Living History Museums, Part 1: An Introduction

My brother and I were exposed to history, museums, and living history museums early on in our childhood; it shouldn’t be any kind of surprise that I ended up as an archaeologist, and he, a Medieval history scholar.  I loved reading about the past and viewing artifacts of daily life.  My family often visited the Ohio Village, which is a reconstructed town presenting daily life during the Civil War.  As soon as I turned thirteen years old, I was old enough to volunteer at the Ohio Village alone—and I jumped at that opportunity.  I had a wonderful period costume, hoop skirt and bonnet included, and I would demonstrate different activities in a third-person interpretation, as well as provide information about all kinds of facts about the Civil War and how people lived through it.  When I got a little bit older, I was the school teacher, the village feminist, a pharmacist’s daughter, a German barrel maker’s grand-daughter, presenting in both the first and third person.  I loved it!  This love of educating the public about the past continued into college, where I studied the background research, interpretation type, archaeology, and historiography of three early American living history museums: Jamestown Settlement, St. Mary’s City, and Plimoth Plantation.  So, why living history museums?  What makes this museum format special?

Historical facts need a certain level of interpretation to be comprehensible in a modern context.  Outside of the archivist, archaeologist, and historian, there are few who venture into the archives or archaeological sites.  To reach a wider audience, these facts can be weaved into popular historical fiction novels or epic films.  There are historical documentaries about popular periods of history such as the Civil War or World War II.  Modern society receives much of its information via visual media, from the news to the History Channel.  Therefore, it makes sense that if historians and museum curators wanted to draw in the public they would try to present historical information that is accessible and participatory.  Unlike docudramas and documentaries, as well as history exhibits, visitors to living history museums must become part of the presentation of the past.  One cannot simply watch: there are various smells, demonstrations, with history talking back at the visitor at museums like Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg.  The visitor is experiencing heritage!

There is space at this type of museum for both the public and scholars to engage in the past.  For scholars, it can be a space for experimental archaeology and public outreach.  For the public, which is used to visual stimulation (i.e. television), a three-dimensional reconstruction of an archaeological site allows for greater interaction, and, consequently, a better understanding of the past; visitors tend to remember what they see and touch, rather than what they read.  Not only are living history museums interactive and informative, the public can also relate the present to the portrayed past.  Women today can note how women in Plimoth Plantation fit into the social hierarchy, realizing how far society has progressed and where there is still room for improvement.   So, what does every living history museum need to do get started? First, there must be a commitment to the Truth (yes, with a capital ‘T’) and a commitment to presenting that truth to the public.  There must also be a large reserve of resources, especially scholarly resources and well-trained interpreters, to re-create the environment of the settlement.  And, most of all, the museum must make sure that a compelling narrative is being told.

[Keep an eye out for ‘Living Museums, Part 2: A Brief History’]

Public Archaeology Education/Outreach

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Throughout graduate school, my committee chair would constantly ask me, ‘so what? why does this matter?’ about my thesis, which can be pretty overwhelming when you just want to finish your masters. But I can see what he was trying to do. What’s the point of doing tons of research and writing about some archaeological topic if it has absolutely no greater relevance beyond the fact you felt like writing about, oh say, microwear analysis of scrapers. It’s easier to explain the importance of some random topic in archaeology to other archaeologists–we’re a rather nerdy group afterall–but, so what? What relevance does archaeology have outside of our profession? Why should anyone care? That’s where public archaeology education comes in, which tries to provide an answer to the question of archaeology’s relevance in today’s society.

The world is filled with fascinating archaeological sites and past cultures. There is archaeology everywhere! If there were people, then there’s likely some trace left of their existence. A lot of people don’t realize how much history surrounds them and that is why public outreach and education is so important. Looting and vandalism of an archaeological or historic site includes both intentional and inadvertent damage, such as writing over rock art, collecting artifacts, walking on pueblo walls, and pot hunting. Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to visit archaeological sites in person, making it difficult to relate the vulnerability of the ancient and historic structures and artifacts. Furthermore, TV shows and movies, from Ancient Aliens to Indiana Jones, are good indicators that people are interested in the past, which is great, but those types of shows and movies are a bit misleading. Aliens didn’t build the pyramids and Indiana Jones is hardly the epitome of a good archaeologist. But at least they provide a place to start.

The National Historic Preservation Act, one of the major cultural resource management laws in archaeology,   states in Section 1(b)(2), “the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people” (United States Congress 1966:1). It continues with “the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.” It is in the interest of everyone, not just historians or archaeologists to preserve the past.

By sharing information about the unique prehistory and/or history of a place, people may gain a better appreciation for what we archaeologists do and why it’s so important to record, preserve and protect traces of the past. It’s not only the job of educators but of all archaeologists to provide insight into our profession and into the subjects we study. We have a responsibility to share our experience and passion about the past to anyone and everyone who is willing to listen. And we can do that through different kinds of public archaeology education outreach. Public archaeology education and outreach can take many forms. Something so simple as volunteering at an Archaeology Day program or going into a classroom to teach kids can have a huge impact. Then there are online resources, teaching materials, podcasts, and blogs galore. There are also numerous organizations, private, non-profit, state-run, federal, and so on that provide unique opportunities for adults and kids, from site steward programs to summer camps.

Examples of Public Education at Work

  • The Society of American Archaeology and the Archaeological Institute of America works with museums, educators, archaeologists to create resources and programs.
  • The Public Education Committee for the Society for American Archaeology created the Network of State and Provincial Archaeology Education Coordinators, to ensure every state has someone who can provide answers to any inquiry about archaeology.
  • Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, CO: provides field schools and day programs for kids and adults.
  • The Florida Public Archaeology Network: promote and facilitate the conservation, study and public understanding of Florida’s archaeological heritage.
  • Living History Museums like Colonial Williamsburg, Plimoth Plantation, Jamestowne, and St. Mary’s City that bring the past to life through reconstructions of buildings and activities based on the archaeological record .
  • The National Park Service provides interpert rangers that educate the public at interpretive sites, like Mesa Verde and Pecos National Historic Park.
  • There are programs run by government agencies, like the Forest Service Passport in Time program. This program educates volunteers on the practice of archaeology and then sets the volunteers to work on recording archaeological sites, stabilizing ruins, and sorting information on historic properties.

There are many wonderful programs endeavoring to teach the public the importance of learning, preserving, and protecting the past, but there’s always more that can be done. I think it is every individual archaeologist’s duty to do some kind of outreach.

Check out the ARCH365 Podcast episode I made on this subject:

Arch365 2017

 

Bone of Contention: Episode 4 (October 14,2016)

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In this episode, we explore the study of human remains with an emphasis on treating every individual with respect and care. Two bioarchaeologists share their experiences of working with human remains and how to best treat the individuals. Three archaeologists share their collective experiences of excavating a cemetery in New Jersey. Please note that all of the stories recorded were shared by professionals in the field who work within CRM law; this podcast does not endorse the disturbance of burials/human remains without thorough consultation, working within CRM law, and extreme care.

What is archaeology? The Elevator Scenario

In what seemed a cruel exercise in futility at the time, at the beginning of my first semester of graduate school my professor gave all of the students the following scenario: imagine you’re in an elevator with a lawyer who has no clue what an archaeologist does and they don’t really care either; in 150 words, describe ‘what is’ archaeology without using any jargon. My professor called it a ‘thought experiment;’ I called it torture. No jargon? We couldn’t use words like ‘artifact’ or ‘culture.’ Since I couldn’t just write ‘we study dead people’s stuff,’ it took a couple of tries.

Here’s what I came up with (ugh, reading anything from graduate school makes me shudder):

“Archaeologists explore the past through artifacts, which include the art, buildings, and any other items made and left behind by humans. As a processual-plus archaeologist, I study past societies though various artifacts, like Egyptian mummies, and ask scientific questions to understand a society. Popular archaeological areas, such as Mesa Verde or Angkor Wat, offer a spectacular window into the lives of people from thousands of years ago. A physical reminder of the past allows the public to engage history and archaeology firsthand, sometimes without even realizing. Opportunities then rise for archaeologists to draw on already popular archaeological and recreational areas and further connect the public with the past. Educational programs created and implemented by archaeologists aid the public in understanding why preserving history matters. Allowing the public, particularly children, to look at and touch artifacts through educational programs, enable people to fully engage archaeology.”

Hardly a masterpiece. My professor absolutely hated it and I had to re-write the darn thing several times. But I now better understand what my professor was trying to do. He was trying to get each of us out of our own little box in order to relate archaeology to more than just other archaeologists. It’s easy to say, ‘I recently recorded a polychrome sherd and projectile point dating to the Pueblo III period.’ It’s far harder to break that down into laymen’s terms without inadvertently dumbing down the information. Beyond explaining what sherds and projectile points are, you’ll need to get into why you were recording those artifacts (what’s an artifact?!) in the first place, leading into a discussion of cultural resource management, law, and the necessity of protecting and preserving the past. Phew.

Discussing archaeology with a larger audience is difficult but absolutely necessary. The public isn’t going to learn about archaeology through osmosis. It takes practice. I know we’re busy. There are always courses to teach, places to survey, sites to dig, and reports to write, but we also have an obligation to educate the public in some way. Going into classrooms to give presentations, blogging, videos, lectures—there are many ways to engage the public. I love teaching kids using sandboxes full of artifacts and giving presentations to the public. My elevator scenario has changed over the years, but I hope it’s improved.

Women in Archaeology Podcast: BACK TO GRAD SCHOOL – EPISODE 11 (October 16, 2016)

(Click here for link)

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I think we did a great job going into the pros and cons of potentially going back to school.  Give it a listen!

Episode Summary: Today the panel discusses getting back into the grove of grad-school, especially after taking a break. They discuss reasons to delay going into grad-school, how to pay for it when you do go back, how to survive school/life balance, and what to do with your degree once you get out.