Tag: museum studies

“It’s also about how the story gets told”: An ethnographic look at public archaeology programs in southern Maryland

This week I am pleased to present a guest post by Ennis Barbery on her public archaeology research in Maryland.  Taking an ethnographic approach, Ennis explores the relevance and authority in the expanding role of public archaeology.  She notes that the very concept of what makes up public archaeology is not universally agreed on by either the public or archaeologists.  Ennis is a graduate assistant in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maryland and can be reached at ebarbery(at)umd.edu

“It’s also about how the story gets told”: An ethnographic look at public archaeology programs in southern Maryland

by Ennis Barbery

Ennis Barbery

Ennis Barbery

Who has the authority to tell the stories of the past? What gives an individual or group that authority? These questions are constantly being negotiated and re-negotiated in different contexts. Ethnographic research that I conducted during the summer of 2012 while serving as an intern for the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail begins to address these questions. As one of my primary projects, I interviewed, observed, and participated at a series of archaeology sites. My more specific research questions centered on how different archaeologists and others define and practice “public archaeology,” and I found that each archaeologist, volunteer, and staff member I spoke with defined public archaeology slightly differently.

I spent time at these research sites interviewing archaeologists, staff, and volunteers (15 individuals total) but also taking on the role of a volunteer, and these experiences of participation yielded another insight: in many cases, the programs archaeologists designed and practiced did not seem to reflect their stated definitions for what public archaeology is and why it is important. In this brief reflection, I explain some definitions of public archaeology as used by those I interviewed and identify a few factors that may contribute to archaeologists conducting programs that do not reflect how they define public archaeology.

Star-Spangled Banner

Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail signage at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, June 2012

First, to provide a little more context, the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail traces the story of War of 1812 battles and troop movements in the Chesapeake Bay region. Its branches connect national parks, state parks, museums, historic house sites, and other establishments. One branch—the one that follows the Patuxent River through southern Maryland—connects a series of archaeology sites with “public” components:  Mount Calvert Historical and Archeological Park, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, and Pig Point (a site of the Anne Arundel County Lost Towns Project).   To varying extents, these programs on which I focused my ethnographic research invite non-experts to be part of their research processes and, in this way, each of them identifies as “public archaeology.” (An introduction and downloadable guide to the public archaeology along the Patuxent is available here.)

Although there are many facets of public archaeology (community meetings, excavation site tours, educational programming etc.) the part of public archaeology on which I have focused my research is the interaction between volunteers, archaeologists, and staff. Drawing from readings about public archaeology, this interaction stood out to me; it seemed to have the most potential to involve non-experts in a meaningful way (cf. Moyer 2004; Shackel 2004; Colwell Chanthaphoh and Ferguson 2008; Little 2007; Potter 1994; Chambers 2004). In one example that Moyer (2004) provides, local community members became involved as volunteers in creating interpretive products for the Bowne House in Flushing, New York, and—through their participation—Moyer concludes that they made the stories of this historic site more relevant for the concerns and interests of the other local community members.

With this example in mind, I went into my ethnographic research with the expectation that archaeologists’ definitions of public archaeology would include the kind of interaction that Moyer (2004) describes in which experts and non-experts work together to coproduce heritage knowledge, products, and stories. I wanted to see whether such acts of coproduction would really make heritage sites more relevant for local community members.

Patuxent River from Pig Point

A view of the Patuxent River from Pig Point, July 2012

However, the archaeologists I interviewed along the Patuxent River demonstrated for me that not all definitions of public archaeology include this idea of co-production. One archeologist explained that his program constituted public archaeology because it allows volunteers to be involved in “real research” (June 27, 2012). He described giving volunteers opportunities to help excavate, clean and sort artifacts. When I spoke with a volunteer from this program she echoed this definition, emphasizing the processes of excavating, cleaning, and sorting “real artifacts” as opportunities that volunteers can take advantage of in public programs (July 24, 2012).

In defining public archaeology, another archaeologist I spoke with emphasized the ability of archaeologists to create a casual, conversational environment for site visitors and volunteers (July 19, 2012). He described how this type of environment can make non-experts feel at ease when asking questions, pointing out that the questions of non-experts can lead archaeologists to new research questions. Other archaeologists I interviewed explained public archaeology in terms that were more similar to my own ideas about why public archaeology is important. They spoke about involving volunteers in the processes of interpreting artifacts and even in writing text for museum exhibits in one case (July 28, 2012).  One archaeologist summed up her thoughts in this way: “Public archaeology is not just about participating in the excavating. It’s also about how the story gets told” (July 9, 2012).

This brings me to the most interesting part of what I learned this summer, even those archaeologists who defined public archaeology as including volunteers in more than just the technical aspects of excavation and artifact analysis—even those who specifically talked about public archaeology involving coproduction of heritage products like museum exhibit text—seemed to run programs that primarily gave volunteers opportunities to be involved in excavating and sorting artifacts.

I must qualify that there were some exceptions (volunteers who helped write site report history sections or painted watercolor artifact illustrations for museum exhibits) and that the activities of coproduction I was looking for and asking about my have occurred when I was not present. It would not surprise me that, as a relative outsider, I might not been have granted access into the contexts in which interpretation decisions are discussed with valued, long-term volunteers.

artifact

A volunteer holds a find at Mount Calvert Historical and Archaeological Park, July 2012

Nonetheless, the primary activities I saw volunteers participating in and talking about were excavating and artifact sorting. I sifted through my interview transcripts and fieldnotes looking for answers to why archaeologists who defined public archaeology as including coproduction of heritage knowledge might be struggling to include process that would constitute coproduction of knowledge in the programs they designed and managed.

One factor I identified is time. While training non-experts to help with the technical aspects of archaeology may ultimately save time for archaeologists, it takes time and energy to involve non-experts in discussions of how to interpret findings. Sometimes work must be done over again when an inexperienced non-expert initially tries to complete a task such as mapping, writing site report text, or writing exhibit text. Apart from the time this takes, interactions in which archaeologists may have to repeat work for volunteers can create awkward or embarrassed feelings between these individuals. As a participant in these programs, I can recall several days when I went home feeling that I was showing down the archaeologists work because they had to redo work that I had initially completed.

Yet another set of factors for why the programs I studied may not be coproducing knowledge with volunteers is that members of the public may not have the time and energy to become involved to the extent in which they would feel comfortable contributing in this way. With one exception, all the volunteers I interviewed were retired professionals. This demographic pattern attests to the fact that becoming involved in public archaeology programs as a volunteer can constitute a significant time commitment, especially when volunteers become involved to the extent that they have actually gained the skills and knowledge to help coproduce heritage products.

Ultimately, this research contributes to discussions of the potential benefits of public archaeology programs and the realities of time and resources that constrain those programs. Moreover, I hope that this research also brings up questions that should be answered with further research: questions about how coproduction of heritage products can make a site more relevant for the local community and even more basic questions about who has the authority to participate in creating heritage.

References

Chambers, Erve, 2004, Epilogue. In Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology. Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers, eds. London: Routledge: 193-208.

Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip and T. J. Ferguson, 2008, Introduction. In Collaboration in Archaeological Practice: Engaging Descendent Communities. Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and T. J. Ferguson, eds. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press: 1-34.

Little, Barbara J., 2007, Archaeology and Civic Engagement. In Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement. Barbara J. Little and Paul A. Shackel, eds. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press: 1-22.

Moyer, Teresa, 2004, “To Have and Enjoy the Liberty of Conscience”: Community-Responsive Museum Outreach Education at Bowne House. In Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology. Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers, eds. London: Routledge: 85-100

Potter, Parker B., Jr., 1994, Public Archaeology in Annapolis: A Critical Approach to History in Maryland’s Ancient City. Washington, DC: Smithsonian InstitutionPress.

Shackel, Paul A., 2004, Working with Communities: Heritage Development and Applied Archaeology. In Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology. Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers, eds.  London: Routledge: 1-16.

What Means This Object?

For the final exam this past semester in my Museum Practices seminar for the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis students wrote essays responding to the questions from one of nine themes  in the paper The Future of Museums and Libraries: A Discussion Guide published in 2010 by The Institute of Museum and Library Services.  Although I enjoyed reading all the essays this year, one stood out in particular.  The essay below by Penny Dodds takes up the theme Shifts in Power and Authority.  From a perspective that draws on the material objects and relationships from her own life history, Ms. Dodds powerfully articulates the essential engagement between communities and their museums.  She has graciously allowed me to post her essay for this week’s blog as follows:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Penny Dodds

Penny Dodds

Museum Practices

December 13, 2012

Final Exam

My mother grew up the eldest of seven children.  She lived in a Polish ghetto neighborhood in Utica, NY – a bastard child, poor, raised by her adopted hobo father and her mother who left for weeks at a time.  Although my mother’s background is integral to this story, the story I want to tell has to do with me; and a stool.  I am the fourth of five children.  When I was born, my sister, the eldest, was fourteen.  I was the only child raised by my mother who received any type of chair.  It was mine, my mother told me, because she noticed that I had nowhere to sit that was my size.  My stool was five simple pieces of wood stained dark brown.  It had a little base for me with four holes where the pegged legs held it up.  No nails.  I cherished this stool growing up because it meant my mother cared for me in my daily life of constant neglect.  I felt special because she bought it just for me.

When I left home, I took the stool with me.  It continued to be part of my visual home life.  In my mid-thirties, pregnant and purging my belongings readying myself for my first child, I gave this stool away.  I had reinterpreted it to symbolize my mother’s clear inability to think of others.  She grew up with children.  She had three before me!  The stool became a token, rather than the proof that my mother’s love hovered over me daily.  I refused to think of myself as special from my siblings and deserving of her attentiveness.  I gave it away with my need to give away all my childhood pain so that I would be my own version of “mama” and not a reaction to her.

But I ache now for that stool.  I am now in my early forties and I want to touch it.  I want my own girl to touch it.  Now, it means to me that I was loved despite her constant inability to take care of me.  It means I had a place to sit in our home that was my size and she made sure of it.  My stool represents her thinking of life from my perspective.  It’s somewhere.  The pain of its absence now could be perceived as nonsensical yet, as the work in museums of presenting objects with stories, this seemingly worthless item holds the dearest of life’s learning about being a child, an adult, a mother, and love, understanding and forgiveness.

I begin with this story to address the discussion theme on “Shifts in Power and Authority” and the impact they have on future museums.  This story illustrates 1) the psychological relationship individuals can have with objects and the shifts in interpreting that relationship that can happen with just one person; imagine a whole community; 2) the impact of thinking from someone else’s perspective in a position of power; 3) the flux of valuing and devaluing one’s own history in connection with objects; and, 4) subtly, the impact a third party would have had on my decision to give away my stool.  To me, museum staff represents the “third party” in our culture.  They can offer their expertise in how to cherish objects, tell stories from them, and empower people; especially, those who feel disconnected in our culture by making sure their objects are treasured, seen and, through them, their stories are told.

How will museums make materials and information available to their communities and provide context and content which is appropriate?  This will happen in a constant engagement with a museum’s community.  This process will include:  knowing which stories are important to the community through dialogue and observation; offering volunteer opportunities to engage on different levels of desired participation[1]; using digital technology to catalogue and interpret a museum’s collection for visitors; and, designing the museum space (physical and virtual) to engage a range of ages, social groupings[2] (i.e. families, school groups, individual visitors, etc.) and diverse backgrounds.  Museums will use their space to have exhibitions that unite collections under “big ideas” which “ha[ve] fundamental meaningfulness that is important to human nature.”[3]  More of the collections will be used because they will rotate exhibition space more often.[4]  As communities adjust to seeing their “authority” grow in choices of exhibitions and accessibility to materials, we cannot predict the multitude of innovative ways future museums will expand their abilities to share what they house in ways that keep content and context.

As the shift continues in museums to open its collections and choice of themed exhibitions to their communities, a museum will be judged by how well it shares its authority and is authentic in its quest to honor differing worldviews.  Excellence in museum work will include identifying the community as stakeholders in the museum and including them in the museum’s strategic plan[5]; viewing objects through overarching themes which help visitors examine and question who they are[6];  and “…integrat[ing] assessments of progress into the day-to-day activities of the organization as an integral part of the planning and development process.”[7]  This cycle of acknowledging the diverse public as stakeholders, creating meaningful presentations, and self-evaluation will perpetuate a sustainable museum in the future.  Trust in these presentations will not be lost but gained.  Finding value in all people’s histories will help us as a whole, politically, to understand one another and communicate better with each other to address common world-wide concerns; such as, the environment, food, opportunities for all to have basic needs met, etc.  Museums, as well-respected authorities[8] and places of life-long learning, have the unique position to keep the community in touch with one another through these actions.  They can help people to know themselves as individuals within our complex society and, hopefully, set a course for a future they choose – not settle for.

Digital social networking will impact museums and their services by expanding the discussion space outside of the actual physical building[9].  The community could have the opportunity to comment, challenge, and add their own perspectives through the museum’s website.  Museum administrators can advocate their work through blogs and find political and financial support for their work[10].  Visitors may be able to personalize what they learned and share this with others on websites they create.[11]  Visitors using social media can tag, leave comments, and add to collective memories within museum exhibitions[12] to be stored by the museum for the community’s reference later.  The more voices heard, the more voices can be included.  It does not mean that the authority of the museum is questioned or even taken away.  Not a bit.  Hearing what more people think is a way to know one’s audience – where they are at intellectually, psychologically, and emotionally– and this knowledge can be used to scaffold learning in exhibitions, create engaging themes which one may never have thought of, learn oral histories or memories that would not surface without this “openness” and ease of dialogue, and help identify misunderstandings that inhibit peace – socially and environmentally.

Some impediments to sharing and providing access to materials lie within the museum itself.  If the wider community base is now considered “stakeholders”, traditional, key stakeholders may fear the changes that will occur.[13] They may have to let go of some programming to include newer programming.  Genoways and Ireland suggest that when the whole museum board and staff have worked on a strategic plan together to include the community as stakeholders, then referring back to the soundness of this plan should help overcome this fear.  Another impediment within museums is the challenge to shift from object-based museum work to culturally centered work with communities and their relations to the larger natural world.[14]  It requires an adaptation of thinking that people who have worked in museums for years may not be able to do initially.  The way to overcome this, I believe, would be to have a balance of newer museum staff that is able to think this way more easily; a strong commitment from the museum team to make this shift; and, baby steps through exhibition design and new programming which utilizes the collections, curators, etc. in new ways.  Successes in culturally centered work will encourage the continued evolution of museum practices[15].

A final impediment is museums’ tendencies to use outside consultants and outsource jobs.  This may impede the process of sharing the most significant information.   “A museum’s board, staff and supporters are potentially the real experts on the organization and what is needed – the challenge is to unlock their tacit knowledge and put it to use.”[16] The staff of a museum may not know how to implement getting more information on the web but they should know what they want on it.  When I had to design the educational webpage for the group exhibition in my Exhibitions class, I thought I would just e-mail my content to the web designer.  No.  I sat with him throughout the entire process to answer questions, clarify things I thought would be obvious, while he implemented, with ease, things I would need training on.  Finding the time, and realizing one must make the time, to work side by side with consultants and contractors to create the best possible communication devices for exhibitions and virtual museum spaces must be done.

“Deep in the soul of any organization that wishes to practice stewardship there must be a profound awareness that the gifts it receives are to be held in trust for the public good.”[17]  As museums shift to expand its acknowledged stakeholders, encourage them to communicate and engage with the museum on more and more levels, then the museum is actually becoming more of what it is meant to be as a steward of public goods.  The collections will grow to include more of what their diverse populations want.  The participating community will have the opportunity to feel increasingly like “experts” in their social history after personal reflection from exhibitions and conversations through social media and face-to-face interactions.

I believe there are many of us who are trying to grasp where we fit in and who we are in this multicultural society wherein the supremacy of the individual overshadows the connections we are capable of feeling in a more collective society.  Museums, by embracing their position within society as trusted, competent keepers and storytellers of cultural heritage, while honoring all of their community members in the mix of their archives and exhibitions, may find that their real power is not in what they know how to do but what they do with what they know.  Just like me and my little stool.  I didn’t know that I may look back and value it so greatly.  It’s just an object.  Museum staff know that nothing is just an object but material parts of our stories – some, extremely painful.  Knowing which ones to keep – even when the community is unaware of their potential meaning – and how to present the stories of our lives together with them, is the art of museum work.

Penny Dodds is a student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis.  She can be reached at pdodds(a)memphis.edu


[1] Robert P. Connolly and Natalye B. Tate.  “Volunteers and Collections as Viewed from the Museum Mission Statement.”  Collections 7, no. 3 (2011): 327.

[2] John Reeve and Caroline Lang, et al., ed.  “Prioritizing Audience Groups” in The Responsive Museum:  Working with Audiences in the Twenty-first Century. (2006): 48.

[3] Beverly Serrell.  Exhibit Labels:  An Interpretive Approach.  (New York:  Alta Mira Press, 1996), 1.

[4] Yani Herreman.  “Display Exhibits and Exhibitions” in Running a Museum: A Practical Handbook. (Paris:  ICOM, 2004): 92.

in ICOM. (2004): 92.

[5]Hugh H. Genoways and Lynne M. Ireland.  “Strategic Planning” in Museum Administration:  An Introduction (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2003):  81.

[6] Gerald McMaster, “Art History Through the Lens of the Present?”  Journal of Museum Education 34, no.3 (2009): 215.

[7] Lynn Dierking, “Being of Value:  Intentionally Fostering and Documenting Public Value.”  Journal of Museum Education 35, no. 1 (2010): 14.

[8] Sharon MacDonald.  “Expanding Museum Studies: An Introduction” in A Companion to Museum Studies.  (Malden, MA:  Blackwell Publishing, 2006): 4.

[9] Ole Sejer Iversen and Rachel Charlotte Smith.  “Experiences from the Digital Natives Exhibition.” Heritage and Social Media:  Understanding Heritage in a Participating Culture (Routledge, 2012): 127.

[10] Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied.  Speak Up for Museums:  The AAM Guide to Advocacy.  (American Association of Museums, 2011): 49.

[11] Reeve, 47.

[12] Herminia Din and Phyllis Hecht. The Digital Museum:  A Think Guide.  (American Association of Museums, 2007): 63.

[13] Genoways and Ireland, 77.

[14] Douglas Worts, “Measuring Museum Meaning: A Critical Assessment Framework.”  Journal of Museum Education 31,1, (2006): 42.

[15] M. C. Flagler and C. Catlin-Legutko and S. Klinger, ed.  “Interpreting Difficult Issues” in Interpretation:  Education, Programs, and Exhibits, Small Museum Toolbox, Vol.5. (New York: AltaMira Press, 2012): 29.

[16] Robert R. Janes.  Museums in a Troubled World. (Routledge, 2009): 15.

[17] B. Granger, C. Catlin-Legutko and S. Klinger, ed.  “The Good, the Best, and the IRS:  Museum Financial Management Solutions and Recommendations” in Financial Resource Development and Management. Small Museum Toolbox, vol. 2 (New York:  AltaMira Press, 2003): 2.

Pearltrees = Social Media + Mindmapping + Bookmarks

pearltrees

Okay, so Pearltrees has been around for three years now, and I am finally catching on.  Pearltrees is best described as a visual bookmark system that meshes social media with mindmaps.  I was introduced to the tool by Debbie Morrison who blogs at online learning insights.  Here is her Pearltree.  The basic concept is that Pearltrees organizes bookmarks by type in a branching system.  Debbie’s is a well-organized system that reflects her varied research interests and expertise in education.

My immediate application for Pearltrees was to present the annotated references students collect each fall for my Museum Practices class in the Museum Studies program at the University of Memphis.  Over the past few years, my intent was to build a library of references over time.  Prior to Pearltrees, I envisioned the references might live on a WikiPage or as an Excel file.  Pearltrees is a perfect answer to creating a very effective presentation.  Here is the Pearltree from this year’s seminar that includes a selection of the student’s references and my own organized by topical area within the field of Museum Studies.  I intend to subdivide each topic a bit further.  Specific to my Museum Practices seminar, this Pearltree will be useful as follows:

  • In class I usually run through a good number of websites during a single seminar class.  Presently, I open up a bunch of urls in Google Chrome and present the sites in a linear fashion.  With Pearltrees I can pick and choose references in a nonlinear visual fashion to be in line with the flow of the actual discussion and not the flow of the search engine list.  In this regard, Pearltrees can be envisioned like a Prezi presentation.
  • The Museum Practices seminar has created the annotated references for the past three years.  This year is the first time the results have gotten beyond the e-courseware discussion tab or the Excel spreadsheet.  I really like that next year’s class can check the current Pearltree to be certain their additions are not redundant but increase, grow, and expand the resource.
  • As a practical matter, the cutting edge reference of this year can be old news by next year or the webpage might no longer exist.  As well, the constant addition of links could make a Pearltree unusably complex.  The occasional pruning of the Pearltree will maximize the tools utility.  Also, when you hover over an individual pearl in preview, if the link is dead, you get notice of same and can easily delete the item from the Pearltree.
  • The Related Pearltrees icon or search tools take you to PearlTrees with content similar to your own.  You can then view, pick from other folks Pearltrees and add to your own tree.  As you are cruising the internet with a single click you can add links to your Pearltrees.
  • Beyond classroom presentation, Pearltrees is a fantastic information resource.  For example, I noted Debbie Morrison Pearltrees above.  I know that she has considerable expertise in online education.  If I am looking for current thinking on MOOCs, I know that I am going to get a more focused and relevant set of links from her Pearltrees than if I were to simply do a Google search.  Her Pearltrees will offer me a good entry point and current discussions on MOOCs.

Everything discussed above is available with the free version of Pearltrees.  For a fee customizable features and private Pearltrees are available.

Seemingly, two possible downsides to Pearltrees include:

  • If the service goes away and you have a ton of bookmarks and time invested in the project, the work will go down the drain.  There is no reason to believe Pearltrees is going away anytime soon but even Facebook will go the way of Friendster some day.
  • If Pearltrees decides to start charging for or altering their service – ditto the above concern but a bit less of a crisis.

And of course what review would be complete without a Pearltree of Pearltrees Reviews

Do you use Pearltrees?  If so, does it work for you?

A Mock Excavation That Really Works

The only completed square at this point in the dig site.  According to the course structure and the size of the site, it will take more than 10 years to complete the entire site, depending on class sizes.

This is the only completed square at this point in the dig site. According to the course structure and the size of the site, it will take more than 10 years to complete the entire site excavation.

Mock or made excavations are considered to either promote a treasure hunting mentality or are an educational tool for teaching the science of archaeology.  The example discussed by Megan Valentine in her guest blog post below clearly falls into the latter category.  The project is an impressive undertaking by Dr. Dale Manor of Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas.  Megan Valentine is currently an Egyptology Art History graduate student at the University of Memphis and is also enrolled in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.

by Megan Valentine

For my bachelor’s degree in history, I attended a private Christian college in Searcy, Arkansas called Harding University.  In the fall of 2009, I took what was probably my favorite class at Harding University.  This course was an Honors Bible course focused on Biblical Archaeology.  Many schools offer courses like this, but something made my Biblical Archaeology course unique.  Instead of simply sitting in a classroom, discussing archaeological theory and practice, this course provided a practical lab component.

In 2007, Dr. Dale Manor, an archaeologist and the professor of the Biblical Archaeology class, constructed an artificial tel (mound) in the country near a small town in Arkansas.  Named “Tel Achzib,” or Mound of Deception, the 35 by 25 yard mound replicates, in a miniaturized form, four periods of settlement in Israelite history.  The periods include the 12th/11th Century BC, the 8th Century BC, and the Middle Bronze IIB period.  Each level of settlement contains the remains of a major structure such as a home, as well as everyday artifacts, animal and human remains.  All of these details replicate actual archaeological evidence discovered in sites throughout ancient Canaan and Israel, as well as evidence which Dr. Manor discovered through his years of excavation in Israel.

mval1

This is a replica skeleton simulating the remains of a man killed by a falling column at the settlement.

Students in the course participated in an excavation lab once a week, using archaeological methods and tools utilized on actual excavations.  Unlike many created dig sites, this was not a treasure hunt.  There were days when we did not find anything and only excavated a few square feet.  Following methods which Dr. Manor and other archaeologists use at the dig site where he excavates each summer, Tel Beth-Shemesh in Israel, we began each day at the site by measuring the elevation of each square.  Students worked in groups of three our four on four different squares in various locations on the site.

During my course, the square which my group and I were assigned was the only one in which one full level had been excavated (corresponding to the 8th Century BC), so we were digging into the next level, which associated with the 12th or 11th Century BC.  We used picks, trowels, buckets, and sifters to clear away the soil a little at a time, sifting through every three bucketfuls.  It took a few weeks of digging for us to find anything.  The first discovery in our square was a clay oil lamp. It was broken, but all of it was there.  We cleaned around the lamp as thoroughly as possible without moving it, then took measurements of the lamp and its locations, as well as photographs of the lamp in situ before moving it.  I was selected by my group to take the clay oil lamp, clean it, and glue it back together.  I did this using the conservation techniques outlined in our course, cleaning the clay with water and a soft toothbrush, and gluing the pieces together with water-soluble Elmer’s glue.  We also excavated part of a building wall during our course, following the same techniques of cleaning, measuring, and photographing the wall.

This photograph includes my group and our square during the excavation.  It serves as a reference to the size of each square and the depth of each layer.  The wall in the front is the one which we uncovered during our course.

This photograph includes my group and our square during the excavation. It serves as a reference to the size of each square and the depth of each layer. The wall in the front is the one which we uncovered during our course.

This course was a valuable education in archaeological techniques in an area where this would not normally be possible.  This was a good taste of what archaeological excavation is really like.  Since I am now studying to be an Egyptologist, having some education in excavation methods is invaluable both in study and in practice if I ever participate in fieldwork.  This course provides many students at Harding with a new prospect for future work, as well as a different perspective regarding Biblical settlements which many students have learned about in their studies.  This course was a different way of learning Biblical information than most other courses, and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment.

For more information about this project click here, or here.

Megan can be contacted at mdvlntn1(at)memphis.edu

Wikipedia as a Scholarly Resource

Glamlogo

By User:Husky and h3m3ls, Mischa de Muynck and Niels [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Over the past couple of weeks, students in my Museum Practices graduate seminar presented their semester projects.  An Egyptology Art History graduate student, Chris Stelter, presented on the 66 short biographies he created for the renovation of the American Legacy exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum here in Memphis.  He used Wikipedia as a primary resource in the project noting that “. . . using Wikipedia as a main source has helped me make a new mental connection between the available information, what I myself, as a museum professional, want to present, and what a visitor would want to take in.  Since I am providing information for the public and Wikipedia is made by the public, it provides an interesting connection between scholarly research and public intake.”

In discussion after his presentation, Chris noted a certain trepidation at using Wikipedia for a “scholarly” project.  When asked what he would use if he were creating similar biographies for a group of Egyptologists Chris suggested the Who Was Who in Egyptology volume – arguably even less inclusive than Wikipedia.

Regardless of the specific merits in using Wikipedia to collect the Civil Rights leaders mini-bio information, which I find wholly appropriate, I found the class discussion interesting on another level.  As I reflected before in this blog, the very mention of a virtual museum or Wikipedia as a scholarly resource caused audible gasps from seminar students five years ago.  This year after Chris’ presentation the class was able to have a reasoned discussion, while still noting that Wikipedia was loathed by the vast majority of their professors.

I have posted before on Wikipedia as a research tool and specific applications in museums.  Six months down the road from those posts, the potential of Wikipedia as a research and information tool continues to grow.  A mid-year review of the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums with Wikipedia (GLAM) points to this evolving direction. Also, consider the following links:

  • Michigan Wikipedians as “The first student group of its kind in the country, Michigan Wikipedians support the use of Wikipedia on campus for purposes of education. Similar to the Open.Michigan initiative, Michigan Wikipedians foster the development of educational content that can be used globally under open licenses. The club is open to all students and faculty of the University of Michigan, as well as community members who are interested in Wikipedia.”
  • The very entry for Museums in Wikipedia is a 7000 word article with 45 “scholarly” references.  The article covers everything from the etymology of the word to virtual museums.  Were the essay written as an undergraduate honors thesis, the student would be given an A and a strong letter of recommendation.
  • This Wikipedian in Residence link lists the intent, function and experience of individuals who have taken up such assignments at a range of institutional types as essential collaborators, builders, and promoters of Wikipedia.  Scroll to the bottom of the linked page to view projects that the Wikipedians have piloted.

I was reading Debbie Morrison’s most recent post on her Online Learning Insights blog and was a bit overwhelmed when reflecting on the general reluctance of higher education to embrace these potentials, choosing instead to hunker down in their silos.  Then I got to the paragraph heading “Personal Learning Network” in Debbie’s post and it started making a good bit more sense. She wrote about the importance of personal motivation in accepting the new technology. I thought of how in 1994 while finishing my PhD I taught a course back in my hometown titled “Anthropology and the Internet” in a department of eight faculty of whom only three even had email accounts.  One faculty member that year proudly refused the computer the University had offered him choosing instead to continue typing his manuscripts on an IBM Selectric typewriter. However, when he realized he could get the daily Mexican newspapers where he did his research online, he became a convert overnight to the wonders of the digital age.  Based in part on pressure from students in that class, the next year the department had a computer lab set-up.  Can a reasoned and objective assessment of the scholarly applications of Wikipedia be far behind?

How do you use Wikipedia as a tool in your scholarly work?

What is a museum? Back to the Future with John Cotton Dana

start trait wordle

The International Council of Museums defines a museum as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”

Though the ICOM definition still works, for the most part, today the very concept of a Museum is being pushed, pulled, and repackaged.  For example, the Museum Association blog published an interesting piece on the impact of the Google Art Project on the study of artworks.  The article considers how folks studied a work of art in the past and today.  Not having the books in the distant past meant the only means for studying a work of art was to go to a museum.  Five years ago in my Museum Practices graduate seminar I recall the literal gasps at my suggestion of a virtual museum.  Today the study of art on a computer screen is no less legitimate than viewing portfolio sized books, 35 mm slides or those arcane film strips of the not too distant past.

At the start of each semester in the Museum Practices seminar I ask students to take out a piece of paper and spend a couple of minutes doing some trait listing to the prompt “What is a Museum?”  The above Wordle contains the words the 18 students listed on the first day of class this fall.  The Wordle below contains the terms the same students listed at the end of the semester.  The difference reflects the shift in museums from being collections centered to focusing on the visitor experience as expressed in the New Museum by John Cotton Dana nearly a century ago.  Dana’s emphasis on the notion of museum’s being institutions of public service is more relevant today than ever before.  The Wordles suggest the students get this.

We will discuss some of the most challenging readings of the entire semester in our final class this Tuesday including:

Visit the Center for the Future Museums for these and other resources.

The pundits who explained the outcome of the recent U.S. presidential election by noting “It’s not a traditional American anymore” would have done well to read the above articles.  They also would be better prepared to deal with the 21st Century by reading the words of John Cotton Dana written some 100 years ago:  “The museum can reach only those whom it can attract.  This fact alone is enough to compel it to be convenient to all, wide in its scope, varied in its activities, hospitable in its manner and eager to follow any lead the humblest inquirer may give . . . Remember always that the very essence of the public service of a public institution is the public’s knowledge of the service that the institution can give . . .”  (Cotton, p. 39 The New Museum).

The Wordle below suggests the Museum Practices seminar students agree.  Do you?

final wordle

Democracy, Visitors, & Museum Practices

Perhaps one of the aspects I enjoy most about leading seminars (i.e., teaching) is the opportunity to revisit the same concepts year after year.  For example, in the six years I have led the Museum Practices seminar in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the Univeristy of Memphis, students have evolved from all but throwing tomatoes at me for even suggesting the notion of a virtual museum to, particularly with the advent of the Google Art Project, a thoughtful exploration of the concept.  Similarly, in part based on the mix of enrolled student home departments whether History, Art History, Anthropology, or Earth Sciences, the discussion of repatriation as exemplified by the Elgin Marbles incorporates differing dynamics.

For the past two weeks we discussed visitor experiences and evaluations in museums.  We read a range of materials including the relevant portions of ICOM’s Running a Museum, evaluation guides, standard readings and newly published offerings.  I always enjoy revisiting the tremendous resources available at the Visitor Studies Association on this subject.

Each week students submit an annotated reference on a resource relevant to the week’s discussion theme.  We discuss a few of the resources in class.  For me, the student references are one of the most enjoyable parts of the weekly seminar.  The readings cover the basics.  The annotated references allow us to go off in some interesting directions.

If there was a theme to the annotated references on visitors the students submitted this year the title would be something like the “Democratization of the Visitor Experience.”  Here are a few of the resources seminar students submitted:

  • The Museum of Science in Boston put out a call for public evaluation of accessibility for new exhibits.  The museum is  “currently gathering feedback about several of our new exhibits to improve the museum experience for visitors with disabilities.  Scheduled for this testing are exhibits about energy conservation, the science of Pixar, and health & human biology. We are seeking visitors with a range of disabilities (including, but not limited to, sensory, physical, and cognitive disabilities) to help us test these prototypes.”  Whereas exhibit designs always pass muster with consultants, the proactive invitation of the general public seems different.  In a similar vein, students at George Washington University’s Museum Education Program  created a wiki on issues related to accessibility.  I was particularly impressed with the role graduate students played in this latter process – creating a useful and accessible first stop tool in assessing visitor special needs.
  • I was also struck by the way a $200,000.00 prize was awarded recently at the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Michigan.  The winners of Art Prize 2012 were determined by 400,000 votes of the “viewing public” over a several week period.  Although a growing trend in such competitions, our seminar discussion suggested the Grand Rapids event is certainly in the forefront of this movement.
  • Public Value: From Good intentions to Public Good by Jeanne Vergeront is a thoughtful discussion.  She writes that “Public value isn’t a new concept. . . Relevance and community impact often refer to how a museum matters in its community.”  The blog includes several links to presentations and articles that explore this concept.
  • Teacher Creates a Museum in the Classroom reports the work of  Keil Hileman’s who teaches archeology at Monticello Trails Middle school in Shawnee, Kansas.  The blog has a brief discussion of Hileman’s methods with links to supporting agencies.  The post is from the blog Homeroom by the U.S. Department of Education.
  • The Museum Minute has a guest post titled Volunteer Engagement is Everyone’s Job by Carolyn Noe with a link to her Volunteer Management Daily blog.  An interesting aspect of visitor/volunteer discussion in our class is how volunteers can be viewed on a continuum as more engaged visitors.
  • And with Yelp, TripAdvisor, Rate My Professor could Rate My Museum be far behind? It’s here!!

A theme in the submitted references is the movement from museums being collections driven to focusing on the visitor experiences.  The public is increasingly involved in determining what that “great thing” of museums will look like and engage the visitor.  This shift in engagement looks like the graphic below.

Who gets added to “?” slot?

Visualizing Information in Museums Exhibits

C.H. Nash Museum ceramic vessel exhibit redesign - before in background, after in foreground

When thinking about exhibit design, books by Edward Tufte and the webpage of David McCandless’ Information is Beautiful are a couple of welcome resources.  Similarly, nearly 15 years ago I first came across Beverly Serrell’s Exhibition Labels, a book I go back to regularly and assign as a required reading in my Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program.  Tufte and Serrell profoundly impact how I view presenting information in public venues.

While a graduate student at the University of Illinois, my advisor R. Barry Lewis introduced me to Tufte in the Anthropological Research Design graduate seminar.  An intriguing assignment in the class was to find the best and worst interpretive graphic in a professional journal.  The search produced scores of examples with text that could only be read under 400% magnification, along with jumbles of circles, lines, arrows and their gradient fills that were unintelligible.  For the assignment, students found some great graphics too.  But that assignment some 20 years ago is still relevant when considering the professional PowerPoint presentations of today, often more akin to a dizzying kaleidoscope art form than information presentation.  “Power Corrupts.  PowerPoint corrupts absolutely” so saith Edward Tufte.

About fifteen years ago I completed text labels for an exhibit.  Then Serrell’s Exhibit Labels book, hot off the press, arrived in the mail and I read it immediately.  I then trashed my newly created exhibit labels and started over from scratch.  I now had a guide to a systematic and meaningful way of creating the labels – determining the Big Idea and telling the story.  Although I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, these lessons lead me to strive for clean, clear, and aesthetically pleasing information presentations.

With all of this in mind, three years ago, a Graduate Assistant led the attack on the ceramic vessel exhibit at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa – the before and after shown above – by all measures a pretty dramatic improvement.  Besides the aesthetics, the redesign addressed vessel form, effigy symbolism, function, and contextualized the vessels within the site.  The redesign also explained the ever cryptic type names archaeologists assign to vessels.  In the past three years, the redesign received a good bit of visitor and staff feedback.  Based on that feedback, this fall one of the projects for the Museum Practices seminar will be to redesign the Chucalissa Pottery exhibit again.  The ten graduate students will use Serrell and other resources on exhibit labels and design to come up with their individual proposals they will then collaboratively morph into a single final design.

The opportunity for students to engage in such projects is one aspect of our applied studies program that is quite valuable.  Beyond searching for the best and worst interpretative graphic in a professional journal, the students will be able to not just find, but create and resolve.  Such an educational approach provides hands-on experience for future museum directors, registrars, educators, marketers – all fields – to offer more robust and mission driven practices and creations.

How do you create or recreate clear and meaningful exhibits?

%d bloggers like this: