Tag: The Participatory Museum

Participatory Archaeology – More Than a Hands-On Gig

Top Down Authority Interpretive Model. Adapted from Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, p. 100, Fig. 4.1, 1998.

Okay – this is a real get up on my soapbox and preach posting – kind of a continuation of last week, so here goes.  In every college level course I teach, the first day of class I go over some ground rules.  One is that I understand there are two different types of learning.  The first is the one shown here, as adapted from Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach.  This top down approach is where the instructor is the intermediary between the great thing being studied and the student.  The student only gets access to the great thing through the professor.  In this way, the professor plays a role like a traditional shaman or Roman Catholic priest intervening with the spirit world.  I let students know I don’t approach education in this way.  I let them know they will all have speaking parts in the class, like it or not.

The second model of learning I pose, is also adapted from Palmer (illustrated in last week’s post).  In this model everyone has equal access to the great thing.  The instructor’s job is to facilitate that access.

So how do these two learning models come back to Archaeology, Museums and Outreach?  Let me pose an example – headless figurines of the Poverty Point culture.  Conventional wisdom has it that these 3500 year old artifacts may represent female fertility symbols and that they are all female.  But for a whole bunch of reasons, that dog won’t hunt.  During show and tell classroom visits, I often posed the question to grade school students – What do you think these figurines are all about?  The answer I got from a 5th grade girl in Lafayette Louisiana best accommodates the archaeological data.  Our exchange went something like this:

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

5th Grader – They didn’t have camera’s back then did they?

Archaeologist – No they did not.

5th Grader – 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.

Archaeologist – 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 archaeological record than the conventional wisdom passed along by archaeologists.

In the top down teaching method, if the question is even asked, the teacher would not validate the 5th grade girl’s response but would steer the discussion back to conventional wisdom.  The integrative approach allows, invites, relies on, and mandates the 5th grader to engage.

I find in archaeology that we struggle with how to make that engagement truly reciprocal and integrate the visitor into the experience.  How do we move from a simple hands-on experience that is often just a gimmick to get more people to visit our institutions to a true participatory experience where the 5th grader becomes a stakeholder in the cultural heritage of the built environment where they live?  How do we validate and engage the 5th graders response to the question?

The memory stations where visitors leave their impressions has become a popular means to create at least the illusion of participation.  However, what do we do with all of those post-it notes when the boards start to fill up?  On those boards, how do we distinguish between the 5th grade girls response that I perceive as of value, and an interpretation that I do not consider of value?

For the Poverty Point site, Debbie Buco a TAG (talented and gifted teacher) from the Baton Rouge Louisiana school system composed a fabulous classroom activity volume, Poverty Point Expeditions,  that uses the archaeology of the site to teach a range of subjects in the K-12 system.  In those activities students create stories, artifacts, conduct ethnoarchaeology experiments and more.  Over the years, the results of several student projects from this volume produce results that rival the conventional wisdom of professional archaeologists, like my 5th grade example above.  Where does all this stuff end up?

Here is one solution I saw of late – The University of Memphis Art Museum  recently installed a temporary exhibit of the well-known architect Paul R. Williams.  In one adjoining gallery a Department of Architecture Masters degree project presentation was hung.  In a second adjacent gallery, the architecture projects from the Coro Lake Elementary school in Southwest Memphis were on display.  Three exhibits that show the architectural skills from the elementary school to the professional.  A very cool idea.

I am struck that our true challenge is to take the folks we do outreach with from individuals with a passing interest with whom we occasionally engage in archaeology day or hands-on activities and move them to becoming true stakeholders in the cultural heritage of their built environments.

Off of soapbox.

Your thoughts?

Measuring Program Success

A couple of months ago I had a conversation with a colleague who questioned how can we measure the success of public outreach programs in archaeology.  Specifically, she asked “How do we know that one shot archaeology week/month events are meaningful to the participants the day after?  How can we tell if the events are successful?”

I have thought about her questions more of late.  How do we measure success?  At the C.H. Nash Museum, this question was particularly relevant as we completed our recent Museum Assessment Program sponsored by the American Association of Museums.

Here are some thoughts on measuring program success:

  • Our staff concluded that attendance numbers and revenue dollars should not be the primary measure of success.  It’s nice to see income come closer to offsetting our expenses but as a small nonprofit, we know that even doubling our attendance is not going to allow us to break even.
  • Rather, we are thinking of ways to measure how well our programs and outreach align with our Mission Statement.  The alignment is not readily measured in dollars and cents and attendance numbers.  We also expect that to the extent we demonstrate an aggressive alignment with our mission, donor giving will increase.
  • Educational and outreach opportunities are central to our Mission Statement.  Schemes of pre and post testing visitors knowledge might not be a good gauge of success – particularly for our adult visitors.  A recent article in the Boston Globe reported that the simple presentation of facts is not an effective means to change an individual’s perspective on an issue.  But the article revealed an interesting point – the testing involved presumed experts telling people their assumptions were in error.  The article did not discuss instances when individuals participated in a process of discovery about alternative explanations for a set of phenomena.  The process described in the article is like standing up in front of a town meeting and saying that the beloved founder was a real scoundrel.  An alternative and more engaged approach might be to provide the town folks copies of the beloved founder’s diaries, testimony from his/her spouse, etc. etc and let the citizens decide if he/she was a scoundrel – an engaged participatory approach.
  • Specific to the Archaeology Week/Month event, here is an example – in years past I gave Archaeology Month presentations in Belzoni, Mississippi, location of the prehistoric Poverty Point Culture’s Jaketown site.  The bulk of the site remains in private hands and is routinely collected by avocational archaeologists.  In my presentations, I talked about the distributional patterns of artifact types at other Poverty Point culture sites.  Attendees heads nodded in agreement about such patterns at Jaketown as well.  After the talk, several of the collectors would tell me about the patterns they noted.  We visited a bit, then I packed up my slides and drove the several hours back home to northeast Louisiana.  I went back the next year for Archaeology Month with the same general story, resulting in more nodding heads, and more talks and visiting after the presentation – but despite my suggestions, none of the collectors thought to actually record the location of their newly collected materials.  In hindsight, it’s probably the height of professional arrogance to think that a once a year preaching the Archaeology Gospel should result in everyone being saved.
  • This comes full circle back to the conversation with my colleague on how to measure success.  First, such changes likely are measurable only over extended periods of time.  Perhaps the point is that we really should not expect more from Archaeology Month/Week events than success as measured by attendance data.  Perhaps the real success is the extent that we use the Archaeology Day event as an opportunity to begin building a relationship with folks on an engaged and long-term basis where the less tangible measures can be made.
  • We seem to have a choice –  if we are expecting more substantive successes, then we likely will need to begin investing in more long-term strategies and commitments.  For example, at the C.H. Nash Museum, we have gone from 5-10 people showing up for our monthly Volunteer Day events to over 40 this past month.  We can talk about our short supply of staff and competing priorities, but building engaged relationships with these volunteers flows directly through our Mission Statement.  To do otherwise is counter to our mission.  The more sustained engagement today with the 40 is where we will develop the stakeholders who down the road will become advocates and participate in the Museum’s Mission.
  • So, in addition to attendance and revenue numbers, are good measures of success the number of volunteer hours over time, feedbacks in social media, number of letters written to elected officials on cultural resource preservation, and so forth?

How do you measure your success in public outreach?

Museum Engagement – Call for Papers

Something a bit different this week.  Below is a Call for Papers for a session I am organizing for the Society for Applied Anthropology at the Annual Meeting in the Spring of 2011.  Let me know if you have an interest in submitting a proposal for the session – or pass the call along to others.  I will appreciate any thoughts or suggestions on the general concept.

Call for Papers: Society for Applied Anthropology Annual Meeting Seattle, Washington (March 30 – April 2, 2011)

Session Title: Museum Engagement and Applied Anthropology

Session Organizer: Robert P. Connolly (University of Memphis)

The session is conceptually framed around The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon and the contribution that applied anthropologists bring to the discussion.  Simon (2010:ii-iii) defines a participatory institution as:

a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content. Create means that visitors contribute their own ideas, objects, and creative expression to the institution and to each other. Share means that people discuss, take home, remix, and redistribute both what they see and what they make during their visit. Connect means that visitors socialize with other people—staff and visitors—who share their particular interests. Around content means that visitors’ conversations and creations focus on the evidence, objects, and ideas most important to the institution in question.

The session aims to discuss participation in the building of sustained and engaged relationships and the methodological and theoretic contributions of applied anthropology to the process.
Relevant questions session papers may address include:

  • As cultural institutions how can museums demonstrate their value and relevance in the 21st Century?
  • Can museums serve as “third places” for social engagement?
  • What is the relevancy between shifting demographics and museum inclusivity in community engagement?
  • How do theoretic orientations, such as the constructivist approach and free-choice learning inform on the Participatory Museum.
  • How does the Participatory Museum influence the authority of voice in both content and function of cultural institutions?
  • What can applied anthropologists add to the discussion of Participatory Museums?
  • How can museums function as dynamic venues for sustained and engaged relationships with a diversity of communities.

Although papers are not required to remain within the parameters of Simon’s discourse, for reference, her book is available at:


If you are interested in participating, please send a brief summary of your proposed contribution to Robert Connolly at rcnnolly@memphis.edu by September 1, or before.

Summer Reading Resources

As classes end for the spring semester, I have caught up on some reading and resources.  A helpful new find is the Museum Education Monitor produced by M. Christine Castle.  The on-line monthly download runs some 12-15 or so pages.  The thrust of the publication is a listing of ongoing research, on-line journals, on-line discussion groups, blogs, research papers, resources, print journals, call for papers, and conference announcements.  What particularly intrigues me about the Monitor is that it includes a few of the links I come across during my regular internet browsing through sources such as the American  Association of Museums, the Center for the Future of Museums, and the American Association of State and Local History newsletters. However, the Monitor focuses very tightly on Education and Outreach.  Students and unwaged Museum workers can receive a complimentary subscription.  For those of us drawing a paycheck, the annual rate is $40.00.  You can also download a sample copy.  A great resource.

I am spending more time with Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum, a book I posted about before.  Simon’s book is without a doubt one of my top five “aha” moments in Museum Studies over the past year.  Here is why – First, the book goes well beyond the buzzwords of participation and engagement for the sake of participation and engagement.  The volume examines the concept from a mission driven perspective.  Second, the chapters are filled with case studies suitable and adaptable for museums big and small, put into practice short of blockbuster exhibits or doubling the work force.  Third, Simon provides weblinks to many of her references/resources in page footnotes.  Finally, the book is available on-line for free or $25.00 as a hard copy.  The on-line presence also provides the opportunity for ongoing discussions about the chapters – a factor that figured into Simon’s intent for the project.

So . . . check out these possibilities while relaxing at your third place wi-fi spot this summer!

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