ongoing archaeological excavations in Hualcayán, display of excavated cultural materials, the inauguration of the community library funded and built by PIARA, regional dances, local food, and much more.

As with the recent community outreach projects at the C.H. Nash Museum, the Festival of Hualcayán could not have happened without PIARA’s previous years of community engagement.  That is, without the consistent community outreach by PIARA and engagement over the past several years, there would not have been the collaborative basis on which to build and inspire the Cultural Festival.  PIARA views the Festival as a node on a continuum of community outreach and engagement.  As at the C.H. Nash Museum, the direction of that outreach and engagement for PIARA will continue to develop as a co-creative process with the Hualcayan community.  For example, as posted previously, this summer C.H. Nash Museum intern Lyndsey Pender created the Southwest Memphis Cultural Heritage website only after discussions and collaboration with community residents.  Although the broad parameters of website development were set, the precise future content will be based in community discussions and input.  The dialogue with PIARA and the Hualcayán community continues along on a similar plane.

Which brings me to one of my favorite preaching points – community relevance.  As small institutions, both the C.H. Nash Museum and PIARA are gaining traction, growing, and now receive exponentially greater community support than in the past.  The increased support results because they approach their work in cultural heritage resource management from a perspective that prioritizes not just the co-creative process, but also is based in an approach that is relevant to the community in which they serve.

And Now . . . International Archaeology Day, October 19

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Last year’s National Archaeology Day was a fantastic outreach opportunity to educate and engage the public about the importance of cultural heritage resources in the U.S.  As I wrote then, National Archaeology Day also provided cultural heritage professionals with a platform to address the Indiana Jones/Lara Croft understanding of archaeology that is presented in the popular media.  As well, the coordinated national event provided a time for a concerted effort across the country to respond to the treasure hunt mentality put forward in the popular media by offerings such as American Digger and Antiques Roadshow, where the value of cultural materials is determined by “is it real, how old is it, and how much can I sell it for.”

In 2012, National Archaeology Day had over 125 supporting organizations, including many state agencies, museums, along with the National Park Service and its 400 locations across the United States.  This year the Archaeological Institute of American has rebranded the event as International Archaeology Day.  Collaborating agencies to date range from individual archaeological sites to the Federal Bureau of Land Management to the Bayon Center in Cambodia.

The shift from National Archaeology Day to International Archaeology Day is an important move that acknowledges the globalization that we witness in so many aspects of our daily lives.  I am impressed that in the MOOCs I have taken, of the thousands of participants who register for each class, the majority or at least a very substantial number are from outside the United States.  As well apps like Londinium, Pompeii from the British Museum, and Giza 3D, make the virtual world that much more accessible and relevant to those living in the United States.  The International focus is also seen in the Southeast as the Poverty Point site awaits action on its nomination as a World Heritage Center of UNESCO.

International Archaeology Day 2013 provides cultural heritage professionals with a global platform to show the relevance of our discipline in a time when government agencies cut funding to projects considered nonessential.  I often quote my first mentor in archaeology, Dr. Patricia Essenpreis who told her students  “If you cannot explain to the visitor why their tax dollars should go to support these excavations or keep the Fort Ancient site open, you might as well go home.”  International Archaeology Day can be the kick-off point for another year to actively engage with the public in the preservation of their cultural heritage.

Last year I posted ideas for Archaeology Day activities and suggestions for public outreach both before and after the event.

What are your plans for International Archaeology Day on October 19?

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