Tag: engaged scholarship

How Community Outreach Works in Peru

Young Peruvian Archaeologists. Photo: R. Bria

This week’s post is an interview with Rebecca Bria, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University.  Rebecca conducts fieldwork in the Callejón de Huaylas Valley of Peru that has a strong community outreach component.   You can find out more about the her research through the project’s Facebook Page and website.  Rebecca also has a limited number of openings for her 2011 field school project.  Rebecca’s work illustrates the common threads that link successful community outreach in different parts of the world.

First off, tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to study archaeology?

I consider myself an anthropological archaeologist and I began doing field archaeology in the Andes ten years ago.  I currently attend Vanderbilt University where I am in the final stages of my PhD, working on my dissertation.  I also have an MA and BA from Northern Illinois University.  I feel the diversity of my experiences in archaeology over the last decade – in Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Belize, North America, the Persian Gulf, and Sicily – allow me to study the past from equally diverse perspectives and approaches.  I am always looking to improve my techniques in the field and expand the theory I use to understand the ancient past, and I constantly draw on these experiences to do so.

What is the Proyecto de Investigación Arqueológico Regional Ancash (PIARA) and what are the organization’s goals?

PIARA is an archaeological research project that formally began in 2009 through its registry with the Peruvian National Institute of Culture (now the Ministry of Culture) in conjunction with Peruvian collaborators.  PIARA seeks to carry out a long-term research project within the highland Andes, specifically in the region of Ancash, Peru.  Since the project began it has focused its investigations in the Callejón de Huaylas valley, and so far we have carried out a regional survey in the northern valley and test excavated the sites of Pariamarca and Hualcayan.  This is an extremely exciting area to work in given its impressive landscape, it’s the potential for generating new data, and the opportunity to work with the indigenous Quechua communities that reside there.  My goal for PIARA is to continue work in the northern Callejón de Huaylas valley for at least the next decade to allow for an in-depth study of the area’s prehistory as well as to develop and maintain relationships with the communities and municipalities of the region.  As these relationships are strengthened, my hope is that we can more effectively collaborate on and execute preservation, development and education projects with a higher level of success and sustainability than with a series of geographically dispersed, short-term projects.

PIARA Project area. Image: R. Bria

The idea of working on development projects with the host community, particularly in South America, seems somewhat of a recent development for archaeologists.  Is that correct?  What got you interested in adding this component?

Certainly there are connections between the growth of indigenous rights movements and the increase in development projects in Latin America over the last several decades.  Still, in academia, development projects are usually treated as extraneous to the research one has officially set out to do and therefore time and funds spent in these areas are not considered priorities.  However many archaeologists working with indigenous groups or in developing countries soon realize that they not only need to spend time working with local groups for logistical reasons, but that they have a responsibility greater than the extraction of data for research.  This is what sets apart field-based sciences from other sciences.  If our investments in research never benefit the communities who are the caretakers of the data sources we seek, we risk the further disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples from their natural and cultural resources and even alienating them from their own history.

The decision to add a community outreach component to PIARA was in part influenced by examples set by others in the Andes and elsewhere, but mainly grew naturally through my own personal experiences living and working in the communities of my research area.  After extended periods living with and befriending these individuals, listening to their stories, frustrations, and desires, it would personally seem unnatural – or at least unethical – not to collaborate with them in some way.  In the Andes, the idea of social reciprocity is particularly valued, and offering something in return for their hospitality is very important.  At a broader scale, I believe archaeologists have an ethical responsibility to give back what we can, even in small ways, particularly as we have the potential to gain greatly from our academic work, both personally and professionally.

Your website notes that providing School Resources, Heritage Education, and Tourism Development are included in the development projects.  How were these areas decided on?

In Peru, many tensions exist between a community’s or a family’s desire to expand their agricultural or grazing territories and the legal requirement (and perhaps ethical duty) to preserve a nearby archaeological site that is declared as national patrimony.  All archaeologists working in Peru must report their findings to the Ministry of Culture, and when we do, we risk taking away the rights of the local community to use the land for other purposes.  Therefore, it is extremely important in my opinion to find ways to balance these forces and brainstorm collectively – foreign investigators, Peruvian collaborators, and community members together – to find creative solutions for site preservation and alternatives for economic growth.  In many cases the archaeological site itself can be this alternative source through tourism.

In Hualcayan where I am currently working, there is no secondary school due to the community’s remoteness, small size, and lack of financial support by local and federal governments.  Therefore, education opportunities that incorporate high school-age children into our research project serve to not only continue the education of this age group but to also provide learning opportunities that are otherwise rare in the rural educational system, such as hands-on training in the scientific method through data collection and hypothesis testing.  These children are also the future of the village, and while many community members do not currently express a feeling of personal or historical connection to the archaeological remains in their own back yard (due to a number of historical events) the children and young adults are interested in tourism.  Therefore, they may hold greater potential for managing their cultural heritage in thoughtful, creative, and sustainable ways if we give them the tools that allow them to take collective intellectual ownership of their heritage (rather than, for example, letting tourists purchase a handful of looted artifacts for a small personal gain).
Is the local community directly involved in your field projects?

Yes, we make sure that anyone from the community who is interested in working with us for a daily wage has that opportunity, often on a rotating basis.  We also invite the community to visit the excavation and discuss our findings through visual presentations.  Incorporated into these presentations are open forums where we discuss the research and the other projects we would like to develop in conjunction with them.  Beyond these communities, my largest collaboration was recently made between PIARA and the nearest university in Huaraz, Peru: the National University of Ancash – Santiago Antúnez de Mayolo.  Through this collaboration, UNASAM university students have the opportunity to attend the PIARA field school free of charge where they can learn alongside their international peers while gaining experience in the archaeology of their own region.  I have also arranged to donate certain field equipment to the university after the 2011 project is compete so that the students have more resources to carry out their own independent research projects in the future.

Don Lorenzo, Community resident. Photo: R. Bria

What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned from your project?  Any words of wisdom for other institutions that are trying to get their community development programs off the ground?

While I myself am very much in the initial stages of my own outreach program, my experiences over the past several years have taught me that the most important elements you can bring to any development project are time, patience and perseverance.  You must be willingly engaged in listening to people and creating bonds of trust.  Otherwise effective, creative collaborations between you and the communities you are trying to help will not emerge.  You must also inform yourself about the social, political, and economic ties that currently bind people, communities, and municipalities together or drive them apart. Even though this knowledge and these relationships can take several years to procure, learning these subtleties can mean the difference between a successful project where people are motivated to work together (and with you) and projects that will likely fail or be short-lived.  However, if one project fails, there is always an opportunity to reflect and revise a strategy; this is where patience and perseverance come in.  Also, start small and perhaps even stay small with realistic goals.  Go with programs that grow naturally out of your interactions and that address true needs.  Finally, while PIARA has yet to be around long enough to tell its own success story, I strongly believe that sustained, positive interactions with the youth over the long term holds the biggest promise for lasting success.

Service Learning, Partnerships, and Memory

This past weekend a group of Boy Scouts, their families and friends, painted the main exhibit hall at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  This Museum, like many small to mid-size institutions throughout the U.S., benefits from the projects of groups such as the Boy Scouts and  students who perform service hours to complete various requirements.  For example, three years ago, Boy Scouts replaced a decaying road sign that directed visitors to the Chucalissa site.  Another Boy Scout Project replaced a bridge along our nature trail.  In the Fall of 2009, youth from the AmeriCorps cut a trail system at the adjacent T.O. Fuller State Park  and spent several hundred hours at the C.H. Nash Museum processing artifacts, painting residential housing and more.

The AmeriCorps are a legacy of the 1930s New Deal era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  The CCC was quite active throughout Tennessee.  A small museum northwest of Nashville recently opened to celebrate their work.  Of significance, it was a 1930s era CCC that actually  discovered the Chucalissa site while they worked on building a Jim Crow era segregated State Park for the African-American community of Memphis.  While excavating for a swimming pool, the encountered prehistoric Native American artifacts and features.  (A great resource on the CCC including teacher lesson plans is found here.)

A common element to the Boy Scout, CCC, and AmeriCorps experiences is the concept of service learning.  In a recent volume Archaeology and Community Service Learning, editors Michael S. Nassaney and Mary Ann Levine  compiled a set of articles that explore the recent movement by archaeologists to develop more engaged and productive learning opportunities for students and the public.  These activities can develop into sustainable long-term partnerships.

Consideration of the Boy Scout project from this past weekend along with the CCC and AmeriCorps got me to thinking more about how these service learning experiences are an opportunity to lead toward that long-term engagement.  But in five years, our museum walls will need another coat of paint.  We have already repainted and replaced some rotted wood from the three-year-old sign built by the Boy Scouts.  The CCC campsite from the 1930s at T.O. Fuller State Park is now a picnic area.  Or simply put, the visible legacy of these projects diminishes through time.  However, that legacy is integral to telling the story of the Chucalissa site.

One path to resurrecting that legacy is to better highlight and incorporate the contemporary contexts of archaeological sites into the public interpretation.   Whereas there is a rightful knee-jerk reaction against having a dedicatory nameplate on every drinking fountain, footbridge and museum exhibit case, an understanding of how our cultural heritage institutions came to exist and live in their present form is relevant.  When I think of the community service that created what today is the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, that community includes the CCC of the 1930s, the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society beginning in the 1950s, the Friends of Chucalissa, the Southwind Garden Club, Boy Scouts, modern Native Americans, students, interns, volunteers and countless others.

Digital media and the internet are means that lend themselves particularly well for incorporating these communities into the story.  Such an approach cannot be reduced to simple acknowledgement and thanks, like the credits at the end of movie.   Rather, a critical task is contextualizing the modern era on a continuum with past that will lead to the future.  In that way, service learning, partnerships, and memory are joined.  Seems a good rabbit hole to go down.

Your thoughts?

And finally, here is a link to Colleen Dilenschneider’s blog Know Your Bone where she reports on the launching of a new bi-monthly on-line journal OnlyUp that focuses on young adult leadership in nonprofits.  Great stuff.

Innovate, Operationalize, Empower

This is the time of year to write the reflective, prophetic, or motivational blog that provides insight on where we have come from, where we are going, and how best to get there.  To add my .02 to the discussion I will blatantly rip the format from Beth Kanter’s The Networked Nonprofit blog that she ripped from Chris Brogan who notes that “Over the last few years, I’ve practiced something I call “my 3 words,” where I come up with three words that I use as guidance for how I should conduct my efforts in the year to come.”  Makes sense to me, so here are my three words:


Viewed as first on the chopping block in a troubled economy, there’s a good bit of hand-wringing about the future of Museums and Archaeology in general.  But there are also positive indicators, such as a recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that reports a predicted employment increase for museums in the coming decade.  Two recent publications from the Institute of Museum and Library Services contain innovative perspectives on Museums in the coming years: The Future of Museums and Libraries: A Discussion Guide and Museums, Libraries, and 21st Centuries Skills.  The 2009 publication by the American Association of Museums of Museums and Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures is another excellent resource.  Each of the publications run less than 30 pages but has a wealth of insights and good things to think about.

Clearly, we are not in Kansas anymore.  A common lesson in all three of the publications is the need for innovation.  Much has been made of late about participatory, hands-on, engaged experiences as part of that innovation.  To that end, there has been a rush to create hands-on experiences with everything from touch tables for the sake of having something to touch to the full-blown sensory experience at San Francisco’s Exploratorium.  In fact, hands-on has moved from being innovative to the norm.


A line etched deep in my memory from my graduate school Anthropological Research Design class is the need to operationalize the concept – moving from the intangible to the tangible.  Nina Simon’s recent Museum 2.0 post provides an example of the Wallace Collection in Britain where youth were the co-creators of a Museum Exhibit, taking the hands-on approach to the next logical step.  In a way similar to the recent African American Cultural Heritage Exhibit at the C.H. Nash Museum here in Memphis, the British high school-aged students chose the pieces from the collection and actually created the exhibit.  A goal of such participatory hands-on projects is to develop students and visitors into active stakeholders in their cultural heritage institutions.  Both the Wallace Collection and C.H. Nash examples proved successful in this goal.


I am convinced that the long-term engagement in such creative processes will go far beyond the quick fix of relying on Blockbuster type experiences or events.  Such engagement as stakeholders leads to empowerment.  I thoroughly enjoy that I am the director of a small museum with tremendous developmental possibilities.  I have often likened my position to being a kid in the candy store.  In my short three years at the institution I have been able to develop many of the ideas I have thought about over the past couple of decades working as an archaeologist who had a strong inclination toward public outreach.  Perhaps one of the greatest things I have learned in this process is not just having innovative ideas, operationalizing them into regular programs, but also empowering other staff, interns, students, and visitors to participate and take on the process as their own and to play an integral role in developing the vision for the institution.  Such an approach will make sure that museums will live well beyond the ups and downs of economic cycles but will become as integral to the community as all other civic institutions.  To think outside the box (innovate), and produce a tangible product (operationalize) that leads to the partnerships with stakeholders who will carry cultural heritage institutions forward (empower) is my New Year’s Resolution.

What is your resolution?

Radical Trust and Visitor Engagement

Flowing from my last post, as museums or archaeologists, how do we stay engaged with our volunteers, visitors, and the community?  I have posted on this before, but the general subject keeps bubbling to the surface in my daily actions.  I keep coming back to a lunch last year where the Outreach Director for a state agency wondered “How do we know if these once a year Archaeology Days are successful and how do we keep those people involved after the event is over?”

In this post I want to talk about an “aha” moment I had on this. To start off, I truly believe that social media is not just a one-way street.  We cannot just use Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube for cheap advertising.  Rather, these tools are excellent and designed for integration and interaction.  A buzzword over the past few years is radical trust.  There are many good discussions on this subject that explore the reciprocity and interaction of online hosts and users.

In the past few months, I heard from a couple different resources about this idea of micro-volunteering at a site called Sparked. The general concept is that lots of people have 15-20 minutes here and there where they could volunteer to help someone else online in mini-tasks or “challenges.”  If you visit the Sparked website, you can login as either a nonprofit or a micro-volunteer.  Keep this distinction in mind as you read on below because it’s the essence of the “aha” experience.

I registered at Sparked a few weeks ago.  I did not follow-up for the first few days, then I got a reminder email and decided to give it a shot.  I posted a copy of the last Chucalissa Anoachi e-newsletter and asked for a critique.  I got an absolutely fantastic response back from Tim S. with Charles and Ray Design.  I suspect his total time invested was less than 30 minutes but he gave a phenomenal critique, all of which got incorporated into our December newsletter.

After getting the response back from Tim, I realized I could not just let it go at that.  I made a decision that for every response I received to a “challenge” I posted, I would “micro-volunteer” and respond to another challenge.  In so doing, I would be giving back to the resource I was drawing from.  I have engaged with Sparked for a few weeks now.  I have posed “challenges” to have our Mission Statement translated into five different languages and have micro-volunteered to several challenges in need of copyedit and critique.

Here is where the “aha” moment comes in.  Last night I was logging onto the site and hesitated in whether I should consider myself as a nonprofit or a micro-volunteer.  I was invested on both sides of the equation.  I can now issue “challenges” on everything from fundraising ideas to design critique when I am in need of fresh insights on a Museum project.  In the same way, if I am in a doctor’s office or stuck at the airport waiting for a flight, or just have a few minutes at the end of the day, I can logon and engage.   Sparked is always there, the need is always there, and the opportunity to post a challenge is always there.  But most importantly, I have developed a stake in the community.

So, what does this have to do with staying engaged with our volunteers and visitors?  I have become a stakeholder in Sparked.  How do we engage our visitors and volunteers as true stakeholders in the cultural heritage of their towns, cities, and built environments?   I suspect that a first step is to go beyond Archaeology Days and one-off events and begin talking about radical trust and a consistent engagement.  And that goes back to volunteers and visitors as integral to our Mission.

Your thoughts?

A Success Story in Strengthening Communities

Graduate Assistant LaKenya Smith at the African American Cultural Heritage Exhibit

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

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

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

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

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

Volunteers as Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The House of Dance and Feathers

A fitting post for today is Ronald Lewis’s museum The House of Dance and Feathers in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.  The museum focuses on the cultural traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans.  Besides that yesterday was Mardi Gras, the House of Dance and Feathers is particularly relevant to this blog because the institution in many ways represents the ultimate in public outreach or the public face of the museum experience.  I lived in New Orleans for a few years a couple of decades ago and always thought that the Zulu Krewe represented the essence of the African-American Mardi Gras experience.  Currently, there is an excellent exhibit on the Zulu Krewe in the Cabildo at Jackson Square in New Orleans.

The House of Dance and Feathers documents something entirely different.  As taken from their website “Since 2006, the museum has become an important gathering place for scholars, activists, students, neighbors, and volunteers to talk about the history and culture of the Lower Nine, and to discuss the rebuilding of New Orleans.  The museum has also hosted numerous meetings, workshops, and gatherings for people who are working to make things happen in New Orleans.  Visitors to the House of Dance and Feathers experience the power of self-representation and the value of cultural exchange.  Mr. Lewis is currently working with Rachel Breunlin and the Neighborhood Story Project to produce a museum catalogue. In his museum tours and public talks, Mr. Lewis speaks eloquently about the social significance of place, family, and cultural traditions in community-building, and he has been an outspoken advocate for a resident-led rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward.”

I first heard of the Museum in a presentation given by Helen Regis at the Society for Applied Anthropology Meetings last year in Santa Fe.  Regis is one of the editors of the very engaging volume The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum by Ronald W. Lewis. The book is a fantastic story and documentation of the multi-faceted potential of the museum experience.

What other community museums tell these untold stories?

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