Tag: C.H. Nash Museum

Interns, Volunteers, Success, and the Great Thing

Interactive Interpretive Model, Adapted from Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach, 1998, p. 102

In the past few days I had some revealing conversations and reflections on the role of volunteers and interns in creating exhibits and programs at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  We recently revised our mission statement to emphasize the participatory nature of our engagement with University of Memphis students and the broader community.  So how successfully do we “operationalize” that engagement?  Typically, this aspect of mission is framed within the mandates of building community relationships and providing educational opportunities on the one hand and on the other hand getting stuff done that our limited staff are not able to complete.  Flowing from those considerations, I want to present a couple of case studies on the reciprocal nature of our interactions with volunteers and interns.

First, over the past few months I posted several times on the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis project.  I won’t rehash all that here, except to note that the co-creation in that project was absolutely necessary.  The student participants were all from Southwest Memphis and none of  our museum staff are.  The student input was required to create the exhibit, pure and simple.

But moving to the less obvious, for the past few months on Volunteer Days, Gerry and Adriana VanBeek have worked with artifacts dating to the prehistoric Poverty Point culture (circa 3 – 4000 years ago) recovered in West Tennessee.  After spending a couple of Saturdays on the project they took the 5 hour drive down to Epps Louisiana to visit the Poverty Point site itself.  I appreciate that the experience in our Museum is able to offer direction for such opportunities.  But here is where the co-creation comes in – this past Saturday Gerry showed me photos of Poverty Point culture artifacts from a museum he and Adriana visited in Florence, Alabama.  He correctly assumed that if we were interested in Poverty Point culture objects from West Tennessee we would also be interested in those recovered in northern Alabama.  He was right.  To me, that simple exchange is an example of where the co-creation and reciprocal nature of the participatory museum comes in.

The next case is that of Emily Neal and Scott Hadley, two Anthropology undergraduate student interns at the Museum this semester.  I try to match our Museum needs with an intern’s interests.  In so doing, we designed an internship where Scott and Emily used unprovenienced stone tool artifacts from our collections to create a hands-on educational program for visiting school groups.  The project is nearly complete.  Scott and Emily did a dry run of the program for volunteers and staff on Saturday and got some great critical feedback.

After the presentation Emily, Scott and I sat down and discussed their internship in a sort of exit interview fashion.  They expressed appreciation in having a hands-on experience, doing something they had never done before, and getting experience on future career trajectories.   But there was another critical take-away point for me on the internship.  Scott and Emily both noted that although I provided them with some broad initial guidelines for creating the program, but they also felt somewhat undirected during the first couple of weeks of the internship.  I recollect that they asked questions early on, and I would give them direction, but not answers.  They noted at first they found the lack of a clear direction a bit frustrating.  They contrasted their internship experience with coursework where the instructor provides a syllabus with the exact pages to read, the lecture schedule, when the test will occur and so forth.  But after some initial uncertainty in the internship, Emily noted that she found the freedom to choose the project direction actually brought out her natural creativity in such situations.  Scott noted that having to choose the direction forced him to think outside the box.  I am struck that their internship can be likened to creating a painting on a blank canvas compared to completing a paint by number type of project.  They both felt strongly that the end product was their own creation.  Scott specifically commented that he was excited to know that the program would live on after he completed the internship.  Both students felt they gained valuable real-time experience and made a real contribution to the museum.

Here is what impressed me the most about their internship process – Emily and Scott created a quality program that my graduate studies in anthropology could not have produced.  From the visuals to the script and activities, the interns brought a fresh approach to exploring prehistoric stone tools outside the box in which archaeologists typically operate.  I specifically challenged Scott and Emily to scour the literature but also brainstorm on their own and come up with creative ideas to explain the evolution in tool form through time and space – and they succeeded in doing so.  In their early 20s, both Scott and Emily are also much closer in age and experience to the students who will take part in this program than I am.  However, my graduate studies in lithic technology and experience in museum programming are not to be completely set aside.  That is where the value of co-creation comes in.  As Scott noted, the collaboration, including the feedback they received this past Saturday, was key to the success of the project.  To me, that is also where the beauty and elegance of Parker Palmer’s above model fits – but more on that later.

What are your thoughts on co-creation and museum programs?

A Success Story in Strengthening Communities

Graduate Assistant LaKenya Smith at the African American Cultural Heritage Exhibit

The Strengthening Communities Grant (SCG) Summit took place this past Friday in Memphis.  Dedra Macklin of the Westwood Indian Hill Development (WIND) and I were the fortunate recipients of an SCG in 2009 for the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis Project at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  At the summit, we participated in a workshop that considered the “How To” points in developing successful community partnerships.  We addressed three basic themes:

It’s a Process not an Event – Successful community engagement is not something that is built overnight, or stops after submitting the final project report.  Prior to receiving the SCG, the C.H. Nash Museum and WIND developed a relationship over the preceding two-year period.  Joint projects during that time included film showings, exhibit work, and the opening of community youth photographic banners at the Museum.  For academics, in a world governed by publication and other deadlines, such an intentionally casual partnership development is not the norm.  We viewed the SCG project as a single step in a continuum of interactions that will continue after we submit the final project report.

Collaboration – As the academic in a partnership, I know I must guard against speaking with elevated authority in determining what is best for the project.  Here is an excellent example of this tendency –  As we neared completion of the exhibit, I more announced, rather than suggested, that we should approach Memphis City Schools and others for the next phase to do x, y, and z.  As an alternative, the Project Coordinator, Sam Gibbs, commented that the general direction of my proposal seemed about right and involved the community, perhaps we should first call a meeting of all our partners, including the new partners engaged during the project, the community at large, and of course the student participants, and see what the combined group thought were the next best steps.  A perfect understanding of true collaboration!

You Can Make Plans, But Don’t Plan the Results – The project did not go the way we planned.  We intended to recruit students by January of 2010.  We did not complete the recruitment process until April but had an incredible pool of applicants that was four times the maximum number we could involve.  We intended to create a single exhibit on the excavation of a 1920s era farmstead.  We ended up with that exhibit, plus two walls of banner posters, a resource center, and a 20-minute documentary edited from over 30 hours of oral histories – all created by the student participants. In his comments at the exhibit opening, one of the students, Davarius Burton noted “It was all on us.  There were no limits to what we could do.”  But we remained true to creating a cultural heritage exhibit on the African American Cultural Heritage of Southwest Memphis, the basis for our grant proposal.  At the same time, and in the same way that now when creating exhibits on Native American tribal groups we ask “What do you want the people who visit the C.H. Nash Museum to know about your culture?” we allowed the students to make the same decision about presenting their cultural heritage.

For me, the Strengthening Communities Grant Project is one of the most rewarding examples in the intersection of Archaeology, Museums, and Outreach.

Volunteers as Mission

Okay, think quick – Why do archaeologists and museums have volunteers?  Is it because:

  • They’ve got more stuff to do than they have staff to do it?
  • They’ve got more important things to do than sorting and counting flint flakes and pottery sherds?
  • It’s a good way to spread the word about their institution?
  • Or because volunteers are an integral part of their Mission?

Consider a snippet from our Mission Statement at the C.H. Nash Museum:

. . . to provide the University Community and the public with exceptional educational, participatory, and research opportunities . . .

Our mission mandates our museum to be a resource for volunteer participation in the same way our mission mandates we preserve the Chucalissa archaeological site on which we are located.  I previously wrote about the myth of volunteers as free labor.  Here is our volunteer story these days at Chucalissa.  We continue a monthly Volunteer Saturday with an average of 20 – 40 participants.  The variation results largely on competing events in Memphis on any given weekend, promotion by the local daily newspaper, and so forth.

A couple of months ago we asked if there were folks who wanted to participate beyond the normal sorting/processing of prehistoric materials.  Several volunteers responded.  Each got plugged into a separate project.  One couple spent the past two Volunteer Saturdays pulling artifacts from West Tennessee collections of a prehistoric culture (Poverty Point) whose center is about a five-hour drive from Memphis.  This past Saturday they reported their plans to visit Poverty Point this week.  Another couple opted to help tag the 50 years worth of black and white photos from our museum as we prepare to digitize the collection.  In the process, they found several photos of themselves dressed in their Native American regalia at a Powwow held 20 years before.  Ron Brister, another volunteer with some 30 years experience as a Collections Manager now provides regular impromptu presentations on the specific artifact types that the volunteers are processing.

On the other side of the volunteer equation, our interns, graduate assistants, and staff all know that Volunteer Day is the one event each month in which they need to schedule their time to be at the Museum.  I have enjoyed watching our staff attitude shift from the volunteers as free labor myth to one of excitement when volunteers come to the fore.  For example, this Saturday, one or our GAs, Natalye Tate, asked the volunteers processing materials from an early 1900s orphanage to write about their impressions of each object.  These reflexive impressions can fit well into a future exhibit.

As Museum Director, my understanding of volunteers moved from a need to slowly but consistently develop the volunteer base of our operation to account for reduced staff and increased opportunities to one of appreciating the volunteer component of our mission mandate.

A student in my Museum Practices class, Nancy Nishimura, spoke several weeks ago about her experience at the Tenement Museum in New York.  All of the tours are docent led and there are no labels in the exhibits.  The very mechanics of visiting the museum results in a more engaged visitor experience. Nancy noted that before beginning the tour, the docent sits with the visitors and discusses how they would have experienced living in a New York tenement early in the last century.  That is, the visitor is asked to bring themselves experientially into the exhibit.

Such an experience invites the visitor to engage dynamically, not as a static observer.  This seems the logical direction in which we might take our volunteer mandate – not because it’s an expedient way to get things done, but because it is our mission of building engagement and relationship.

At the European Volunteer Center a page contains a Why Volunteering Matters list. The page lists the less tangible reasons at the top with the economic benefits below.  The American Association of Museum Volunteers also has many resources on this subject.

So, if we approach volunteers as part of our mission and do not fall for the myth of  volunteers as free labor, where does that take us?

Museums, Students, & Community Engagement

This past Saturday at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we opened our new exhibit on the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis, created by nine area high school students over the past couple of months.  The primary products were a 20 minute documentary and a banner & artifact exhibit in the museum.   We see the exhibit as a major step in our functioning as a true community partner and resource center for the people of Southwest Memphis.   Of course, we continue our mission of high quality educational experience on the Native American cultures of the Midsouth as well.

If you are in Memphis, or pass through, stop by and visit the exhibit.  You can watch a video with highlights from the opening here.

Museum (of) Heresy

circa 1960s Excavation Exhibit at Chucalissa

Here goes with what might pass as a bit of museum heresy, or at least so considered by some of my students, and perhaps more broadly within the museum community as well.  I teach a course in Museum Practices every fall at the University of Memphis.  This graduate level seminar provides a broad overview of theory and method in museum practices on everything from ethics to housekeeping.  The first day of class we look at the similarities and differences in various institutional definitions of a museum.  For example,  The International Council of Museums’ definition of a museum is:

A non-profit making permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purpose of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment.

The class then considers the applicability of the definitions to museums today.  As we are in Memphis, the discussion always includes the mission at Elvis Presley’s Graceland Mansion that clearly places this pilgrimage destination outside the ICOM parameter.  We then move to more nuanced discussions, such as taking up the plethora of Children’s Museums and the role of edutainment facilities.  (The Independent has an interesting discussion of edutainment placed in both Museum and Archaeological contexts.)

When I pose the following hypothetical, I often get blank stares.   I wonder if some students quickly run through the alternative course offerings in their heads.  Here is the set-up for the hypothetical – via the internet, I review the on-line resources from the American Memory Project at the Library of Congress.  I then navigate to the 1930s era Farm Security Administration Photo Collection and show the iconographic images of Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and others.  I note the very high quality of the images available to download.  I ramble on a bit about the tremendous resource these online materials offer, including 160,000 of the 164,000 black and white negatives in the FSA collection.  I then pose the question:

If the Library of Congress burns to the ground and all the books, photographs and “hard copies” are completely destroyed, but the servers on which the digital images are stored are preserved, do the collections still exist?

At this point, some of the blank stares begin – but please keep reading just a bit further and I will get to the point.

Moving from the hypothetical to the real world, at the Chucalissa site here in Memphis, in the 1950s-60s a trench (pictured above) was excavated through a residential ridge of the Mississippian Culture temple mound complex.  A building was constructed over the excavation as an exhibit for public visitation.  After 40 years, the stability of the trench is compromised to the extent that the building is closed to the public.  The stewards of this Native American cultural resource have an obligation to preserve the integrity and research worth of the excavation trench.  One solution posed is to create detailed digital images of the excavation walls to live in a virtual presence, then fill-in the trench, tear down the building, and let the soils re-hydtrate or go back to nature, as it were.  Question:

If the trench is filled in, and the detailed digital images are available in a virtual environment, does the excavation exhibit still exist?

For me, these two hypotheticals raise a couple of important points about Archaeology, Museums and Outreach.  First, in the excavation trench example, a virtual presence may offer one solution to the museum’s Mission Statement mandate  “to protect and interpret the Chucalissa archaeological site for the benefit of the University community and the public, to provide high quality educational experiences on past and present Native American cultures . . . ” where technical and economic constraints rule out other alternatives.  The Library of Congress example demonstrates how a virtual presence, regardless of whether the hard copies exist or not, allows the 75% + of private homes in the United States (and beyond) with internet access to experience this tremendous repository of cultural heritage, without the need of traveling to Washington D.C.

Certainly, this is not an argument for equivalency in on-line and virtual exhibits.  But consider that some “museums” exist only on-line.   For example, consider the new Adobe Museum of Digital Media and click the “making of the AMDM” link to hear and view the case for this exclusively virtual museum.  Or consider a website I recently ran across of a fellow who took a Polaroid photo each day for nearly 20 years (until his death) and posted them on-line.  A blog from Mental Floss discusses this chronicle of the photographer’s last 20 years.

We are not in Kansas anymore.  I suspect the margins of the museum definitions such as ICOM’s will continue to be pushed in the coming years.  In one week my Museum Practices course meets for the first class of Fall 2010 semester.  I am curious if my hypotheticals will be met with fewer blank stares.

What are your thoughts on virtual museums, especially as a means for Outreach?

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?

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?

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