Plastic for the People: Printing the Past and Engaging the Public
By Bernard K. Means, Director, Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University In the Virtual…
Last week, Melissa Timo’s excellent blog discussed how the second annual celebration of National Archaeology Day is taking place at a time when public education and outreach in archaeology is more important than ever before. In the current fiscal climate, budget cuts have dealt harsh blows to historic preservation agencies, including the well-publicized recent closing of the Georgia State Archives and cuts to Parks Canada. At the same time, there has been a great deal of discussion within the archaeological community regarding the appropriate response(s) to several artifacts-for-profit themed television shows (on the SHA Blog, it has been discussed many times). Now more than ever, it is important to think critically about how we are engaging the public and to what end.
Archaeology days, in all their various permutations, have been a main point-of-contact between archaeologists and the general public. As an archaeologist/educator/mom, I have taken my family to several archaeology-themed public events; and—as a mom—I am totally thrilled when I see my girls really excited and interested in hands-on educational activities. As an educator and archaeologist, I tend to look a little more critically at the exhibits presented and the objectives of the activities. This, in addition to my husband’s stated impression that many presenters often seem more focused on informing other archaeologists about their work, has recently led me to consider the overall objective of public archaeology events.
In discussing this blog with my husband—my ‘representative sample’ of the general public—he said it was his impression that, although archaeologists clearly are passionate about their work and are trying to communicate their discoveries, they often leave out portions that would make it accessible to the public. I think it’s likely that my husband’s impressions from a variety of public archaeology day events represent the message unintentionally being sent to the majority of the general public. This is something we should seriously consider, especially since many of these public education events take place at major tourist sites or museum facilities. What terrific venues and terrific opportunities to inform a large audience about the importance of context, the precision of the work we do, the science of archaeology!
It seems, with the prevalence of television shows glorifying the more lucrative aspects of antiquities and artifacts, we should be trying to communicate some important messages to the general public, including an emphasis on the importance of preserving context through the use of appropriate scientific methodology and the knowledge that can be gained from everyday “garbage”—the kinds of artifacts, like ceramic sherds or faunal remains, that most for-profit shows would disregard completely. At every public archaeology event I’ve attended, there have been lots of hands-on activities meant to engage kids and excite them about archaeology—but are we engaging and educating the adults in equal fashion? I’m not sure we as professionals give a great deal of thought to the outcomes of our programs, especially in regards to what key ‘take away’ points are being communicated to adults. Perhaps the main questions we should be asking are: what should the overall message of a public archaeology day be? What do we want the public to learn? It is easy to engage kids in excavation activities, but how are we engaging the adult participants?
As an Educator for the Museum of the Grand Prairie here in Mahomet, Illinois, I had an opportunity recently to implement some of these ideas. I was asked to coordinate archaeology activities for our annual Prairie Stories fall event, which in this case meant tying the activities to the Museum’s mission of interpreting the natural and cultural history of Champaign County and East Central Illinois.
We used archaeology activities in part to discuss with our audience how we use archaeology to learn about people who have lived in our region in the past. Some colleagues from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) kindly leant their assistance, as well, and with their help we were able to present quite a comprehensive picture of archaeological methodology.
We included several hands-on activities aimed at a young audience, including an excavation activity where children could record their “finds” and a hugely popular “washing artifacts” activity.
However, many of the posters and displays at other stations were meant to engage and inform adults, as well. A seed-sorting activity which included corn, pumpkin, bean, and sunflower seeds with accompanying displays gave adults an opportunity to read and learn about archaeobotany while their children identified and categorized seeds that might have been used by local indigenous peoples. Flintknapping and faunal stations displaying how indigenous groups in the region used natural resources provoked discussion about experimental archaeology, while an activity allowing the general public to try an atlatl (spear-throwing tool) allowed adults as well as older kids an opportunity for some hands-on learning.
A mending activity also engaged both adults and children, while offering an opportunity to discuss the importance of context and the value of commonplace artifacts in learning about their past owners’ everyday lives, while an excellent display from ISAS used stacking trays to illustrate stratigraphy, showing various occupation levels from the Archaic Period through the present day.
Overall, I think we worked hard to engage both adults and children about what we do as archaeologists, and why our work is important. I think most people enjoyed themselves; it is my hope that they also left thinking about the science of archaeology and the careful precision with which we do our work. In planning the archaeological portion of the event, I wish I’d started with more specific outcomes in mind. I would have liked to provide information for the public on how they can get involved in archaeology locally and how to report a find. To this end, I think next year’s event should include representatives from the Illinois Association for the Advancement of Archaeology, an association of both professional and avocational archaeologists, to spread the word about how interested citizen-scientists can learn about and participate in local archaeological activities.
Reflecting on this activity has also allowed me to identify some goals in working towards future public archaeology events. These overall goals include clearly stated objectives like: 1) explaining how participants can get involved in local archaeology, 2) identifying steps private landowners should take if artifacts are found, and 3) educating participants about the scientific methodology archaeologists use to preserve information and context. A holistic presentation meant to tie together the individual displays might help to give context to individual hands-on activities and presentations, as well.
What are your thoughts? How has your organization approached public education and outreach events? Do you think it’s important to identify learning objectives for the general public? Please let me know your ideas in the comments below!