About Erin Claussen

I am an independent cultural resource consultant based in Seattle, WA, specializing in collections management and curation. I received my M.A. in 2010 from Western Michigan University. You can find out more about me here: erinclaussen.com.

Learning Public Archaeology: Experiences and Challenges from a University-Based, Long-Term Initiative

The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project has been a public archaeology/community service learning program from its inception when Western Michigan University’s (WMU) anthropology department was invited to help Niles, Michigan find its “lost” eighteenth century fort. As it only enjoys one full-time, permanent faculty member, principal investigator Michael Nassaney, the success of this public component is highly dependent on the involvement of undergraduate and graduate students and community volunteers. Though grassroots in nature, it has managed to consistently offer popular public events and to expand its outreach through traditional and digital methods. Student involvement in the Project takes the form of inclusion and emersion, not just in the practice of historical archaeology, but also in the sharing of it.

Principal Investigator, Michael Nassaney conducts a lecture during the Annual Open House at the Site.

Fort St. Joseph is located within present-day Niles, MI. Occupied from 1691 to 1781 by the French then British, it served as a mission, garrison, and trading post on the frontier of the Great Lakes fur trade. The Project began in 1998 when a local history group invited WMU archaeologists to conduct a survey in search of the colonial outpost. Shovel test pits soon revealed trade goods, faunal remains, and intact architectural deposits, presenting the city and community the opportunity to reconnect with the colonial legacy in their backyard in a tangible way. For the last fifteen years, the partnership between WMU and the City has involved excavations and public education and outreach conducted by an active, engaged and ever-changing group of students and volunteers.

My involvement with the Project began in the spring of 2006 in the laboratory. Though my undergraduate degree was in Economics, I had a deep love of all that was old and a sense that archaeology had the power to tell the stories of everyday life past that were elusive in the written record. I planned to take the field school at Fort St. Joseph in the summer and was invited by Dr. Nassaney to get familiar with 18th-century material culture by helping to catalog artifacts from past seasons’ excavations. A couple hours in and I was hooked on the lab. I went on to do my master’s thesis on the topic of curation and collections management, but while I was busy studying the other three fields and finding my niche within archaeology I was also almost constantly “doing” public archaeology.

A thematic artifact display case assembled by the author.

My first field season I, along with the other field school students, learned the history and context of the Fort along with proper archaeological excavation and recording techniques ourselves and then turned around and almost immediately helped educate week-long each summer camps of middle school/high school students and adults from the community in the same. We spent the second half of the season gearing up for what has since become the annual Open House at the fort site. We educated while advertising and soliciting support for the event throughout the community. We designed t-shirts. We created content for and executed the layout of informational panels. We selected finds for and put together artifact display cases. We painted signs to direct traffic to the site.  All this under the guidance of one principal investigator, the director of Niles’ Fort St. Joseph Museum, and one site veteran (and therefore public archaeology veteran) graduate student teaching assistant, who herself pulled together a group of historical reenactors to interpret the French and British periods at the fort. All field schools involve experiential learning. My first field school also happened to be a crash course in public relations, event planning and museum studies.

A field school student interacts with Open House visitors.

I served as the Fort St. Joseph Museum Intern during my first year of grad school, working on multiple initiatives to increase the public profile of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project. I wrote text, chose images and oversaw the design of an informational brochure. I organized a “Meet the Archaeologist Day” at the Museum as well as a luncheon for the most involved members of the community, the goal of which was to solicit their input on future exploration and interpretation of the Fort. The next year I was a field school teaching assistant and along with fellow grad students worked to execute both the summer camps and Open House again, building upon all learned the previous year.

Over the next couple of years my peers and I represented the Project at community events throughout southwest Michigan in addition to attending professional conferences where we shared our research, and also our public archaeology experiences and learned how others were involving their local communities. My last year of grad school, I interned with the Project again, this time taking on public archaeology of an “e” nature. In the interim between my first internship and this one, web presence had surged in importance as an outreach tool, and Facebook was doing the same. The Project at this point had little to no real estate of its own on the internet. Working with WMU’s College of Arts and Sciences webmaster, I built a site for the Project on the University server and also set the Project up on Facebook. Moving beyond the brochure, I also edited the inaugural edition of the Project newsletter, the Fort St. Joseph Post.

Both undergraduate and graduate students alike have continued to maintain and expand the public archaeology offerings of the Project. In 2011 a Project blog was launched to allow field school and other students the chance to share their experiences with the Project first hand, both during the field season and the academic year. Students have also helped to produce two volumes in a booklet series, which aims to examine various aspects of Fort St. Joseph and it’s role in the larger political, economic, social, and cultural contexts of New France.

Middle and High School student summer campers are brought up to speed on ongoing excavations.

The Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project offers undergraduate and graduate students a unique opportunity to dive headfirst not just into archaeology, but public archaeology, learning how to while doing and serving the community at the same time. As with any sort of grassroots initiative, there is need for and therefore the ability to accommodate different interests and talents. And as I can personally attest, this chance to be a jill-of-all-trades can lead one to learn skills that have a great deal of value in the real under-funded/tight-budget world. But being on the student side of this equation, I didn’t experience the one obvious downside of a university-based initiative, namely the revolving door. Students come, put in their time, and go, which makes it somewhat difficult for those in charge to maintain at a consistent level the features that the community comes to expect . WMU offers a terminal master’s degree in anthropology, which makes the problem even more acute.  Perhaps this is where the community itself must step up their involvement. What challenges have others encountered and how have they been overcome?

I was fortunate to have the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project be my first foray into archaeology. I learned a ton, I was given a lot of responsibility; in turn I felt valued and which pushed me to take initiatives and to do my best to excel at all of the opportunities I was offered. I know not everyone has such chances in their pre-careers. Current and former students involved in public archaeology initiatives, in what ways were you “allowed” to contribute as a student? How has your experience as a student of public archaeology informed your archaeology practice?

For more on the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project visit our Website, read our Blog, and check us out on Facebook!