Tag: C.H. Nash Museum

Applied Archaeology and Museums: The Student Projects

I posted last week about the Applied Archaeology and Museums class I taught this past semester at the University of Memphis.    Forty percent of the course grade is from the final project that students propose and complete. I offer several possibilities and discuss projects from previous classes to help stimulate the students thinking. The criteria for the final project include that the product must be broadly based in archaeology or cultural heritage studies and must ultimately live in area museum.  Here is one example of a completed project:

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Stone Tool Exhibit created by Garrett Ballard and Rachel Starks in Johnson Hall at the University of Memphis.

A prompt I gave for a possible project was a near empty exhibit case in the classroom building where many archaeology classes occur. I noted the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa curated an abundance of unprovenienced stone tools in our educational collections that could be used in creating an exhibit for the case.  Two students, Garrett Ballard and Rachael Starks, proposed and created a stone tool exhibit that explored function and stylistic changes through time. The exhibit has three shelves. One shelf of their exhibit contains projectile points ranging from Paleoindian through Mississippian. Individual artifact labels include the age of the artifact and a linked QR code contains interpretive information. One shelf contains a series of untyped but numbered bifaces with a single label that asks “Which of the artifacts are really arrowheads?” the popularly assigned term for any triangular-shaped stone tool. A QR code links to a resource that illustrates and explains the function of each tool and identifies the true arrowheads. The third shelf contains a set of ground stone tools and labels that contain functional and raw material information.

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Numbered bifaces in the arrowhead identification shelf of the exhibit.

The students pulled the stone tools from an unprovenienced surface collection curated at the Museum.  Robert Ford, a University of Memphis Alum, and the best lawyer in a one lawyer town in rural Arkansas donated the collection in 2000.  Ford donated the collection for use in educational projects. The several thousand diagnostic stone tools that range from Clovis to Mississippian points remained untouched in the repository for over 10 years. Mr. Ford was not pleased and called me one day asking about the artifacts. Having come to the museum seven years after the donation was made, I was unaware of the donation. When I located the materials in the repository, we made quick work of utilizing them in several of our educational programs.

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Projectile Point chronology and ground stone shelves of the exhibit case.

Besides physically creating the exhibit, there are a few key lessons the two students gained from the project. First, they took away a keen understanding of the value and potential of archaeological resources locked away in museum repositories. Second, as undergraduates they created an exhibit that is of interest to them and their peers.  Third, they created a meaningful product that will live on after the semester is over – an act in itself that is empowering.

Here are some of Garrett Ballard’s thoughts expressed in his process paper on the exhibit creation:

Ultimately, we all had common interests and decided to pursue a common goal that would satisfy all the parties involved; I would get to create an exhibit using authentic Native American projectile points, Rachel would get to incorporate website design, social media, and QR codes, you (Connolly) would get a Chucalissa exhibit installed at Johnson Hall, and lastly, Robert Ford’s artifacts would get plenty of educational use through our exhibit . . .

I was slightly overwhelmed by the number of artifacts in the collection, and was very concerned about how I would manage to convey a message to the viewers of the exhibit. Luckily, I believed you sensed my frustration and sent me the Serrell Reading to help. Serrell’s guide has been critical in our research design, and has helped me not only to make better interpretive labels and an overall comprehensive exhibit, but it also showed me the importance of having a “Big Idea”.

Armed with a “Big Idea” and a fresh delivered copy of Noel D. Justice’s Stone Age Spear and Arrow Points, the next few visits to the repository proved to be enjoyable and result driven as the project was coming together and pieces started to fall into place . . . While going through the collection I took care in the handling, photographing, and cataloguing of a range of different types of tools and projectile points, increasing my own knowledge on the subject matter in the process.

I consider this exhibit process a big success as an applied educational opportunity for Garrett and Rachel.  In the process:

  • A point reinforced to me is that in such projects, my role is to provide logistical expertise and guidance, but allow the students creativity to come to the fore.  In so doing, they arrived at concepts, such as the Which is an Arrowhead . . . shelf that likely would not have occurred had I dominated the process.  When given such latitude, I find students enjoy the freedom, but also experience an initial sense of frustration as Garrett notes.  However, with guidance, students work creatively to find solutions and directions.
  • I would not have chosen the colors or fonts that Garrett and Rachel used for the exhibit.  But then, their peer group are the primary audience for the exhibit, not me.

Other exhibits created by the students in this semester’s class include:

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    Stone tool portion of exhibit created by Michelle Faulk.

    Michelle Dallas Faulk organized and created didactic panels for an exhibit of ceramic sherds and obsidian tools from central Mexico.  The exhibit is located in the same hallway as the Stone Tool display created by Garrett and Rachel.

  • Carolyn Trimble created a small exhibit on stone tools supplemented with information through linked QR codes for the Morton Museum in Collierville, Tennessee a suburb just east of Memphis.  The Morton Museum Director contacted me about creating asmallexhibit on the prehistory of the area.  We were able to use
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    Prehistory exhibit for Morton Museum created by Carolyn Trimble (does not include large back panel).

    artifacts in our repository from two prehistoric Collierville sites excavated through Cultural Resource Management projects.  A QR code link reports the sites and contextualizes the prehistory of the suburb for museum visitors.

 

In next week’s post I will report on other types of student projects created in the Applied Archaeology and Museum class from this past semester.

 

 

AmeriCorps, Archaeology and Museums

This past Friday I participated in a session at the Annual Meeting of the Tennessee Association of Museums that considered the role of AmeriCorps NCCC Teams at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  Below is a portion of my presentation:

In the past year, we logged about 2500 community service learning hours at Chucalissa.  The hours are primarily attributable to AmeriCorps NCCC Teams.  We also worked with a host of other service learning groups including State AmeriCorps teams and alternative spring break students from throughout the Midsouth.  

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AmeriCorps Team and Homeowner

In addition to a considerable amount of collections work, over the past two years the NCCC teams completed a host of other projects at Chucalissa.  For example, they conducted a shovel test program in the “meadow” area of Chucalissa to determine if there were any intact archaeological deposits.  They expanded the community garden that had outgrown its original bed.  Over a one year period, three different AmeriCorps Teams worked on successive construction phases of our replica Mississippian house structure.  This past fall, a team built a 30 x 30 foot pergola so that we could have a covered shelter for outside activities.  They also built a rain structure along our nature trail.  AmeriCorps Teams are the best when it comes to clearing and refurbishing trails, and then have done a good bit of that at Chucalissa too.

All of these projects are certainly interesting and very worthwhile.  In fact, Wendy Spencer, the Corporation for National and Community Service CEO appointed by President Obama, stopped by Chucalissa when she was in town to check in on the work of the AmeriCorps Team.  This past year, Chucalissa was honored to receive the Sponsor of the Year Award for the Southern District of AmeriCorps NCCC.  But I suggest that the reason for the visit, the award, and the success of our AmeriCorps program extends beyond completing the tasks I noted above.  Instead, I believe that the AmeriCorps experience at Chucalissa brings together the very best of the community service aspect of AmeriCorps with the civic engagement that is very foundation of the modern museum in the United States.  I am fond of quoting John Cotton Dana’s 1917 statement from the New Museum where he challenged practitioners to “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs.”

In 2007, the University of Memphis and by extension Chucalissa, had a less than stellar reputation in the Westwood community of Memphis, the location of our Museum.  Area residents were concerned about the stench from the sewage treatment plant, code violations, and crime rates.  The community perceived the University interests as research from which the University made money and faculty gained prestige but with little or no relevance to the community.  As one resident stated at a community meeting I attended in 2007 “Don’t tell me what the University of Memphis is going to do for my community.  The last time you were here doing your research for two years and all we got was a map on the wall.”  The man was right.

That brings us to another part of AmeriCorps work at the C.H. Nash Museum.  Since 2007, the C.H. Nash Museum staff began to reconsider our role as an educational resource of the University of Memphis.  Now, a central focus of the Museum since 2007 is to engage the surrounding community in all aspects of Chucalissa’s activities. The engagement flowed from the museum’s commitment to begin functioning as a social asset and stakeholder in the Southwest Memphis community.

Over the next four-year period we participated in many collaborative and co-creative projects with the surrounding community (detailed in this article).  In 2012, through a partnership with T.O. Fuller State Park and the Westwood Neighborhood Association, we proposed a 3-way partnership for an AmeriCorps NCCC Team.  Over an eight-week Round, we proposed that the Team would spend about one-third of their time working at T.O. Fuller State Park, one-third of the time working in the community, and one-third of their time working at Chucalissa.  The University of Memphis put a good bit of money and labor into rehabbing a residential facility at the Museum to house the AmeriCorps Team.  In the past two years, we have hosted four eight-week AmeriCorps Teams.

In the Westwood Community, modifying John Cotton Dana’s 100-year-old suggestion, we sought to “Learn what aid the community needs: and fit the Museum and AmeriCorps to those needs.”   Those needs focused on working with the elderly and veterans on fixed incomes to correct code violations or perform minor to moderate structural repairs on their homes.  For example, in the fall of 2013, the River 4 AmeriCorps Team performed an exterior makeover to the home of an 88-year-old WWII Veteran in the Walker Homes neighborhood, a community established for returning African-American veterans in the late 1940s.  Mr Ford Nelson, the Veteran homeowner, had lived in the house for 60 years.

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AmeriCorps Team presenting Veteran’s Day Banner at the Westwood Community Center.

A highlight of each AmeriCorps Team is their participation with the community in a Day of Service, whether on 9/11, Martin Luther King Jr. day, or Youth Services Day.  This past November, the River 4 Team presented a banner they created honoring veterans at a Veterans Day event at the Westwood Community Center.  The presentation was a BIG deal.

Here is how this all comes together.  The AmeriCorps Teams provide the Westwood neighborhood with a community service that they desperately needed and wanted – correction of code violations and housing rehabs.  The AmeriCorps Teams also are instrumental in allowing the C.H. Nash Museum to engage with the community in cultural heritage projects.  This intersection is reflected by Mr. Ford Nelson, whose house the AmeriCorps Team worked on in November, attending and speaking at the Black History Month event hosted at Chucalissa in February.  This intersection also allows the President of the Neighborhood Association to be a strong advocate and participant in the planning for Hidden Histories cultural heritage program collaborations between the community and Museum for the summer of 2014.

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Veteran’s Day Banner created by AmeriCorps Team

This intersection is the essence of Civic Engagement as envisioned over one decade ago in the American Alliance of Museums seminal publication Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums.  As Hirzy wrote in that volume

“when the museum and community intersect – in a subtle and overt way, over time, and as an accepted and natural way of doing business . . . Working together or diversifying audiences is not enough.  What is needed are reciprocal, co-created relationships that connect the assets and purposes of organizations.”

That sentiment is a critically important part of the AmeriCorps experience at Chucalissa.

In 1986, during my first archaeological field experience, the instructor, the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis told us on the first day “If you cannot explain to the visitor why their tax dollars should go to support these excavations or keep this site open, you might as well go home.”  I puzzled over this mandate for many years.  Today, I find the mandate comes down to being relevant.   The AmeriCorps experience is part of our Museum’s relevance to the communities that support us through their time, energy, and resources.

We find this process is not linear or without ambiguity.  But the community engagement does not detract in any way from the components of our mission related to the prehistory of the area.  In fact, we argue that through our multi-faceted work with AmeriCorps, we invite more stakeholders to the table for dialogue. We believe this incorporates the very essence of the International Council of Museums definition of a museum that notes they are “. . . institutions in the service of society and of its development.”

What if No One Comes to the Party?

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2013 Art for Voice creator Penny Dodds (left) with participants

This semester I am teaching one of my favorite classes of all time – Applied Archaeology and Museums.  The course is in part a glomming together of much of what I hold dear in cultural heritage studies.  Students come to appreciate that archaeology is more than just digging up stuff and that museums are more than places to look at things and be given definitive explanations – but not touch or otherwise engage.  The course description goes like this:

The course explores the intersection of Applied Archaeology and Museums through the representations of cultural heritage in a broad array of public venues.   Topics that comprise the exploration include repatriation, cultural patrimony, cultural resource management, civic engagement, rights and responsibilities of stakeholders, public involvement in museum representations, performance, education, culture and memory.  The course is applied in focus.  Students will be challenged to transform concepts contained in readings to real-time applications through class projects and written assignments.

Here is a copy of the syllabus if interested.

One of the class readings this past week was from the book Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by Bill Adair and others (reviewed here).  The article “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations” by Kathleen McLean presents the case for greater visitor engagement in the museum exhibit/program creation process.  I cleverly, by my estimation, presented a Powerpoint slide with a quote from McLean’s article:

It’s not as radical as it might sound.  Increasingly, museums are employing visitor research and evaluation to better understand how their programs and exhibitions affect their end-users. (p.72)

McLean, K.  2011.  Whose Questions, Whose Conversations? In Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by B. Adair, B. Filene and L. Koloski, pp. pp. 34-43. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek.

and a nearly 100 year-old quote from John Cotton Dana:

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)

Dana, John Cotton.  1917. The New Museum, Elm Tree Press.

My intent was to show that it is not “radical” at all to engage the community in such discussions, but the idea has been around for 100 years.

In their reading journals, two students raised interesting questions about McLean’s article:

Jordan Goss, an undergraduate with an interest in anthropology and geoarchaeology wrote:

Since I have not gotten the chance to physically carry out the concept of Applied Archaeology just yet, I’m not sure if this is an appropriate question or simply meaningless.  But what would happen if you wish to create ways for the public to participate in museum activities yet the public refuses?

Allison Hennie a PhD student with a background in architecture, anthropology and museum studies wrote:

As part of the Museum Studies Certificate Program, there seem to be never-ending supply of readings about how museums need to change. So, why haven’t things changed yet? Are museums forcing engagement or do all visitors really want to engage?

Both excellent observations.  The student responses bring to mind a couple of my own experiences at the C.H. Nash Museum.  Our “Hands-on Archaeology Lab” contains artifacts and exhibits to provide a highly tactile visitor experience.  As well, through regular programs, and on request we also offer visitors the opportunity to throw darts with an atlatl.  Most visitors are thrilled with these opportunities.  Others just want to pay their admission and be left alone to wonder the exhibit hall and the earthwork complex.  “No” they politely respond – they don’t want to go into our lab or throw darts.

But here too is a reality.  No one at our Museum ever asked any visitor if they wanted us to create a hands-on archaeology lab or develop an atlatl program.  Our staff created the activities on our own initiative and basically, we guessed right.  Both are very popular activities and provide an excellent opportunity to engage and educate around our mission.

We are now take a different approach before creating exhibits and programs.  We hold focus groups and conduct surveys with our existing and intended visitors to see what they want us to create.  I do not think this means becoming all things to all people.  In answering the above questions posed by Jordan and Allison, as public servants, we must be proactive in finding the appropriate level and type of visitor engagement that is consistent with our mission.  As Dana noted in 1917, that is often simply a matter of asking the community of their needs – not having cultural heritage staffs attempt to second guess those needs.

As a small Museum we have incredible opportunities to fill a variety of public need niches.  For example, in our Art for Voice program last summer, we had several families with autistic children who participated and wished for more offerings suitable for their special needs.  This morning I came across an Archaeologists for Autism Facebook group that aims to support greater inclusion of special needs children in cultural heritage programs.  This seems an excellent example of how our museum can engage with our public in a way envisioned by John Cotton Dana in 1917 and Kathleen McLean in the 21st Century.

How do you answer the questions posed by Jordan and Allison?

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.

A Lesson in Cultural Heritage Relevance on Veterans Day

2012 Veterans Honorsmall

2012 Veterans Banner Presented by the Delta 9 NCCC AmeriCorps Team

In my last post I talked about accountability in reporting cultural heritage studies to the public who often both fund and are the subject of the research.  As an example I used the public response and request for copies of a recent issue of the journal Museums and Social Issues that summarized the last five years of community outreach by the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.   My colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Bollwerk offered an interesting challenge to my blog post.  She noted that while certainly impressive that ten members of the community paid 19.00 for copies of the journal, she also questioned if publication in the journal really qualified as pubic accessibility?  She asked about the responsibility to truly disseminate the report as a readily accessible public resource and not one that required paying 19.00 for an issue of a professional journal. I noted that I offered to make pdf copies of the article available, but that the community members wanted the actual “book” and not a xerox.

With that exchange fresh in my mind, this past Friday I attended the annual Veterans luncheon sponsored by the Westwood Neighborhood Association (WNA) in Southwest Memphis.  Approximately 30 African-American U.S. Military Veterans attended this year’s event.  At last year’s gathering, members of the Delta 9 NCCC AmeriCorps Team who were working on home maintenance and rehab projects in the area presented the attendees with a banner that featured the names and photos of WNA veterans.  At this year’s event, members of the River 4 NCCC AmeriCorps Team presented the veterans with another banner to honor their service.  A focus of the River 4 Team’s current work in Memphis is repair and maintenance on the house of 88-year old WW II Veteran, Mr. Ford Nelson, who has lived in his home for 60 years.  The AmeriCorps Team presentations each year are incredibly meaningful to the Veterans present.

The President of the WNA, Mr. Robert Gurley, often comments to me that the community’s military service was never properly recognized in the past and the memory has begun to fade.  As an aid in reviving that memory, the role of African-Americans in the U.S. Military was the theme chosen by the community for the 2012 Black History Month celebration hosted at the C.H. Nash Museum.   When we first discussed the idea of putting together the banners as a physical reminder of veteran service, the WNA community went into high gear to find the photographs for the banners.  That process was not easy as for many the mementos of that period lost their relevance upon their return to the Jim Crow era South, the rising anti-Vietnam war movement, and the assassination of civil rights leader, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At this past Friday’s meeting, as the 30 veterans introduced themselves, Mr. Gurley pointed with pride to the photographs of those present that were represented on the banners created by the AmeriCorps Teams over the past two years.  Mr. Gurley made special notice that the group photo of veterans at the bottom of the this year’s banner was reproduced in the Museums and Social Issues journal that ten community members had purchased.

In reflecting on these events, Dr. Bollwerk’s challenge makes a good bit more sense to me.  The fact is, although an article published in a national peer-reviewed journal has meaning to the community, copies are not really all that accessible.  The AmeriCorps banners are very accessible and will be hung in the community hall.  Traditional academic values do not reward working to produce banners about military veterans.  Nor will the production of a website such as Southwestmemphis.com where such content can be curated “count” on traditional professional career paths.  Only the process of creating these products might be of interest from the professional perspective.

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River 4 NCCC AmeriCorps Team presenting Veterans Banner on November 8, 2013

However, if a museum’s mission is to truly educate, present, and preserve cultural heritage to and for the public, the museum is obligated to present and report research  products in venues that are truly accessible.

How does your institution assure public accessibility to research project results?

Public Accountability in Cultural Heritage Studies

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U.S. Military Veteran participants in Black History Month Celebration at the C.H. Nash Museum – photo featured in Museums and Social Issues volume

For the past few years I delivered a presentation on professionalism to a proseminar of incoming Anthropology graduate students at the University of Memphis (UM).  In preparing for the first time I gave the presentation, I sent an email to 50 professionals in my address book including those who worked as faculty, corporate and nonprofit administrators, and clergy.  In the email I asked this question:

If you could tell graduate students about one professional standard that is routinely violated but is of critical importance as they embark on their careers – what is that standard?

I was pleasantly surprised to receive 34 responses from a representative sample of careers:  2 Clergy, 3 Government officials, 6 University Professors, 7 University Administrators, 7 Non-Profit Administrators, and 9 Private Industry Administrators.

Now I routinely open the proseminar session by asking the students to speculate on the most common response professionals give to my question.  Typically, students raise issues such as the need to show up on time, wear appropriate clothes, and so forth.  In three years, no student has identified the top standard listed by over 60% of the professionals – Publishing Research Results and Public Accountability.  The responses from the professionals included:

. . . Many ‘academics’ do not give enough consideration to their responsibility to inform the public about their work.   Lip service and a few talks or even fewer publications are given by some, but being esoteric and admired by your colleagues is considered to be so much more important . . .

Despite the mantra of “publish or perish,” . . . far too many professionals fail to finish projects . . .

I will admit to being quite surprised by the priority given in this response as well.  In fact, the 34 professionals responses ranked Being on Time/Prepared and Appearance/Demeanor as 4th and 5th behind Responsiveness/Accountability and Giving Thanks/Acknowledgements, the 2nd and 3rd in their rankings.  Though certainly not a scientific study, the results were quite revealing and aligned with the response from a focus group in which I recently participated.  The College of Arts of Sciences conducted the focus group consisting of area employers who hire UM graduates.  The gist of the focus group was to determine how the College can better prepare students for employment.  Of the ten people in the focus group, the unanimous top response was the need for improvement in oral and written communication skills.

What does all of this have to do with Archaeology, Museums and Outreach?  These results remind me of the need for cultural heritage professionals to remain relevant to the communities we serve.  At the same time we need to demonstrate and share that relevance.  A few weeks ago, I received a surprising comment on this point.  We recently published a paper The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa: Community Engagement at an Archaeological Site.  The paper summarizes and evaluates the last five years of the Museum’s engagement as a participatory institution with the underserved community surrounding the Museum.  The journal Museums and Social Issues published the paper in a thematic set of papers (Volume 7, Number 3, 2012 Opening(ing) Authority Through Community Engagement) based on a session I organized two years before at a professional conference.  As an editor of the volume I received an extra hard copy of the journal and gave it to Mr. Robert Gurley, the President of the Westwood Neighborhood Association, the collaborating partner featured in the paper.  Mr. Gurley read an earlier draft of the paper and was pleased to have the published hard copy.

Mr. Gurley approached me a few days later saying that he showed the volume to other community members and four individuals wanted to buy a copy.  I noted that copies were $25.00 each, but I would be happy to provide pdf copies of the manuscript at no cost.  Mr. Gurley replied that the community members were proud to be featured in the “book” and wanted to have an actual copy.  He also noted that he had read several of the articles in the volume and enjoyed knowing how our type of community/museum collaboration was carried out at other locations in the U.S.

Ultimately, I cut a deal with the press and got 10 copies for 19.00 each.  All ten copies were sold in the community within one week.  I must admit I was quite surprised that ten individuals in this working class community were interested in paying 19.00 for an 18-page article on a collaborative project in their neighborhood.

Flowing from this example, I will return to this theme next week to consider other opportunities to address the Public Accountability and Responsiveness standard considered top priorities by the professional community.

What opportunities do you take to share your research with the public?

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.

AmeriCorps Turns 20 & What That Means For Museums

amcorps anniversary

As anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I am a huge fan of AmeriCorps NCCC who just celebrated their 20th Anniversary.  Click on the above link to watch a video about the significance of that event.

In the past two years, AmeriCorps NCCC Teams have come to play an essential role at the C.H. Nash Museum in helping to carry out our mission.  This October 23rd we will welcome our fourth eight-week AmeriCorps NCCC Team.  The Teams live in the Museum’s repurposed residential complex we have named the Community Service Learning Dormitory.

Over the two-year period,  we have evolved an effective three-prong approach to service in Southwest Memphis with AmeriCorps NCCC Teams.

Service in the Southwest Memphis Community

The teams work with the Westwood Neighborhood Association who identify elderly and U.S. military veterans on fixed incomes in need of residential clean-ups to prevent their property from being in violation of city codes.  The teams also perform minor to moderate repair work on roofs and other exterior structural repairs on houses for the elderly and veterans.  For example, this fall’s team will spend about 10 days working on the house of an 88 year-old WWII military veteran who has lived in his home since 1953 in the Walker Homes neighborhood of Memphis.  Walker Homes was launched in the late 1940s as a neighborhood for returning African-American WW II Veterans.

In the past two years we have focused on expanding the role of other community residents in working with the AmeriCorps Team.  For example, this past spring the River 7 Team met regularly with Boys and Girls Clubs in the area.  The Team’s work was also supported both financially and through employee volunteering from the new Electrolux facility located near the Museum.

Service in the T.O. Fuller State Park

Each AmeriCorps NCCC Team also completes infrastructure improvements at the T.O. Fuller State Park located next to the Museum.  The tasks include trail maintenance, painting, and other special projects.  For example, the River 7 Team planted over 800 trees in a new ecological habitat being created at the Park.  The Teams also help in Park community events such as the Annual Easter Egg Hunt and Halloween activities.

The AmeriCorps service at T.O. Fuller has added significance for two reasons.  First, the Park was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Today, AmeriCorps is a legacy of that organization.  Second, T.O. Fuller State Park plays an important role in the cultural heritage of the Southwest Memphis community as one of only two facilities in the United States built in the 1930s as a State Park for African-Americans in the Jim Crow-era segregated South.

Service in the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa

The AmeriCorps Teams at Chucalissa have carried out innumerable tasks including rehabbing the community service learning dorm, building benches and picnic tables, building a replica prehistoric house, trail maintenance, reconfiguring the repository space, artifact processing and much more.  This fall the team will build a pergola-type outdoor activity space, rain shelters along our trail system, and several components of our new Landscape Literacy project.

Community Service and Relevance

The AmeriCorps Team members exemplify some of the very best commitment to service of the millennial generation.  We are particularly pleased with the increased community engagement in the AmeriCorps NCCC projects.  I enjoy that the Teams bring a willingness for flexibility and expanding the box of normal thinking.  These qualities have been critical as the Community, the Park, and the Museum work together on collaborative projects that align with their individual missions.  For example, this fall the AmeriCorps Team will take part in the community reclamation of an abandoned cemetery that draws on the archaeological and cultural heritage preservation expertise of the Museum.  The AmeriCorps Team was also the link that allowed the Museum and Community to collaborate in creating a banner exhibit on U.S. Military Veterans unveiled at the September 11 Day of Service in 2012.  The AmeriCorps NCCC Team highlights the relevance and partnership that comes to the fore in community service learning projects.

So . . . A hearty congratulations to AmeriCorps NCCC on their 20th Anniversary!  Check out their website to see how your organization can partner with this fantastic organization.

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.

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? 

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