Presenting Archaeology to the Public: Obligation and Opportunity

by Joe Bagley

How many public archaeology lectures, events, or tours have you done in the past year?  If you answered “none,” you might not realize how important they are to your field and professional development, or you may not realize just how easy they are to do.

In an era where NSF funding is getting slashed, historic preservation laws are under threat, and National Geographic is celebrating metal-detecting, there is no greater time for archaeologists to get the word out that historical archaeology is valuable, important, and must be funded and protected.

That’s where we all come in.  As the City Archaeologist of Boston, I am obligated by my job description to provide archaeology events, lectures, and tours to the public.  Well before starting my job I had been giving public talks on Boston’s archaeology with beneficial results for both my career and public perceptions of archaeology.

When I talk to students of archaeology, I’m often asked how to bridge the gap between school and career, and the first thing I tell them is to put themselves “out there” and start doing public events.  It doesn’t matter if you are interested in pursuing careers in CRM, academics, museums, or writing, you will benefit from these events.

We can start with personal benefits:  First, you will become more relaxed about giving public talks. I was terrified the first few times I gave lectures, but you will get over it, I promise.  Second, you will learn through experience what does and does not resonate with the public.  If you think something is important but the audience is asleep you either need to sell it better or drop the topic entirely from your public talk repertoire.  Finally, you will give yourself and the public an opportunity to present the reality of archaeology and gain support for the various laws or institutions that support what we do.

If you want to pursue CRM, you will one day need to be able to convince a town or group that additional data-recovery archaeology is necessary before destruction or a site should be preserved rather than developed.  If you don’t have experience with speaking to the public, your inabilities may result in the destruction of history.  Academic relevancy should be obvious: speaking before an audience and keeping it interesting will only improve your abilities to run a classroom and publish that book you have been working on in your head.  Museums are constantly in need of public support, how better to convince the public that your institution is important? And all of you writers, how about finding out if people actually give a hoot about your topic in an hour-long talk before dedicating a year (or more) of your life to a book that might not sell.

I’m sure some of you are thinking “well yeah, it’s easy for YOU to do public events, you’re the City Archaeologist!”  True, that does grease skids and open doors, but it is shockingly easy to get public speaking gigs.  For several years between undergraduate school and grad school I was struggling to find work in archaeology.  While pursuing alternative job opportunities, I realized I was quickly losing any momentum in archaeology that I had gained as an undergrad.

I had been studying Boston archaeology for several years and had developed a small mountain of research and data.  On a whim, I started emailing various local library directors with an offer to give a free (emphasize FREE) public lecture on the “Archaeology of Boston” that will cover both the Native American and Colonial history of the city.  I soon had four bookings for talks at various libraries in the Boston area.  One of these was the main branch of the Boston Public Library.  Naturally, I wrote the lecture after securing the gigs.

I want to emphasize here: I had a BA in archaeology with no active job in archaeology or affiliation.  Libraries are very interested in public talks on topics not normally covered, and it frankly doesn’t matter if you get 5 or 50 attendants, you will learn from every last one of these events.  I did a talk at the Boston Public Library that did not make it into their online calendar (there’s a lesson right there: insist you are included in the library’s calendar and double check!).  At the time the talk started I was in a room with chairs for 100 people and NOBODY was there.  Eventually I had three people arrive 10 minutes late and gave one of my best talks to that tiny crowd.  One of those in attendance is the leader of a local events coordination group in Boston. I now see him at almost all of my talks and he regularly brings 5-15 other people from his group.  It’s always worth it, and I learned a great deal about publicity that day.

I know, because I asked, that these public talks during my “gap years” in school/jobs helped reassure my current employer of my commitment to archaeology and also demonstrated my public speaking abilities prior to getting a job where they were a regular occurrence.

If libraries are not your style or you’ve conquered them all, approach local museums and historical societies or organize a walking tour.  Email the local organizer of your state’s Archaeology or Preservation Month/week and asks them for connections to institutions looking for speakers/events.  You would be surprised how people are to relevant archaeology talks and hands-on events or activities, especially if they are free.  Don’t forget: Archaeology is innately interesting and 50% of your pitch is saying the word “archaeology.”  The connections you can make at these locations are invaluable too.  Who knows, perhaps you may realize that public work at a museum is what you are truly passionate about?

Joe Bagley giving a Preservation Month walking tour in Boston

Want publicity? Write your own press releases.  Why not?  “Local archaeologist presents recent archaeological discoveries at (insert site/country here) in library talk.” Google “how to write a press release” and send them to local papers. They don’t get much opportunity to write about archaeology and will be happy to do so.

To wrap up, you can only benefit from public events, even if nobody comes. Flop sweat is the greatest motivator for personal improvement.  Public events are great opportunities to refine your presentation style and determine what topics resonate with the public. They are also your greatest opportunity to promote archaeological laws and funding to the public, who have the ability to vote them out of existence. Whether they be the local library or a major speaking event, the connections you can and do make and the experience you gain are invaluable to your own career. You do not need formal associations with particular programs or institutions, but you DO need to be your own advocate and represent yourself in the best possible terminology. Opportunities will not be handed to you, sometimes you need to go out there and take them for yourself. What have YOU done to promote yourself and archaeology to the public?

  • Mandy

    Great post Joe! I couldn’t agree more with your message of getting yourself out there. I had a period of a couple years where I struggled to find work in archaeology. To stay involved I offered to help out the under-staffed CT SHPO and State Archaeologist organize Archaeology Awareness Month activities. Though strictly a volunteer gig, it doesn’t hurt to call myself the CT Archaeology Awareness Month Coordinator, and it gave me a great reason to contact archaeological professionals throughout the state and help advertise archaeology events to the public. At the same time I volunteered to lead public excavations for a museum and an historical society (which also kept my field skills sharp). You are spot-on in calling out archaeologists to create their own opportunities!