Tag: volunteer

What Museums Can Learn From Hotel Chains

I started off this morning reading Debbie Morrison’s excellent post The End of ‘School’ as Usual . . .  on her blog online learning insights.  The first sentence of her post brought to mind some points I have been thinking about lately.  She wrote “Applying business principles to academia at one time was taboo. Mentioning terms such as return on investment (ROI), customer focus,target market, would be met with blank looks – the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome.”  This got me to thinking about another interesting discussion of late by Suse Cairns at the Museum Geek blog who posted Are We Engaged Yet . . . that takes up the real nuts and bolts behind the concept of what it means to “engage” in our cultural heritage institutions.

As a museum junkie, I reflected how over the past year or so in traveling across North America, I visited about 100 different cultural heritage venues, mostly museums.  In those travels, I stayed in hotels on perhaps 50 evenings.  As a result of those hotel stays, I received follow-up email surveys asking me to rate my experience or join a frequent user club.  However, I don’t recollect ever receiving a follow-up email from a museum asking me to rate my experience or asking for feedback.  I don’t recollect seeing a visitor comment card inside a museum in the past year, but I know they exist.  I am certain some museums do ask for feedback like the hotel chains.  However, that I did not experience a museum request in the past year likely reflects more the norm.

Having written the above, I do not want to suggest that cultural heritage specialists are not interested in what the public wants or needs from the publicly funded institutions. We discuss this issue a lot.  I do think we need to take a different approach toward acquiring that information.  Consider the following examples:

  • Each fall for the past two years at the C.H. Nash Museum, in our weekly meetings with regular staff and graduate assistants from the University of Memphis, we discuss one chapter from Stephanie Weaver’s Creating Great Visitor Experiences.  I really like the way this book with it’s 5-page or so chapters and lots of questions/exercises covers a broad range of topics such as finding your niche as an institution, signage, service, and more – lots of good things to think about.  One of my favorite exercises is a simple SWOT type analysis of listing 10 institutional strengths and weaknesses that the museum has some control over.  Last year, we took a new approach to this listing activity.  Instead of just checking the task off as a weekly book chapter done, we returned in the following weeks to consider how the strengths and weaknesses were addressed by our mission, vision and strategic plan.  We decided to return to the list regularly to see how we were doing.  Were we living into our strengths?  Were we addressing our weaknesses?  But in thinking about two blog posts above, I realize we also need to consider what our visitors think are our greatest strengths and weaknesses.  We will take up that challenge this fall.
  •  Flowing from the above,  as a staff, we spend a good bit of time discussing visitor wants and needs as they relate to our mission.  To that end, in 2011 we conducted an electronic survey of the nearly 2000 subscribers to our monthly e-newsletter, Chucalissa Anoachi.  Despite our staff discussions, the survey revealed several key points that we had never considered. First, 60% of the survey respondents wanted the Museum to develop more programming and activities in our 40 acres of exterior space consisting of prehistoric earthworks and wooded areas.  Second, by the same percentage, respondents wanted us to deliver more of our Museum content online.  Third, 40% of our respondents wanted to have volunteer opportunities they could do from their homes or online.  All three of these responses fall well within our institutional mission and are very doable.  However, none of the areas received priority attention until after we actually asked and heard directly from our visitors.
  • Our Museum is in dire need of updating and revising our 20 – 30-year-old main hall exhibits.  Over the past few years, we worked on a few exhibits as skills and resources were available.  However, we also knew that we needed to stand back and take a look at the total picture of the main hall project.  Based on the success of our e-newsletter survey, as a next step in the upgrade project, we carried out a series of focus groups and interviews with a broad range of our Museum’s constituencies and stakeholders.  We were pleasantly surprised at the results.  Over the next five years, as we work through the upgrade process, we will have greater confidence in meshing visitor needs and wants with our mission.

There are at least two different approaches to engage the visitor.  We can start from our mission and try to sell our vision to the public.  Alternatively, we can first seek out the public vision and mesh that vision with our mission.  As educators, museum professionals, and cultural heritage specialists, we need to abandon the mindset that “if we build it, they will come” if what we build is not relevant to the needs and wants of the public that we serve.

How do you make your institution relevant to the visitors you serve?

Recognizing the Role of Avocational Archaeologists

Carl Alexander circa 1960s sorting Poverty Point Objects

This week I am finishing up writing a long overdue article on surface collections from the Poverty Point site in northeast Louisiana that Louisiana Archaeology will publish this fall.  Poverty Point, nominated for a World Heritage Site listing, is one of the earliest examples of monumental architecture in the Americas.  The Louisiana Archaeology article will interpret the provenience of artifacts from surface collections on the six C-shaped concentric ridges that at their ends extend 1200 meters along the Bayou Macon.  The gist of the article is further demonstrating the socio-economic organizational complexity of the earthwork complex at 1800 B.C.  The material basis for the project comes from the surface collections of Carl Alexander, an avocational archaeologist who collected artifacts at Poverty Point over a 25-year period when the site remained in private hands prior to public ownership in the 1970s.  Alexander labeled the artifacts he collected with basic provenience information.  The article I am completing this week would not be possible without the more than 100,000 artifacts collected and provenienced by Alexander.

I discussed with the editor of Louisiana Archaeology that I wanted to highlight Carl’s role in the project more than in an acknowledgment at the end of the paper.  We agreed to place the paragraphs below in the article’s Introduction:

Before beginning the discussion of the artifact types, I wish to acknowledge the role of Carl Alexander in this article.  Simply put, were it not for his work at Poverty Point in the 1950s and 60s the data on which this article is based would not be available.  I don’t know Carl’s life details or his long-term passion for Poverty Point that kept him walking cotton fields year after year, picking up artifacts, and labeling where they came from by ridge and sector.  What I do know is that his persistence allows us today to provenience in excess of 100,000 artifacts he surface collected in order to interpret the organization of prehistoric activities across the ridge system at the site.  I believe the significance of Alexander’s contribution is equal to that of any other individual’s work or research project conducted at the site to date.  Were Mr. Alexander alive, I would list him as a co-author on this article.

I believe acknowledging the role of Alexander is of particular importance today.  In the era of television programs such as American Digger and Antique Roadshow where cultural heritage is first and foremost measured by economic value, Alexander reflects a different measure.  I found the same measure in conversation with Jerry Pankow, an avocational archaeologist who maintained meticulous field records and labeled artifacts from his salvage excavations at the Poverty Point culture Claiborne site in Hancock County Mississippi.  I find the same measure in my current employment as Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa with the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS).  Despite professional archaeological excavations in the late 1930s, the first published report on the Chucalissa site was written by an avocational archaeologist, William Beaudin.  He reported the first house excavation at the site conducted by MAGS, an avocational organization that formed in 1952 specifically based on interest in the Chucalissa site.  Today, MAGS continues to provide critical support for the operation of the C.H. Nash Museum.

Too often the role of nonprofessionals is selectively considered, focusing on poorly documented excavations, selling of artifacts, and other less than desirable activities.  For Alexander, I don’t know the details of how his collections were divided into the three components in the 1968, but I assume that there was some exchange of money.  I would not doubt that Alexander also sold other portions of his collections through time.  I suspect that is how the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa Oklahoma ended up with such a fine collection of Poverty Point materials labeled with Alexander’s ridge and sector designations.

I raise acknowledging avocational work in these introductory comments for two reasons.  First, I believe it is important to acknowledge those on whom one’s research is built.  Second, the three examples of avocational archaeology I note above are outstanding examples of making the discipline of archaeology relevant to the public who pay the salaries and fund the facilities that curate our nation’s archaeological collections.  Professionals must embrace these interests in a mutual collaboration, drawing on the strengths of all parties to further the preservation and presentation of our nation’s cultural heritage.  Carl Alexander’s dedication to and knowledge of the Poverty Point site and his willingness to share with the professional community continues to benefit us to this day, and beyond.

Today, many states in the U.S. have active programs where professional archaeologists work in concert with avocationals in training and research.    The Society for American Archaeology presents the Crabtree Award each year “to an outstanding avocational archaeologist  . . . (who) made significant contributions to advance understandings of local, regional, or national archaeology.”  As we move toward organizing events for National Archaeology Day on October 20th, we must be certain to include the contributions of the many Carl Alexanders to our discipline.

What positive avocational archaeology experiences do you have to share?

Here is a guest post I contributed over at former C.H. Nash Museum GA Katie Stringer’s blog. Katie is currently working on her PhD in Public History at Middle Tennessee State University. The guest post considers a model for participatory experiences in museums that another former C.H. Nash Museum GA, Natalye Tate and I, recently published in Collections (Vol. 7, Number 3).

Something Old, Something New

By: Dr. Robert Connolly

In a recent issue of the journal Collections (Vol. 7, Number 3, Summer 2011), Natalye Tate and I published an article titled “Volunteers and Collections as Viewed from the Museum Mission Statement.”  Our central thesis is that museums should not view volunteers as folks who do things for which there are not enough staff to complete. Rather, we argue that museums as public institutions should view volunteers as integral to their mission mandates to provide educational and participatory experiences.

We use a scheme presented by Nina Simon in her bookThe Participatory Museum to model Contributory, Collaborative and Co-creative experiences for museum volunteers.  The model is also applicable in the field of public history.

Contributory Experiences are those where the public has very limited input around specific projects that are controlled by the institution. The engagement is generally brief and limited in scope.  Oral history interviews…

View original post 692 more words

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

A Museum Engagement Niche

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education and Outreach at the Society for American Archaeology

This past week the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) held their Annual Conference here in Memphis, Tennessee.  The meeting provided a lot of great public education and community outreach discussions and resources.  Here are a few of those offerings:

On Wednesday, I attended the Project Archaeology Coordinators and Friends meeting.  Project Archaeology has created a series of curriculum guides that use archaeological inquiry to instruct on past and present cultures in social studies and science education.  A particularly intriguing discussion took place on Common Core Standards that are moving into the educational curriculum gap left by No Child Left Behind.  Project Archaeology curriculums are ideal for Common Core Standards that foster critical thinking skills.  The Project Archaeology webpage has information about training workshops for their curriculums.

On Saturday morning I attended the always enjoyable Archaeologyland hands-on activity.  The session consists of a series of both time-tested and new fun activities for youth that teach principles of archaeology research, preservation, and craft production.  The activities are easily transferred to the classroom or museum setting and require no prerequisite knowledge of archaeological methods.  The ArchaeologyLand link has pdf files for many of these innovative activities.

The Public Archaeology Interest Group (PAIG) of the SAA sponsored a symposium Public Archaeology in the Twenty-First Century.  In line with their goal to “serve all of those interested in public archaeology” the group intends to publish the session papers over the next several months in a blog form.  Given the success of this year’s symposium, at the PAIG meeting this past Saturday evening, members discussed for hosting an e-symposium/forum or possibly a poster session at next year’s SAA annual meeting.  Future session topics considered included the role of avocational archaeology and creating methods for evaluating the impact of public education programs.

The Public Education Committee (PEC) of the SAA also met and established several priorities for work in the coming year.  First, a subcommittee will begin working to update the Archaeology for the Public webpages.  Second, in a recent survey of the 50 state coordinators for public education in the SAA, respondents overwhelmingly expressed a desire to receive more regular communication on outreach and educational opportunities.  One tool the coordinators considered for disseminating such information was to revive the Archaeology and Public Education Newsletter.  Although popular, the Newsletter was discontinued several years ago because of increased production and mailing costs.  Today, newsletter distribution as pdf files is considered an economically feasible alternative.  The PEC also noted the need to review experiences with the 15-year old Boy Scout Archaeology Merit Badge and to consider recommending possible modifications to the Boy Scouts.

Finally, at the Annual Meeting the SAA formerly voted to support the Second Annual National Archaeology Day scheduled for October 20, 2012.  Initiated by the Archaeological Institute of America, and with five months to go before the actual event, the list of sponsoring organizations for 2012 is already double that of 2011.  Supporters include the National Park Service, thus allowing its 400 parks across the United States to feature special archaeology programs on October 20 through lectures, special exhibits, and other events.  National Archaeology Day is a perfect opportunity to highlight cultural heritage preservation issues.  You can register as a supporting organization and start planning to hold special activities.  The National Archaeology Day website has more information about the event.

Do you have an additional public education or outreach experience from the SAA meetings to share?

A Retired Collections Manager Turns Volunteer Extraordinaire

Ron Brister at the Pink Palace Family of Museums' Coon Creek Science Center

The C.H. Nash Museum benefits from a host of volunteers who bring their diversity of skills to Chucalissa.  Perhaps no one exemplifies the spirit of volunteerism more than the President of the Friends of Chucalissa, Ron Brister.  Ron not only volunteers at Chucalissa two mornings per week and assists with all of our special events, after 37 years as Collections Manager at Memphis’ Pink Palace, he brings an incredible amount of experience as well.  Below, in this week’s guest column, Ron talks a bit about what got him interested in archaeology, museums, and offers some advice on volunteerism today.

I had a fairly normal middle class childhood in Memphis. Both my parents were teachers so my two brothers and I grew up in a house full of books and magazines. My father taught history and loved philosophy so we were exposed to the past from our earliest years. Summer vacations were planned around historical sites. My maternal grandparents reinforced this with their tales of late 19th and early 20th century life in an isolated log farm-house without electricity or plumbing. My great-grandmother was born in 1852 in a covered wagon on the trip from Virginia to West Tennessee. History doesn’t get much better than that!

My interest in archaeology developed from visiting Chucalissa Indian Town, a local reconstructed prehistoric Indian village, during middle school. Three friends and I formed the Sherwood Junior High Archaeology Club. We went on field trips to Chucalissa and attended a lecture by the Chucalissa archaeologist at another local museum. We read what little there was available in the school and public libraries. Scout hikes over Civil War battlefields awakened our interest in artifacts and how they can be used to interpret the past. We didn’t last long as an organization, but our individual passion for archaeology continued.

College opened a vast new world of to me. As a sophomore history major, I took two summer archaeology field school and two museum operation classes for fun. It was fascinating – a scientific detective story. Archaeology was the only discipline that incorporated my favorite subjects of biology, geology, and history. I was hooked. Then came one of those little quirks that make life so interesting. A work-study position came open at Chucalissa and I was hired! I was actually being paid to work in an archaeology lab instead of a department store. Life was good. I added anthropology to my geology minor earning a BS in history and MA in Anthropology from the University of Memphis. My academic specialties are archaeology, paleontology, history of 19th and 20th century medical, agricultural, and domestic technology, and local history. I have remained in archaeology and museum work ever since.  Personally, I love Mozart and alien/giant insect movies.

The Friends of Chucalissa was created to counter an attempt by the university to close Chucalissa in the 1990s. We raised over $50,000 for the museum and served as a vocal advocate of the value of Chucalissa to the University and the community. A former Memphis city official once remarked to me that citizen advocacy groups are a power influence to politicians, especially when they can help pay for the issues they support. The Friends of Chucalissa is not the greatest fund raising group in the world, but we are successful at rallying public support. In addition to advocacy and fund raising, volunteer support groups strengthen an institution by representing the community.

I have been heavily involved in museum volunteer work since retiring four years ago. I do it to remain intellectually active, keep physically busy, and to serve my community. I offer a set of museum governance, collections management, education development, and exhibits design skills that many small museums desperately need but can’t afford. When I began museum work 40 years ago, volunteers, mostly college educated housewives, were plentiful. Our changing economy has forced many in that volunteer pool to go to work. Today’s volunteers are families with children, retired folks, and some stay at home moms. The volunteers are as dedicated and good as ever, but fewer in number.

My advice to a volunteer coordinator:

  • make the volunteer feel like a valued part of the museum staff
  • provide solid basic museum and subject matter training, a comprehensive manual, good communication, and continuing education through lectures, workshops, and visits to other museums
  • volunteers want to feel needed and appreciated. Have meaningful projects for them and thank them sincerely and often. Volunteers enjoy physical tokens of appreciation like a plaque, pin, or certificate.
  • retired people and students are a good source of volunteers. They are already interested in the subject and want to help
  • scouts and other community service organizations are excellent sources of reliable labor.

My advice to a new volunteer:

  • to be patient and keep a sense of humor because we’re making up a lot of this as we go along
  • constant change in the number of volunteers and their skill sets requires both supervisors and volunteers to be flexible
  • be sure to communicate with your supervisor if you have a problem. She can’t fix what she doesn’t know about. Everyone is working toward the same goal.
  • Don’t badger the supervisor with “what do you want me to do now?” Just let her know that you have finished and she will be with you as soon as possible. Supervisors often have lots of folks to oversee.

 Contact Ron at bristerr@bellsouth.net

Community Service & Learning in Musuems

This past Saturday at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa 35 undergraduates from the University of Memphis participated in our monthly Volunteer Day.  The students were part of a Service on Saturday group project organized out of the University. Typical projects include activities like neighborhood clean-ups, urban garden projects, and assisting in the assembly and staffing of the Smithsonian Institution’s The Way We Worked exhibit at a local community center.  As participants in the University’s Emerging Leader Program, the students perform community service hours each semester.  Yesterday at Chucalissa, they worked on our repository reinventory, digital photography project, and helped transfer over two tons of stone ground cover to our in process Traditional Medicinal Plant Sanctuary.  The students supplemented the 20 volunteers who participated in our regular Volunteer Day activities.

Two weeks before 25 members of the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS) spent four hours at the C.H. Nash Museum assisting with our  repository inventory project.  Six MAGS members returned this Saturday to participate again.  Mike and Sherri Baldwin lent their artistic skills to repainting the 40-year-old model trees in our diorama display.

In late January 45 visiting students from the Illinois State University spent the day at Chucalissa as part of a two-week Community Service Learning class traveling through the Southeast.  After a site tour and discussion of our Museum’s commitment to community engagement, the students spent the rest of the day on a variety of service projects at Chucalissa.

From mid-March to mid-April, we will host an 10 person AmeriCorps project.  The crew will start by working on trail maintenance at the T.O. Fuller State Park.  Then the AmeriCorps crew will work with archaeologists and community members on preliminary archaeological investigations of the 1930s era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp located near Chucalissa at T.O. Fuller State Park.  The CCC project is particularly significant.  The AmeriCorps of today are the legacy of the CCC, who in the 1930s “discovered” the prehistoric earthworks and artifacts that became known as the Chucalissa site.  The discovery came while the CCC worked to construct a Jim Crow era swimming pool for the African-American community of Memphis.

All of the above activities can be categorized as community service or community service learning projects.  The National Service Learning Clearing House notes a distinction between the two activities: “If school students collect trash out of an urban streambed, they are providing a valued service to the community as volunteers. If school students collect trash from an urban streambed, analyze their findings to determine the possible sources of pollution, and share the results with residents of the neighborhood, they are engaging in service-learning” (citation here).

There is a good bit of gray area between the two types of service activities.  One might argue that the students yesterday who were spreading stone ground cover for the Traditional Plant Sanctuary were only “providing a valued service to the community” as they did not “analyze their findings” etc.  In our museum settings today, we must provide the types of service opportunities that can bridge fully into learning projects.  This is a key ingredient to all of our volunteer/service opportunities at Chucalissa.  Using the parlance of Simon’s Participatory Museum, I have posted before on the distinctions of contributory, collaborative and co-creative visitor and volunteer experiences.  Seemingly, the more complex the level of engagement for the participant, ultimately, the more complete the stakeholder development.  I am not convinced that is true.  I don’t see the contributory, collaborative and co-creative experiences as hierarchical.  Rather the range is different.  The same is true for community service and community service learning experiences.  As we strive to be relevant institutions to the public that we serve, we must also be keenly aware and ready to nurture these relationships.  A key understanding is that as public institutions, museums must truly serve the public.  With incredible regularity I repeat “The only reason we exist as a museum is because of the visitor.  Without them, we would function only as a repository or research station.”  In the same way, as public institutions, the public has a responsibility to use, engage with, and advocate for museums.  A reciprocal relationship is the foundation for sustainable institutions into the future.

Helpful resources on this subject include:

What are your experiences with service and service learning activities?

Thanksgiving for Kent Vickery – Public Archaeologist

This Thursday is the Thanksgiving Holiday in the United States.  Appropriately, I was thinking about a thanksgiving to an individual who influenced my approach to public archaeology – Dr. Kent Vickery, my M.A. program advisor at the University of Cincinnati.  He passed away this June, just a few years into his Colorado retirement.

Dr. Vickery and I were not always on the best of terms.  He was a serious taskmaster where no research project ever seemed completed.  In his classes, he started to lecture when he walked in the door and did not stop until the bell rang.  No pictures, all words.  One year, running behind in his lectures, he passed out 25 pages of typed notes the last day of class that would be on the final exam.  Our classroom styles are quite different.

But when it came to applying archaeology outside the lecture hall, he proved a key mentor for the  practices I try to use today:

  • His door was always open to students.  There are many archaeologists who published more than Kent, and many a good bit less, but Dr. Vickery clearly ranked in the upper 5% of professors committed to their students.  He always had time for a discussion or to offer advice. He was a walking bibliographic reference on all things related to his fields of research.
  • Outside of the classroom, Kent believed in hands-on learning.  He provided students the materials to take on a range of laboratory analysis projects.  Of importance, he also encouraged his students to present their findings at professional meetings and to publish their results.  He worked hard up until his retirement to organize and publish the field work he had done over the years.
  • Kent promoted his students in the profession.  In conversation, he was more likely to talk about the important work of his students than of his own.  He could spill a tremendous amount of red ink over any paper forcing the student to defend their assertions.  We butted heads quite a bit over my M.A. Thesis.  I was shocked to find that he had written a lengthy proposal and successfully had my M.A. Thesis nominated as one of only two from the University of Cincinnati for the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools Distinguished Thesis Award.  He didn’t ask me if I wanted my thesis nominated, he just did it.
  • Whether through work with Boy Scouts or avocational archaeologists Kent expended an incredible amount his time taking archaeology from the academy to the public.  He was a standard fixture at the avocational organization Central Ohio Valley Archaeological Society meetings.  Every Tuesday night in his lab an assemblage of students, professionals, and avocationals worked late in the evening on a diverse set of projects.
Kent and I kept up over the years.  The last time he “put the bite on me” was to create a composite map for the hundreds of features recorded from excavations at the State Line site.  I regularly got Christmas cards from he and Karen, including last year.

I don’t know that Kent would have considered himself a Public or Applied Archaeologist.  I have to believe that if he were starting out in the business today, he would fall right in with the best of community outreach.  Immediately after his death there was a flurry of emails among his former students and friends.  The common thread in those comments was that Kent’s fingerprints were all over the archaeology of the Greater Cincinnati area and that he had trained most of the archaeologists working in the region today.  These practitioners include museum professionals, leaders in the field of cultural resource management, and more than a few professorial types.  His former students that shared their thoughts of Kent at his passing are people today committed to public outreach in both museums and archaeology, demonstrating, that the apple does not fall too far from the tree.

Thanks Kent.

The Public in Public Museums

Where is the public in our publicly owned museums?  I have pondered this over the past couple of years in my capacity as the Director at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  Here are some thoughts:

  • At Chucalissa, we host several internships each semester of both the undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Memphis (UM).  We strive to match an intern’s interest with the museum’s needs.  Student feedback suggests we are successful in this effort.  We view the Museum as a classroom, laboratory, or experimental station for our interns.
  • Because of my training as an archaeologist and my place on the UM Museum Studies faculty, I often give the introductory presentation to visiting college age school groups.  Over the past several weeks we had several UM “Fresh Connections” freshman undergraduate class visits.  I emphasized to these students that the Chucalissa Museum is their Museum both as UM students and as a public institution supported by their tax dollars.  I explain the intern, volunteer, and other opportunities available to students during their four years of study at the University.
  • In a recent Museum Practices graduate seminar, we discussed visitors, volunteers, and interns – the public’s physical presence at museums.  I showed a training video we made for our new Graduate Assistants that explores how we view volunteers at Chucalissa.  As I previously posted, we aim to engage volunteers because doing so is our mission and less because we have tasks that our regular staff cannot complete.
  • We are embarking on a project to rework the 20 exhibit cases in the main hall of our museum.  Our approach responds in part to Robert Janes asking in Museums in a Troubled World ” . . . if museums did not exist, would we reinvent them and what would they look like?  Further, if the museum were to be reinvented what would be the public’s role in the reinvented institution” (p.14).  Mallory Bader, a graduate assistant at the Museum, will interview key stakeholders, conduct focus groups with teachers, community leaders, students, and others, and coördinate tracking and visitor surveys as a means for obtaining public input into our reimagined main hall.
  • Over the past year, I posted several items on the public involvement in our African-American Cultural Heritage exhibit.
In their reading journal for last week’s Museum Practices seminar, one student wrote they found the participatory museum articles interesting but perhaps overly idealistic.  The student posed the question – what if it does not work?  Specifically – what if the students who created the African-American Cultural Heritage exhibit at Chucalissa produced something that simply could not work?  What is the impact of the youth working on a project that might never see the light of day? A good question that cannot be answered with “But it did.”  I believe that the answer is found, at least in large part, in this graphic from a post of last year.  I am struck that a key role that museum professionals play is to help the public to take on the ownership responsibility of their institutions.  That process is messy, consumes a great deal of time and energy, but ultimately is key to the mission of public museum and the ability of those institutions to achieve long-term sustainability.
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