Sharing the Global Shipwreck

At least two or three times a year I get an email or a phone call from television production companies that are thinking about putting TV shows together that feature underwater archaeology.  My first reaction is usually positive because in an age where there are numerous shows about digging for gold or finding treasure in abandoned storage rooms or attics it would be good to have ethical archaeology alternatives out there for the public to view.  Inevitably though the majority of folks that contact me ask questions like, “Can you guarantee we’ll find a very historically significant unknown shipwreck within the next three weeks?” or  “what do you think about a show where each week we throw out one of the graduate student underwater archaeologists, you know get some real tension going? ”  (Actually, some of my old professors might have liked that one.)  I usually reply with something like, “um…it doesn’t really work that way.”  Most times I don’t hear from them again for another year but it does remind me that for the mass TV audience these are the folks that drive many of the shows we see out there.  There have been some very good programs produced in the last few years but sadly they are few and far between.   One major reason is the cost of producing programs for television broadcast.  Most of us have turned to the Internet instead to assist us with the all important task of public outreach.

It’s really only been less than ten years that underwater archaeology as a field has made wide use of the Internet.  Within that time period, however, numerous sites have popped up through university department homepages, museums, and nonprofit organizations.   There are online project journals, personal research blogs, exhibits, digital posters, videos, live broadcasts and ubiquitous Facebook pages.  One might wonder if we have reached the limits of what we can do on the web.  An Internet industry trend website estimated that as of August 2011 there were over one billion websites on the web.  It’s reasonable to wonder if throwing up yet another website is like adding a bucket of water to the cyber ocean. To which I would reply… maybe.  What is a digitally minded underwater archaeologist to do?   I say “maybe” because it depends on how we go about putting our materials online.   Going forward I believe we need to look to the past.

In November 2011 I had the good fortune to present a paper at the first ever Asia-Pacific  Underwater Cultural Heritage Conference in Manila, the Philippines.  Even as a Great Lakes colonial maritime historian and underwater archaeologist I felt I shared research interests with this incredible collection of cultural heritage mangagers from throughout the Asia-Pacific region.  Their homelands had developed the cultures that contributed to a landscape of maritime trade that reached all the way into the eighteenth century Great Lakes with shipments of porcelains, vermillion, teas and opiates. In my talk I noted that the wrecked ships that once participated in that world wide trade network travel again virtually over a digital network.  They still link cultures that live beyond the water’s edge at each end of the voyage.  The Chinese porcelain artisan who shipped his goods to the coast was connected to the British officer at Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario in North America even though they would never meet or travel to each other’s home.  Today students in Western Australia read about ships that wrecked off St. Augustine, Florida and Japanese museum staff email graduate students in eastern North Carolina to exchange information.  Because the vessels continue to draw people together albeit for educational rather than commercial reasons, every shipwreck becomes a global shipwreck.

By continuing to look at past trade networks we can find ways to overcome the isolation our websites might experience out in the cyber ocean. For instance, at times historic vessels participated in cooperative agreements and collaborative projects with other members of the merchant community. Some ship owners pooled their risk through marine insurance companies.  Underwater archaeologists working on different sites could consider leveraging the connections that exist between their projects online to increase visibility.  While collaborative agreements might sound like an obvious way to offset the high costs of online presentations, it is not an option that necessarily comes to mind for some archaeologists.  Indeed a small survey conducted by the Museum of Underwater Archaeology (MUA) showed that when asked what the best use of the Internet might be for the field, only thirteen percent of underwater archaeologists cited “collaboration” as opposed to the general public who mentioned it forty percent of the time. While many archaeologists are open to sharing their databases online, and that is a good first step, much more can be done to move from passive to active collaborative projects.  One example might be to create joint pages between multiple independent organizations that are topically linked.  For instance the MUA is working on a project wherein information on and images of birchbark canoes stored in numerous museums around the Great Lakes will be featured in an online exhibit.  It will draw attention to all of the participating institutions and show how they are all connected and possibly encourage the public to visit and support the actual sites themselves.

In the future the most cost effective way to increase visibility online and thus assist with public outreach efforts in underwater archaeology might not involve any “new” technology at all but rather explore new ways to use what already exists.  The key is to share as much information with the public and each other as possible using tools that are available today.  One of the earliest pioneers in digital humanities was the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.  Founded in 1994 the Rosenzweig Center has not only gathered collections of archival material for researchers to view online but has also created tools for data presentation that are freely available.  The Asia-Pacific Underwater Cultural Heritage Conference, in partnership with the MUA, used the Omeka web presentation tool developed by the Rosenzweig Center to make every paper presented at the conference freely available online.  This was an important goal for the conference organizers as many of the attendees came from countries with limited resources.  If we want to differentiate what we do from treasure hunters in the public’s eye then, when we have the means, we need to develop presentation and outreach models that clearly set us apart as a field, make the most of limited resources, and reach the widest possible audience.

We are living in the midst of a data exchange revolution.  I take it as a good sign that the TV producers I mentioned earlier can find underwater archaeologists to talk to far easier than they probably could have in the past.  So many good projects are now available online, which is a great trend, but as we add our webpages to the cyber ocean we must not let them get lost at sea.   Technologies old and new can help us build collaborative connections that can teach everyone about the global shipwreck.

See all the posts for Tech Week, focusing on public archaeology and Underwater Archaeology!