Ten Take-Aways from SHA Public Day 2013

Every year on the last Saturday of the Society’s annual meeting we open our doors to the public, in one form or another.  Since the 1996 annual meeting in Cincinnati some Public Days have taken place at historical sites, museums, or ballroom of the conference venue.  For the 2013 Public Day the University of Leicester opened its student union, lecture hall, and common grounds for the benefit of the community.  And come they did!  Hundreds of people swarmed in the disco-turned-expo hall on two floors—people upstairs in period dress and info tables, activities for all ages celebrating all the senses down below—while others participated in a metal detector demonstration on the lawn, and others still attended lectures in the auditorium.

As SHA’s Public Education and Information Committee (PEIC) chair, I feel a duty to attend and support the local chairs. But let’s be honest, I also attend to beg/borrow/steal outreach ideas.  It was painful to narrow to a manageable amount, but here are my top ten take-aways:

  1.  Clanging of the coins.  The activity that demanded the most attention was the percussive minting of a Richard III coin.  I heard banging across the expo room and fought against the current to find the origin: people invited to pound etched stamps together using a sledge hammer and make their own Richard III coin.  Brilliant!  I often shy away from coins at outreach events, afraid I may inspire harmful habits to root out coins on archaeological sites.  But this activity focused instead on the symbolism of the coin.  It also satisfied one of the hardest customer wants, the desire of the public to take something home.  The aluminum blank inserted between the engraved steel plates was a 2013 artifact okay to take home.  They let me take home three!  I came home and did a bit of research.  If you want to adapt this activity to coinage found near you, get in touch with an engraver and have them design two steel plates for your event.
  2. Planview tiles.  I took two ideas from the English Heritage table.  First was the birdseye planview of Stonehenge affixed on square tiles.  The focus of the site shifted from the megalithic center to the pathways and greater landscape.  I can think of a whole host of sites in my area that can be adapted to this activity.
  3. Stereoscopes.  I’m no stranger to stereoscopes at historic sites, the difference at the English Heritage table was the scale of the scope.  The viewer was huge and the 3-dimensional image enlarged.  Like the companion tile activity, I can image the elevation view of the same sites being really useful.  I’m not sure where they ordered theirs from, but I found something similar, Geoscope Pro on the ASCS webpage.
  4. Touch tables.  Ten years ago we had artifacts on the table for the public to touch.  The pendulum has swung to the other extreme, for our events at least, where we rely on replicas and put original artifacts out in cases behind glass.  There was no end to the artifacts you could touch: Roman tiles, Stafforshire pottery sherds, lithics and animal bones.  While many artifacts require careful handling and are fragile, many are victims of lost provenience and can stand up to public affection.  I’m inspired to get more creative about packaging objexts the public can touch- it gives them that immediate, personal connection to the past.  A powerful tool too often ignored. 
  5. Music to my ears.  Throughout the day musicians played on the front stage.  The music spanned several different eras and types of instruments.  As archaeologists we often think of the past as something people can see or maybe touch, but it was delightful to my ears to hear music brought to life centuries later through living musicians today.
  6. Let them eat cake!  On a similar sensory theme, one table featured chronology of different foods the public could taste.  Health code in the states may not allow for such a station, but it was a great activity to connect food and foodways with the different cultures over time that consumed them. 
  7. Toys!  I never thought to invite toy merchants to an event, but it makes sense for the little ones that they would want an appropriate souvenir to take home.  These Play Mobile figures are inexpensive and allowed some to carry the magic home.
  8. Books!  Beyond merchandizing for kids, several tables offered books, posters, and resources for adults.  Too often I rely on a site’s gift shop or book store to provide economic opportunities to support the vendors.  I really liked the idea the if certain tables encouraged you to learn more, you could immediately act on that impulse and take a book home that very day.
  9. Dressing the part.  While some public days are specific to a certain time or site, in Leicester any time period was fair game: Roman, Plantagenets, Elizabethan, even up to WWII.  To visually survey the expo hall and see such a range of first person interpreters or re-enactors was also very inspiring.  There was a Richard III near the stage, a man in armor near the entrance, a whole corridor of WWII soldiers.  And it extended to the children’s area where they could play dress up across different time periods.  As an archaeologist at outreach events I feel living history is often far afield from what I’m trying to do.  But it was marvelous to see walking, talking representations of the time period and no doubt drew the audience further into the expo fray.  The hall of kids activities also featured a dress up station that was busy every time I walked by.
  10. Activities, Activities, Activities.  In talking with the organizers before the big day, one thing that seemed important to them was to make sure there was enough for little hands to do.  They accomplished this throughout the expo hall, but also had an entire hallway at the entrance full of hands-on activities.  Tables included making pottery, zooarch analysis, artifact drawing, the dress up station mentioned above.  One thing I’d heard of others doing but had yet to try was a metal detector demonstration.  The sound of it drew passerbyers over and added excitement I never considered in only reading about the demonstration on paper.  It sounded like trying to tune in distant radios from the other side of the world!  The crowd became instantly engaged when the youth hit a hot spot.

The day was a success, both from the quantitative measure of public served (2,000+ estimated) and from a professional development measure.  In fact, we already “stole” the seed activity and put it to practice at a recent science activity day in northeast Florida!  Congratulations to the Public Chairs and local committee.  And thank you to the University of Leicester that did an excellent job in cross promoting the conference and public day to visitors of all walks.

For more pictures and comments from the actual day, check out the Facebook event page: http://www.facebook.com/events/403052999760928/

  • Laura Hadland

    The coin activity of course represented the traditional method of striking coins. The engraved plates are known as dies and Leicester’s Jewry Wall Museum (who brought the activity to the open day) will soon be procuring a Roman coin die to use at all our future events, as the Richard III half groat was such a success!

    Thank you for such lovely positive comments.

    Laura Hadland
    Senior Curator

  • Toni Wallace

    Clanging of the Coins – Richard the III coin machine. Can you tell me where I can obtain the tools and blanks to replicate your outreach activity? Thanks for any guidance.