Tag: Chucalissa

Coproduction & Co-creation with Volunteers

collection-distortA few weeks ago Ennis Barbery wrote here about coproduction with the public in archaeology.  In museums, Nina Simon has published on the co-creative process in The Participatory Museum.  In an interview, Natalye Tate a former Graduate Assistant at Chucalissa noted, “Our role at the museum is to broker ideas to bring in volunteers who are members of communities, and ask what do you want to see, what do your kids want to see and what’s the direction you want to take this collection . . . our job is not to be the creators, but to make sure the process gets done and gets done well.”  These three concepts converge in a direction that we are moving at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa with our “volunteer” experiences.  For the past four years a combination of volunteers and graduate students worked diligently to re-inventory the archaeological collections curated by the University of Memphis.  Many volunteers were eager for the opportunity to just touch, count, and inventory the prehistoric and historic materials.  As well, we are always quite intentional to explain the significance of the specific tasks that volunteers perform.  However, we continue to frame the volunteer tasks as preparing the materials for an “other” whether professional or student, who will take the process to the next step of analysis and interpretation.

On March 16th we will begin a process where the “other” will be the volunteers themselves.  The aim is for the volunteers to select an unreported or under-reported curated collection from our repository, undertake a complete analysis of the collection and associated records, and create an exhibit based on the materials for an area library or other public venue.

For example, during our Saturday Volunteer Day last week,  a volunteer was inventorying a collection of several thousand projectile points and ceramic sherds of a surface collection from Lincoln County, Tennessee.  A landowner donated the materials to the C.H. Nash Museum in 1981 from the uncontrolled surface collections made over several decades on the family farm.  Like so many of our collections, the artifacts were dutifully accessioned, counted, weighed, labeled, placed in plastic bags, then in boxes never to again see the light of day except during spot inventories every few years.

This past Saturday the collection provided me the opportunity to deliver one of my infamous “Why what you are doing is more important than eating a plate of worms” impromptu ramblings.  I noted that although the collection was unprovenienced except to the landowners plowed fields, the projectile points in the collection represented an age range of several thousand years.  The Native Americans made the tools from a variety of raw materials that outcrop throughout the Midsouth of the United States.  Further the several hundred artifacts typically called “arrowheads” actually included dart points, drills, knives and host of other tool types.  Based on their website, the Lincoln County Museum located near where artifacts were collected does not appear to have a prehistoric exhibit.  I noted that the collection that the volunteer was inventorying would be an ideal set of artifacts to develop an exhibit that could illustrate many aspects of Native American lifeways in prehistory including stone tool technology, trade and exchange, and settlement patterns.

Nice idea, but how will this happen?

Ten members of the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS) have signed up to volunteer once a month to work on such projects.  The first meeting will be March 16.  MAGS was actually formed over 60 years ago as a group of avocational archaeologists who conducted some of the first excavations at the Chucalissa site.  In fact, Kenneth Beaudoin, an avocational archaeologist wrote the first report on Chucalissa that reported those excavations.  MAGS published the report in 1952.  Although MAGS evolved over the years to focus on geology, a strong archaeological interest remains.

Each Saturday session will provide instruction on archaeological interpretation and analysis techniques.  We will also involve graduate students from our Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program to assist in the construction of exhibits.

There are two important results from the above process.  First, our goal is to move closer to the model envisioned by Natalye Tate in her interview of a couple of years ago.  That is, the volunteers will take on more of the decision-making in the coproduction or co-creative processes.  The volunteers will become more familiar with the collections we curate and their skill set will increase along with their possibilities for taking on a more active role in future projects.

An even more important result is that the C.H. Nash Museum and collections we curate become more relevant to the public who we serve.  Consider the added relevance from the above scenario.  The donated collection that remained unused since 1981 will:

  • Provide members of MAGS the opportunity to take part in a project in which they have an expressed interest as part of their lifelong learning experience.
  • University of Memphis students in both archaeology and museum studies will gain valuable applied experience in material analysis, exhibit construction, and public outreach.
  • The Lincoln County Museum will install an exhibit on the prehistory of their region to more holistically interpret the rich cultural heritage of their region.
  • The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa will become a more relevant institution to all of the above publics that we serve.

How can your collections and practices better demonstrate relevance to the public you serve?

We Have Met the Marketing/Promotion Enemy and He Is Us

cropped from a painting by Emma Connolly

Digital museums was the topic in our Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis this past Tuesday.  One of our readings was Carol Dunmore’s 2006 article “Museums and the Web” from the The Responsive Museum.   The article provides a historical perspective on digital media and museums and illustrates the British national model of museum presentation. For example, the Culture 24 website provides links to hundreds of museums and their activities throughout the UK.  The Show Me website focuses on cultural heritage from a child’s perspective in Britain.  The Cornucopia website provides access to information on over 6000 UK museum and gallery collection databases.

I challenged students to consider if such a system would work in the United States.  I noted the lack of a systematic cross-promotion/integration of US cultural heritage institutions.  For example, the Louisiana Division of Archaeology publishes a fantastic driving tour of the prehistoric mounds and earthworks in Louisiana.  The neighboring state of Mississippi publishes a digital Archaeology Trails but there is no weblink between the two.  Some US states do a good job of promoting within but not across their geopolitical borders.

The C.H. Nash Museum where I am the Director is located on the Mississippi River in Memphis Tennessee where east-west  Interstate 40 crosses north-south Interstate 55.  We routinely direct visitors to the Parkin Archaeological State Park 45 minutes west on I-40 in Arkansas, Wikcliffe Mounds 3 hours north on I-55 in Kentucky, the Winterville Mounds a couple of hours to the south in Mississippi, and Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park 90 minutes to the east on I-40 in Tennessee.  We also link to all of these archaeological sites on our web page.  For the first time this week, I realized that none of these sites link to our webpage.

My point is not to whine about a grievous injustice in that we promote others but they do not reciprocate.  However, my observation does point to a promotion or presentation problem for cultural heritage regionally in the US.  For example, the Tennessee Association of Museums lists 32 member museums in West Tennessee.  An interesting pattern quickly emerges when examining the member websites.  There is a reasonable probability that smaller museums will link to other museums in the region or those with similar topical interests.  There is very little probability larger venues will link to anyone other than themselves.

Or consider the presentation of archaeological venues in a region.  The Hopewell Culture Center (HCC) at the Mound City Site is operated by the National Park Service (NPS) in Chillicothe Ohio.  However, there is no listing for the HCC on the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) website that owns other archaeological sites and museums of the Hopewell Culture within 50 miles of the HCC.  Nor does the HCC list any of the OHS sites located as close as 50 miles from Mound City.  As well, the homepage for Fort Ancient a Hopewell Culture site in Ohio, owned by the OHS but operated by Boonshoft Museum of Discovery does not link to any of the other Hopewell Culture sites in Ohio whether operated by the OHS or the NPS.  In sum, depending on which website a visitor hits first, one might conclude there is one museum that interprets the Hopewell Culture in Ohio (NPS or Fort Ancient web sites) or many (the OHS).

A devil’s advocate reading the above paragraph can offer lots of “yeah but . . . if you go to this webpage and click here and then . . .” to my examples.  However, the point is finding relevant museums should not be that hard.  I am going to Leicester England in January for a conference where I will spend a few days roaming about the country.  To the extent I am interested in museums on prehistory for the area, I suspect the Culture 24 link will give me good direction.  Were someone from Leicester to visit Memphis, the same single source for information is not available.

“We have met the enemy and he is us” so sayeth Pogo.  In a time when many cultural heritage venues are seeing reduced visitation and tax-based revenues, we should strive to become easier not more difficult to access.  I have a set of books on all the places to stop between Lake Itasca, Minnesota where you can walk across the Mississippi River in two strides and New Orleans, Louisiana some 2000 miles downstream.  I keep the NPS brochure in my car for all of the cultural and natural stops along the 400-mile Natchez Trace that crosses three states from Natchez, Mississippi to just outside Nashville, Tennessee.  Developing a simple brochure or web presence for a Mississippi River archaeological trail between St. Louis, Missouri and Natchez, Mississippi ala the Great River Road could provide a similar resource.  Consider applying for the $2000.00 Southeastern Archaeological Conference Public Outreach Grant by December 1 as seed money for this project!

What are your thoughts on the need for promoting cultural heritage institutions in the US?

Baby Steps in Making Museums & Archaeology Relevant

Below is the modified text of a presentation I gave this past Saturday at the Student Committee Workshop on public education and outreach in archaeology at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference Annual Meeting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  

My introduction to public outreach in archaeology occurred in 1986 at the Fort Ancient Earthworks in Southwest Ohio during my first field school experience.  The instructor, the late Dr. Patricia Essenpreis, based 10% of our course grade on how we interacted with the tourists/visitors who came to the excavations.  Each day Pat assigned one student the responsibility to answer visitor questions.  Pat was reasonably rigid in all that she did in the field, including how the students interacted with the visitors – you best be able to explain the research questions and your specific task in the excavations. Pat also posed a very interesting challenge to us that year.  She said something very close to “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.”

That challenge has remained with me to this day.  Over the years it has morphed into questions like the one posed to me during my MA Thesis defense a long time ago by Barry Isaac who asked “Why is reading your thesis more important than eating a plate of worms.”  For a long time the best I could come up with was to respond that the research was interesting and answered many questions about past cultures that we did not know.  That in conducting research at the places like the Hopewell earthwork complexes of the Ohio Valley we could foster a greater appreciation of the complex prehistoric Native American cultures of the region – regardless of the fact that in those years the Native American community was actively protesting against the Ohio Historical Society and their site excavations.

In the years since, those questions or challenges have remained in the forefront of my mind.  Here I will briefly explore some of the responses I have come up with since 1986.  However, I will note that in our training of students in the classroom today, I think we are still not terribly good at getting at this point.  During my questioning of graduate students during brown bags or thesis presentations, I fear that I come off more as the old curmudgeon when I pose my obligatory “plate of worms” or “taxpayer support” question/challenge.  I find that most students today are no better prepared to respond than I was 25 years ago.  I see that as a problem.

Interest and intellectual engagement are certainly important and relevant.  One of my favorite examples in this area was an experience I had with Poverty Point figurines nearly 15 years ago.  Past conventional wisdom had it that these 3500-year-old artifacts may be fertility symbols and that they all represent females.  But for a whole bunch of reasons, today we know that dog won’t hunt.  During show and tell classroom visits, I often posed this question to grade school students – What do you think these figurines are all about?  The answer I got from a 5th grade girl during a presentation at St. Leo’s Elementary school in Lafayette Louisiana was interesting.  Our exchange went something like this:

Me – So what do you think these headless figurines are all about?

She – They didn’t have camera’s back then did they?

Me – No they did not.

She – Well maybe instead of having a picture on the mantle of their grandma or grandpa who lived far away, they kept this statue and when the person died they broke the head off because they were dead.

Me – Hmmm . . . that sounds like a pretty good idea.  I like it.  Has anybody else got any other ideas?

. . . and the fact is, the 5th graders response better accounts for the actual presence of the figurines in the Poverty Point archaeological record than the conventional wisdom passed along by archaeologists.  As an aside, I have remembered that story for the past 15 years.  I have recently wondered if that student, now in her twenties, also remembers that story, and if having her interpretation legitimized proved meaningful to her.

But in moving from simple engagement and curiosity, I consider some of the best resources on this issue are the applied archaeology volumes such as those edited by Paul Shackel, Erve Chambers, and Barbara Little, to name but a few.  These volumes are filled with case studies where archaeology is used as a source for empowerment of indigenous communities.  A distinct component of these studies are the collaborative and co-creative processes where the archaeologist and the indigenous community work together in the research.  Natalye Tate and I recently published a substantive piece on this in the journal Collections.

Let me summarize how this process can work where I am employed as the Director of The C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa a Mississippian Temple Mound Complex in Memphis Tennessee. The Chucalissa site was discovered in modern era of Jim Crow politics when in the 1930s the CCC was building a segregated park for the African American community of Memphis, then known as the Shelby County Negro Park.  When the temple mound complex was encountered during the construction process the surrounding 40-acres was removed from the park development and became an enclave of academic research.

In 2002 a small 1920s era African-American farmstead was excavated at the Chucalissa site.  Because the site museum interpreted only the prehistoric  Mississippian culture and to a lesser extent the contemporary Native Americans in the form of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the materials from this farmstead excavation were stored away.

Note that the community surrounding the Museum is 90% African American and we record more visitors from that zip code 38109 than any other.  In the summer of 2010, we received a grant to employ nine area high school students to create an exhibit on the farmstead excavations.  Our grant proposal goal was simply to create a single exhibit case on the excavations.  The five-week process exceeded our expectations dramatically.  In addition to the exhibit case itself, the students collected 30 hours of oral history interviews that they edited into a 20-minute documentary, created timeline banners of the African American experience in southwest Memphis and began a resource center.

So, the grant funders and everyone agreed they got their money’s worth out of the project and we got a great exhibit, but I don’t see that as the real success story – rather, the real success of the project was in the co-creative process.  The museum staff provided the technical expertise, but the students created the content and had the final decisions in all aspects of the exhibit creation.  The only stipulation was that the exhibit had to focus on the excavation materials and the broader African American experience in Southwest Memphis.  The students selected the artifacts that would be in the display case, chose the community leaders to interview, researched the timeline scripts, and even determined the color of the wall paint.

In the same way that National Archaeology Day should simply be a node on an annual continuum of public outreach, so was this exhibit creation.  As an archaeological and cultural heritage museum we have ongoing projects with the surrounding community that predate and postdate the exhibit creation.  These projects include regular volunteer day activities in processing of prehistoric and historic cultural materials, a traditional medicinal plant sanctuary and dye garden, special programming, hosting Black History month events, community service projects and more.

There are two punch lines here in response to Pat Essenpreis’ challenge years ago.  First, the community surrounding the C.H. Nash Museum now very much understands how and why their tax dollar expenditures that support the museum are relevant.  I vividly recall a community meeting I attended 5 years ago.  The President of the Westwood Neighborhood Association abruptly challenged a University of Memphis colleague’s proposal saying “Don’t tell me what the University of Memphis is going to do for our community.  The last time you came and did your research you were here for two years and all we got was a map on the wall.”  That sentiment was replaced by the same individual announcing at the farmstead exhibit opening “We need to let more people in the community know about our exhibit at the Museum” along with collaboration on numerous other projects.

The second and equally important point is that we as the museum staff and archaeologists could not have created the exhibit that the students created nor could we have collected the information on the African American CCC crew, accessed the cultural memory that is now in place at the Museum, or interviewed the neighborhood candy ladies, simply because those data reside exclusively in the community.

I would like to consider  one other point on community engagement and public outreach.  In a recent post, I presented  the essay of Leila Hamdan, a graduate student in my Museum Practices seminar this year to illustrate the relevance of museums to the public.  The final line of Leila’s essay is where I find myself today in responding to the challenge Pat laid out to students in her field school 25 years ago.

Our challenge is to engage and demonstrate to the public the relevance to the preservation and presentation of their cultural heritage.  In so doing, we can create a public who will demand that the cultural heritage professional in fact preserve and present those materials and that the resources are made available to carry out that work.

And to everyone who responds with something like – nice idea – now let’s talk about the real world, I conclude with the advice given by Richard Dreyfuss to Bill Murray in the film What About Bob?  – it is all about taking the baby steps and consistently so.  We have just concluded extended community outreach through National Archaeology Day, and here in Louisiana Archaeology month – we need to continue that process all year.

A Story on Active Learning

On the first session of all my classes I present graphic representations of Parker Palmer’s top down and interactive models of education adapted from his book The Courage to Teach.  I let students know right off that I favor the interactive model.  I take a similar perspective with internships on both college and high school levels.  I consider interactive engagement central to empowering students in their educational and creative processes.

This fall I went out on that proverbial limb a bit more.  I submitted a proposal to teach a one credit hour course to Freshman in the Helen Hardin Honors Program at the University of Memphis.  The course,  Reality is Broken, is based on the book of the same name by Jane McGonigal.  Her basic thesis is that if we spent as much time working on social problems as we do playing games, issues of hunger, oil shortages, war, etc. would move toward resolution.  In my course proposal, the class  would read and discuss McGonigal’s book and create a game that addressed a pressing social issue in Memphis, Tennessee.  From the start, I recognized that I am not an expert in games, at all.  I was completely aware that the students would know much more about games than me.  However, I imagined the course as more to create a space and allow a group of students to exercise their thoughts and expertise in such a project.  Course enrollment maxed out quickly and I was faced with putting meat on the bones of the proposal I submitted.

The first couple weeks of the course this semester went well enough.  Students readily discussed the readings, started forming some ideas and directions, but the process was still trying to find a way through to the goal of creating a game.  I have learned to feel comfortable with this approach, knowing that processes that are ultimately productive can be quite messy as they go along.

Then, two things happened.  First, Debbie Morrison wrote a couple of posts on active learning at her online learning insights blog that put that approach at the very forefront of my thinking.  Second, last week I forgot to bring my presentation notes and PowerPoint to class.  I was on the same level as all the students in class.  I had only a copy of McGonigal’s book with yellow highlights and column notes.

The discussion during that class period was excellent.  Creating the game started to take shape.  Several students began to take leadership of the project.  This week we continued on that trajectory.  I asked Maria to lead the class in a game she had played in high school.  The class played the game and discussed the applicability to their own game creation process.  When I asked, Katarina volunteered to take on the “professor role” and facilitate the rest of the discussion for the class period.   Hunter agreed to facilitate the class discussion next week.  I will continue to take part with the expertise I bring to the discussion in the same way that the students each bring their own expertise.

After class today I found myself going back to Debbie’s blog and tracking down some of the resources, particularly around peer instruction and the “flipped classroom.”

So how does this work for outreach in museums and archaeology?  Today, hands-on experiences are considered more engaging than uni-directional lectures or exhibits.  But I learned something else from the Reality is Broken class today.  Two weeks ago I took a bunch of board games to class to spark some thinking on the game creation process.  There was lots of hands-on during the class but something was not clicking.  Maria’s game from today completely engaged the class.  The 20 minutes spent playing Maria’s game elicited more engagement than the hour of game play two weeks before.  During both class periods, the goal of the activity was to stimulate thinking for the students to create their own game.  Maria provided a more relevant entry point than me to begin envisioning that process.

I think about this in terms of our outreach efforts in museums and archaeology.  Whatever the goal, are we engaging at the right entry point of the participant?  For example, if there is one successful program that young and old, male and female, Baptist and Muslim, thoroughly enjoy at the C.H. Nash Museum it’s throwing darts with an atlatl.  But that activity is usually the last point in a program or visit.  Yet the activity can also be the entry point to discuss physics, stone tool technology, hunting, and subsistence explored earlier in the visit.  I am not suggesting that the first thing we should do when the visitor comes through the door is hand them an atlatl.  I am suggesting that we consider possibly flipping the classroom in our outreach activities to a more active learning experience.

How does active learning work in your outreach efforts?

Relevance First

Current student-based ceramic vessel exhibit that will be upgraded through additional student-based projects

Be forewarned, I am on a soapbox . . .

Public cultural heritage institutions such as museums and archaeological sites often focus much time and effort on increasing economic revenues.  But the much touted winners of economic revival at venues such as Conner Prairie with a 100 million plus endowment or the Mesa Verde sized operations of the National Park Service are of limited relevance to the majority of small museums or institutions operated with very limited staff or other resources.

In an excellent essay in the recently published Small Museum Toolkit, Volume 1, Steve Friesen (2012:50) notes that these venues ” . . .  are carefully crafted to meet a particular mission and provide a particular service.  They are different from larger museums not so much because of their subject matter but because of how their size enables them to present the subject matter.  They are string quartets, not orchestras.”

The majority of public cultural heritage venues will never break even for operating revenues/expenses.  They will rely on tax base funding, endowments, donations, and volunteers to keep the doors open.  However, cultural heritage institutions can and must show a balance sheet of relevance and value.  Demonstrating relevance and value marks a shift from the 1960s when I participated in the obligatory field trip to the local natural history museum in my hometown.  The expectation of funding and visitors because we are The Museum in town is unreal in today’s climate of economic chaos and a political agenda akin to replaying the Scopes trial over and over.

Our strategy at the C.H. Nash Museum is less to increase revenues, but to be cost-effective in all that we do.  We have also moved from a position of an institution of privilege to an institution of service.  As the University of Memphis (UM) is our governing authority, our Mission Statement includes a statement of relevance and service to that institution.  We ask how can our Museum support faculty/student research and educational opportunities.  When giving a Museum tour, I always note that almost everything the visitor will see that was created in the last five years results from student-based projects.  These projects include our introductory video, medicinal plant sanctuary, programs, exhibit redesign and much more.  For example, three years ago, a graduate assistant worked on the redesign of our ceramic vessel exhibit.  In 2011, each student in the Museum Practices seminar at UM created a “best practices” proposal for another upgrade to the ceramic vessel exhibit.  This fall an intern in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program will blend together the best aspects of those student proposals into a further upgrade that we intend to last for the next several years.  The redesign of our ceramic vessel exhibit served as the basis for 3 different sets of student projects, and provided 15 students with an applied educational experience.  I believe this method of operation is an example in demonstrating relevance to the educational mission of the University.

I have posted before about our outreach projects relevance to the neighborhood in which our museum is located.

The Participatory Museum, with its many manifestations, is certainly a buzzword today for cultural heritage programs.  But a substantive aspect of that participatory experience is accountability to the public we serve.  In a comment on my blog post last week, Maureen Malloy provided a link to a report on the place of archaeology in the public’s decisions about how they spend their time in outdoor recreation.  The report notes that 20% visit archaeological sites and 45% visit historical sites.  Outdoor walking is a main form of activity.  In last 10 years, photography as an outdoor recreational activity has skyrocketed.  At the C.H. Nash Museum, with our outdoor prehistoric earthwork complex, nature trail, arboretum, medicinal plant sanctuary, and resident wild life, how can we demonstrate our relevance to the shifting trends noted in the report cited by Maureen?  Should we consider visitor-based photo projects such as exhibits, contests, scavenger hunts, earth caches?

Demonstrating such relevance is not the next good gimmick to attract visitors.  Rather, demonstrating relevance is multifaceted.  On the one hand, cultural heritage venues must be accessible, accountable, and in line with the public interests who fund their operation.  At the same time, the cultural heritage venues can tap into that interest to deepen the understanding of the importance, relevance, and value presented and preserved in our cultural heritage institutions.  When both of sides of this equation are aggressively pursued, tax base funding, endowments, donations, and volunteers will follow whether the institution is large or small.

How do you demonstrate the relevance and value of your institution?

Here is a link to the blog of the Public Archaeology Interest Group of the Society for American Archaeology. This week they posted a paper by Natalye Tate and myself from the PAIG session at the SAA meetings this past April. The paper focuses on how we view the “public” component of archaeology as part of our mission at the C.H. Nash Museum.

Outreach as a process not an event

l to r, Jasmine Morrison, Tabitha Barlow, and Davarius Burton discuss the creation of their exhibit in the Summer of 2010.

For those who have followed this blog for a while, you are familiar with the 2010  Strengthening Communities Grant Initiative at the C.H Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  I have posted about this project as being like a node on a continuum of community engagement.  I am reminded of that fact this summer in several ways.  First, Jasmine Morrison, one of the student participants in the 2010 project, who also continued as a project volunteer in the summer of 2011, this summer is a visitor services employee at the Museum.  She brings to the Museum her experience and skills learned during her first year as a Communications major at the University of Tennessee at Martin.  Her employment at the Museum this summer enhances her formal education through a hands-on application with our visitors.

Also, this past week, Davarius Burton, another of the 2010 student participants dropped by with his composition notebook from the project to discuss those aspects of the exhibit he wants to continue working on this summer.  Davarius will conduct more interviews with community leaders.  He also plans to create a stand alone website that will feature and expand on the work of his fellow students from the 2010 project.  Like Jasmine, Davarius brings a wealth of experience to the table for this next phase of the African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis project.  Davarius will enter the University of Memphis this fall as a student in architecture.

Finally, the current issue of the Society for Applied Anthropology’s newsletter contains the article Applied Archaeology and Community Engagement that reviews the past five years of our community outreach at the C.H. Nash Museum.  We are excited about what the next five years will bring as we continue to build a community based relationship for our Museum.

This all fits well with an adage I enjoy “It’s a process, not an event.”

National Archaeology Day & Advocacy

A bunch of opportunities are in the air to conduct effective community outreach for both archaeology and museums. The Archaeology Institute of America’s  Second National Archaeology Day (NAD), October 20, 2012 is just four months away.  With over 50 collaborating organizations to date, including that 400 locations of the U.S. National Park Service, state agencies such as the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, the Alabama Archaeological Society, the Florida Public Archaeology Network, and professional organizations such as the Society for American Archaeology, the national scope of the celebration is an excellent opportunity to highlight the relevance of cultural heritage preservation and presentation in our country today.  The NAD blog has a list of all the events planned across the country to date for the October celebration.  The list is impressive and includes special tours of research labs, conferences, festivals, presentations and much more.

At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we are firming up our plans for NAD.  Thus far, we scheduled the opening of a newly constructed replica prehistoric residential house.  Along with tours, including our new Medicinal Plant Sanctuary, we will also have flintknapping, hide tanning, atlatl dart throwing demonstrations and hands-on activities for the entire family.

Beyond just hosting events, NAD is an opportunity to take part in a community awareness and outreach campaign over the next several months.  Those of us who work in small to medium-sized museums with limited budgets are often overwhelmed when trying to compete with the larger venues.  NAD is an opportunity to participate as equal partners in a national consortium of collaborating agencies.  In building for the event, here are some opportunities to consider:

Op-ed and News Media Articles – The American Association of Museums (AAM) celebrates a Museum Advocacy Day each year.  In building awareness for the event, the AAM encourages individual museums to write op-ed pieces for local news media.  The C.H. Nash Museum is not the biggest museum in Memphis by a long shot, but we are the only museum to take up this AAM challenge.  As a result in both 2011 and 2012 our staff wrote op-ed pieces published in Memphis’ daily newspaper, the Commercial Appeal, highlighting the important work of museums in our community.  Of course, we will submit an op-ed piece for National Archaeology Day, and use the national scope to promote cultural heritage awareness and our event.  The NAD’s national scope allows such media coverage not to be viewed as paid advertising but as feature stories that explore the important role our museum plays in archaeological research and preservation.

Elected Public Officials – This week, AAM President Ford Bell sent an email to all members announcing August 11 – 18 as Invite Congress to Visit Your Museum week.  Given the epidemic of budget cuts occurring in our country, President Bell wrote:

What will influence Congress the most as they make these tough budget choices?“According to a recent study, constituent visits have more influence than any other influence group or strategy. This ‘Invite Congress to Visit Your Museum’ event is the perfect opportunity for Congress to learn first-hand how museums provide essential community services. I urge every museum to participate in this event.

Our experience at Chucalissa shows that when we ask our elected officials to visit our museum, they respond with a very real interest in seeing how we are relevant to the electorate they represent.  NAD is an excellent opportunity to showcase that relevance in a nationally organized forum.  Consider using the summer recess period to connect with your public officials on both the national and local levels to talk about how you will tie into NAD activities and why archaeology is meaningful to the community they represent.

Word of Mouth – I am fond of saying all of this type of work is a process not an event.  I recollect from the movie What About Bob it’s all about taking baby steps.  I had an experience this past Friday that reflects this understanding.  First, especially when we are slow at the Museum, I am a sucker for taking any visiting young boy or girl outside to let them throw darts with an atlatl.  They always enjoy this activity. This past Friday I moderated two break-out sessions on prehistory at the Delta – Everything Southern Conference that featured my friend Sam Brookes.  Sam has forgotten more about the archaeology of the Mississippi Delta than I will ever know.  Each breakout session was attended by about 50 folks.  After the sessions, four separate individuals came up and thanked me for taking their children out to throw darts during their visit to the Museum.  Each person raved that their child/grandchild was thrilled with the opportunity and wanted to come back to the Museum for another session.  Here is the punch line on this.  I only recognized one of the four adults (granddaughter pictured above) but graciously acknowledged to all that providing the opportunity is what we are all about at the Museum – which is true.  The resulting word-of-mouth advertising from such encounters is often built one person at a time but is more effective than op-ed pieces or paid advertising.  Check a recent post in Colleen Dilenschneider’s Know Your Own Bone blog to explore the evolving priority of such word-of-mouth interactions over other forms of marketing.

National Archaeology Day is an incredible opportunity in our ongoing process of demonstrating the relevance of  our work in cultural heritage preservation and presentation.  We can tap into this national event to introduce new communities to the archaeological venues their tax dollars support.  After this introduction, these visitors can become our word-of-mouth ambassadors to their neighbors, and so on, and so on, and so on . . . it is truly a never ending process!

A Museum Program Niche

Following up on last week’s post about a people engagement niche, I want to take a look at creating a program niche.  Over the past few years at the C.H. Nash Museum, we have gone through a transition in our programming.  Thirty years ago, our programs focused on a reconstructed prehistoric village with a rather regimented Native American performance coupled with an exhibit of human remains.  Time, economics, accountability in presenting indigenous voices, along with the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, dramatically altered those programs.  My predecessor as Museum Director, Dan Swan, in 2005 pondered after the removal of the last vestiges of the dilapidated replica village “Without the reconstructed village, what is the value of the Chucalissa site?”

As I posted before  addressing that question has been a focus of our work over the past several years.  We first looked around at what other Museums did well.  The Pink Palace here in Memphis has an exceptional “traveling trunk” exhibit to the schools.  We thought about creating something similar.  Just across the River in Arkansas, the Parkin Archaeological Site offers a week of Black History program each February.  A similar offering seemed a good way to relate to the 95% African-American Community that surrounds the Chucalissa site.  Fortunately, we did not get past the thinking stage on any of these projects.  Instead we considered our own niche – our SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats).  For the past three years, we begin each fall semester with a week-by-week chapter review of Stephanie Weaver’s Creating Great Visitor Experiences that helps us to investigate these concepts and to refine our niche.  Here are some of the things we have come up.

Context – Chucalissa is situated on 100 forested acres that are adjacent to another 1000 acres of the T.O. Fuller State Park.  In a recent survey of our monthly e-newsletter readers, respondents suggested we develop more programs on our natural environment.  In 2008, the Southwind Garden Club created a state certified arboretum at Chucalissa.  This summer members of the Westwood community will plant traditional foods in an urban garden at Chucalissa.  This past Saturday we launched our Traditional Medicinal Plant Sanctuary funded through Green Fee at the University of Memphis.  Of note, the Memphis Botanic Garden (MBG) also recently created a medicinal plant garden.  In conversation with MBG Garden Curator, Chris Cosby, we discussed how Chucalissa and MBG gardens might complement and not be redundant to each other.  As Chris noted, at Chucalissa, our plants are in their natural context and allow an appreciation of the micro-environments that support the different species.  At MBG’s made environment this appreciation is not as apparent – a great example of living into our mutual strengths and opportunities.

Resources – As a regional repository for the past fifty years, the C.H. Nash Museum has accumulated a considerable educational collection of historic and prehistoric materials.  Educational collections result from the past practice of the museum accepting donations of unprovenienced artifacts from surface collections or other unknown sources.  Although we no longer accept such donations, in the past we accumulated 30 or so cubic feet of collections with no research value but plenty of educational worth for exhibits and programs.  These educational collections allow us to use real artifacts in our hands-on archaeology lab and in other offerings, such as our stone tool program.  This opportunity is unlike any other in our region –  again, a niche that we can live into.

The Chucalissa Site – One of our greatest strengths is that our Museum is located on the grounds of a temple mound complex built by Native Americans 1000 years ago.  The greatest weakness our Graduate Assistants identified last fall in assessing our current programs and exhibits was our museum’s lack of interpretation of the site.  That is, we do a good job of interpreting both prehistoric and modern Native American cultures, in general, but our Museum presents little specific to those people who lived at Chucalissa.  At the same time, we curate collections from a 50 year archaeology program at the site on which to base those presentations – obviously, a niche that we can fill best.

In the Memphis area, within a 2-3 hour drive there are perhaps a dozen or so museum venues that interpret the prehistory of the region. In one respect, savvy marketing dictates that the dozen venues not be cookie cutter models of each other to effectively cross-promote all venues.  However, more importantly by developing our individual niches we can live into our individual strengths and opportunities.  For example, until five years ago, the trail system at the Chucalissa was not much more than an afterthought in site interpretation.  We considered our off the beaten path location as a deterrent in attracting visitors.   Today, we envision our “rural oasis 20 minutes from downtown Memphis” as an asset and an important part of our niche.

What are the unique niches that your venue fills?

A Museum Engagement Niche

At the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa we are in the middle of creating a strategic plan that will set our agenda for the next five years.  This process benefits from a good bit of staff discussion over the past couple of years.  We revisited our mission statement, considered our experiences, strengths and weaknesses, surveyed visitors, and more.  We discussed finding our people and program niches – not trying to be all things to all people.  This latter process proved particularly helpful.

Here are a few thoughts on the people side of our niche that have been in my head over my past few years at Chucalissa – specifically the people who supplement our full-time staff of four in creating and managing the activities at the Museum:

Educational Center for Museum Studies – We employ 3-5 Graduate Assistants from the University of Memphis (UM) who “work” 20 hours per week at the Museum.  Generally, these students are also enrolled in the UM’s Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.  Over their two-year period of employment at Chucalissa, the students take part fully in the day-to-day operation of the museum along with projects that focus on their own career interests such as collections management, programming, or exhibit development.  We also host several graduate and undergraduate interns each semester who spend 150 hours at the Museum learning about a range of museum practices.  Each year Chucalissa also serves as the location of 5-10 research projects by students for other UM class projects.  I am reminded of how important this educational component is at our Museum every time I run into a former student.  For example, former graduate assistant Lauren Huber recently wrote to me about how her work with our volunteer programs, newsletter, and social media projects are instrumental in her new position as the Volunteer/Docent Coordinator at the Heritage Farmstead Museum in Plano Texas, where she is now employed.  Clearly, we fill a niche in Memphis as a premier location for student education in a range of museum practices.  This relationship is reciprocal because our Museum relies on students as staff and to help create exhibits and programs.  The C.H. Nash Museum also serves an integral role in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program and other educational opportunities at UM.

Community Service and Community Service Learning (CS/L) – I have posted before about the growth in our CS/L opportunities at the Museum.  We look forward to hosting another AmeriCorps Team this August and September.  Our proposal for the upcoming Team includes projects at Chucalissa, in the Westwood Community near the Museum, and at the adjacent T.O. Fuller State Park.  The CS/L opportunities also tie back into UM student training.  Mallory Bader, a Graduate Assistant at the Museum and a student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at UM, for her 300-hour MA practicum project in the Anthropology Department will help coördinate the upcoming AmeriCorps Team projects and develop a template for future CS/L projects that will engage with multiple agencies in southwest Memphis.

Volunteer Programs –   Over the past several years we built a renewed volunteer program at the C.H. Nash Museum.  The program began in 2008 with processing prehistoric artifacts and has grown to include a wide diversity of activities including digital photography, library data entry, landscaping, and more.  Volunteers include long-time supporters of the Museum such as the Friends of Chucalissa.  As well, the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society that was formed in 1952 specifically around volunteer work at the then recently discovered Chucalissa site continues to participate with groups of up to 25 on recent Volunteer Saturdays.  Coupled with the more traditional volunteer base, we also draw new volunteers to the site through the UM, other area colleges, and from the Memphis community.

Community Engagement – In the past few years the C.H. Nash Museum has made substantial efforts to engage the community surrounding the Chucalissa site. On an annual basis, the single largest zip code recorded of visitors to our Museum is the one that surrounds the Museum.  Our community engagement has resulted in exhibits and other hosted events.  We are able to collaborate on projects of mutual interest.  For example, to complement our Traditional Medicinal Plant Sanctuary (that will officially open on Saturday May 19), members of the Westwood community this summer will plant a Traditional Food Garden at the Museum.  This fall the Museum will host a Harvest Festival event that will bring together community and UM resources to highlight foods traditional of both the prehistoric and modern communities who have lived on the  built environment of the Chucalissa site.

The Engagement Lesson –  The different people engagements listed above are well-suited to the C.H. Nash Museum.  They draw on our strengths and mission.  The combination of our total “people niche” at the C.H. Nash Museum is unlike any other in the Memphis area.  That is, as an integral component of the University of Memphis we have a strong set of educational resources and opportunities available.  A part of that resource base flows from a mission of community service and community service learning.  The community outreach is also integral to our mission and provides an opportunity to recruit and engage with volunteers.  Our location in southwest Memphis as a cultural heritage venue ideally situates us to engage with our neighboring community.  This total combination of engagement provides us with a unique opportunity to form relationships with a diversity of Memphians and others as we live into our mission.  We cannot draw sharp lines of distinctions or create silos between the engagement types that form our total people niche – which in my more cosmic thoughts amounts to a luminous web of interconnectivity.

Of particular importance is the inability to draw a clear distinction between who is serving and who is being served.

Who is in your engagement niche of people that makes your institution go?

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