About Melissa Timo

Melissa is the Outreach Coordinator for the Florida Public Archaeology Network Southwest Regional office.

Connecting with the connectionless, or: How I stopped worrying and came to terms with the Snowbirds

I happen to be a public archaeologist in a place many might envy (especially after this winter):  southwest Florida.  I have worked at the Florida Public Archaeology Network for several years and have done public archaeology and public history in a number of states across the U.S. East Coast. I was excited to take this job and apply what I’ve learned to a part of the world wholly new to me.

One of the biggest parts of public interpretation is knowing your audience and I quickly learned that that was going to be more difficult than anticipated.  Southwest Florida’s population history is inconsistent at best.  Without any real roads or rail lines, the area remained as wild as any of the west until the 1920s and 1930s. Today there are very few “native” communities.  In one of the counties in my region, the local historical advisory council reported that fifty percent of the population moves out of the county every eight years (Charlotte County Historical Advisory Council 2012).  The rest of the area residents are migrant families and snowbirds. “Snowbirds” (for those not in the know) are retirees who come south for The Season (the period between Thanksgiving and Easter) before returning to the Northeast U.S., Midwest U.S., or eastern Canada.

The question became: how do you connect people to a landscape and an archaeological past with which they had no personal connection?  A connection to one’s own community, backyard, and family history is the first and easiest way to bring together archaeology and the wider public (like these wonderful public archaeology projects: The Maritime Archaeology Trust, Ontario’s Fugitive Slave Chapel, and the WWII Maritime Heritage Trail, Battle of Saipan).

When the local population is not at all local (or permanent) and when archaeological interest stops at resources from “back home,” some public archaeology techniques just will not work. I needed a new game plan that avoided an assumption of prior common connection or knowledge.  I also needed to redefine what meaningful and successful public archaeology meant in this case.  If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, here are some things I’ve learned:

Sometimes Flashy is OK

As a discipline we’ve moved far past the days of the Big Men worship. There are so many more fascinating personal and wider cultural connections found in a modern archaeologist’s research. We know so much more now that it’s almost a pity to get stuck on the George Washingtons. But to an unconnected seasonal visitor these singular individuals can act as a gateway to a much more complex discussion of archaeology.

For example, last year Florida began a state-wide initiative called Viva Florida 500 which commemorates the 500th anniversary of Ponce de León’s arrival to Florida shores.

Dr. Annette Snapp, Florida State Park staff, and visitors on Mound Key

Including the Southwest Florida leg of León’s 1513 expedition helped me broach the topics of proto-historic and historic native populations (primarily the Calusa) and their cultural adaptations in the face of the Spanish, the Calusas’ ties to Cuba, Spanish ships and shipwrecks in Florida waters, and the archaeological evidence of Florida’s role as a northern borderland to their New World colonies through lectures and children’s programming.  I not only placed an emphasis on broader archaeological principles and the preservation thereof, but directed them to actual physical sites and museums where they could learn more.  We even offered kayak paddles to Mound Key Archaeological State Park which was the Calusa capital at the time of contact and the site visited by León. Participants could connect the Big Man to the very people and environment he visited 500 years ago in a very tangible way.

Additionally, unusual and personal topics find niche audiences. I’ve spoken about the Florida archaeology of pets, beauty and hygiene, tourism, gambling, and toys.  By far, my most popular and oft requested talk for the snowbirds is the archaeology of bootlegging and rumrunning in Southwest Florida. You might be surprised what goes over well.

Sometimes Digital and Social Media Sources are Not Always Your Friends

It is almost hard to keep up with all of the innovative ways archaeologists are using social media and digital resources to share their work with the public (for example, IUP’s Archaeology Island and VCU’s Virtual Curation Laboratory, to name a few).  Unfortunately, in an area with residents (and even historical organizations) that have absolutely no online presence, all the Facebook posts, Twitter announcements, Reddit threads, and digital collections will go unrecognized and unutilized.  I have had to balance my accustomed social media presence with other traditional methods like good old fashion newsprint, TV, and radio, printed and posted flyers, and a great deal of pavement pounding. In my case, old standbys have been vital.

Find the Interpretive Gaps

There seems to be a great deal of focus on a very narrow range of historical and archaeological topics in southwest Florida: the Calusa, the Seminole, and snowbirds Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  Since those were heavily represented topics, I sought out new pastures.

Fort Myers is named after a Seminole War and Civil War fort that once stood on the site.  Surprisingly, this era is of little focus in the town’s historic interpretation and preservation endeavors, leaving the door wide open for new efforts. I was genuinely surprised to learn how many people didn’t know Fort Myers was named after a fort, and an unusual fort at that. Interestingly, most of the Union troops stationed there during the Civil War were from the 2nd Regiment U.S. Colored Troops.

Attendees listen to local history professor, Dr. Irvin Winsboro, talk about the Battle of Fort Myers

Together with the Lee County Black History Society, FPAN initiated a community celebration commemorating the USCT in the historically African American neighborhood of Dunbar.  Reenactors, community organizations, historians, archaeologists, and two American Legion posts participated in the inaugural event in which more than 150 visitors attended.  2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Myers and we plan to host an even bigger celebration to engage this underserved population.

Patience is Everything

My only companion was the comforting sound of crickets.

This was (and is) the hardest lesson I’ve learned in such an attendance numbers-focused field.  Constant pressure has been the key to success.  My first year in Southwest Florida, well-advertised, community-requested events went completely unattended.  No one.  Not a seat filled.

Year two, my usual audience had two to 12 people.  I have never been more elated to see two people in my whole pubarch life. At last, progress!  My “success meter” has mentally shifted from attendance counts to number of programming invitations.  I began to receive more speaking programming invitations to unusual locations like yacht clubs, Sugar Festivals, Swamp Heritage days, and DAR meetings.  In these early stages, unsolicited invitations are markers of an accepted message and spread of legitimacy.

Year three has brought audiences of 12 to 150+ people.  Seasonally rotating populations mean timing and scheduling are key.  Adapting my pace to “Florida time” and re-imagining what successful public archaeology looks like in southwest Florida has given me a whole new outlook and direction for my future work. Hopefully they day will soon come when the snowbirds and other temporary and connectionless residents of southwest Florida will feel a little more connected to their home-away- from-home thanks in part to FPAN’s work.

So tell me, how do you engage connectionless populations? How have you been able to successfully connect with tourists?

Works Cited

Charlotte County Historical Advisory Committee
2012    Introductory notes. Historical Connections Conference, Port Charlotte, Florida.

National Archaeology Day 2012

On Saturday, October 20, 2012 archaeology enthusiasts will have a chance to  participate in a nationwide suite of events during the second annual National Archaeology Day.  Not to be confused with the digital media-flavored bonanza that was Day of Archaeology, National Archaeology Day seeks to connect locals directly to professionals, organizations, and museums through vibrant personal experiences.  This wonderful celebration of all things archaeology is a fantastic opportunity to highlight local resources, reaffirm an institutional commitment to public outreach, or delve into public programming for the very first time.

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), instigator of National Archaeology Day, has identified three overarching goals including: raising awareness of archaeology as a discipline and a resource; emphasizing the universality of archaeological resources, including those right in our “backyards;” and uniting the archaeological community through a focal event (Thomas and Langlitz 2012).  At the time of this writing, almost 100 collaborating organizations (up from the 2011 inaugural year’s 14) will be promoting the day’s activities from across the United States and Canada, and in places as far away as Australia, Cyprus, Romania, Germany, and Ireland (Archaeological Institute of America 2012).  Here in the States, AIA has been joined by the Society for Historical Archaeology, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Society for American Archaeology, the U.S. National Park System, and many more organizations in nearly every state to raise awareness and provide avenues through which the public can get their hands dirty in the archaeology beneath their feet.  Last year’s activities included classroom visits, symposia, conferences, archaeology fairs, student presentations, lab open houses, and lectures (Archaeological Institute of America 2012).

As an Outreach Coordinator for the Florida Public Archaeology Network, I attempted to step out of my zealous outreach shoes to weigh the benefits of such a day for those who are less publicly inclined.  Relating the intricacies of the archaeological process to the general populace is not always easy or even instantly gratifying.  However, no one can deny that in this current economic and pedagogic climate it behooves us to try.

Now, more than ever, the archaeological community needs to inspire.  Such a lofty goal may not be as hard as you think.  A perusal of the more than 400 events listed on the AIA’s National Archaeology Day events calendar include such things as a display of Pennsylvania State Museum and Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology’s dugout canoe in Hamburg, Pennsylvania and a tour of the Dragonfly Petroglyph Site sponsored by the Grant County Archaeological Society and Gila National Forest.  The AIA in Kansas City will be offering a talk entitled “Spying on the Past: Satellite Imagery and Archaeology in Southern Mesopotamia.”  The Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site’s Archaeology Day includes collections tours, lectures, kid’s activities, special exhibits and more.  We at the southwest region of Florida Public Archaeology Network plan to offer a Project Archaeology teachers’ workshop, so that educators can bring structured archaeology curriculum into their classrooms.  A whole range of activities and events fall well within the scope of National Archaeology Day’s premise and are sure to appeal to a wide array of tastes and interests.

What inspired you to dive into archaeology?  Was it a museum visit?  Was it a trip to a lab or an archaeological site?  Did you hear one awesome lecture that stimulated your thirst for more?  We, as professionals “in the know,” are in the position to create great change.  Passion comes from knowledge and knowledge comes from sharing.  By inspiring and educating, we can reshape (albeit, sometimes on a painfully slow pace) public opinion and, most importantly, public support of our beleaguered cultural and archaeological resources.  All it takes is to go back to that one “aha!” moment that led you to where you find yourself today.

I feel another important emphasis is National Archaeology Day’s tenant to unite the archaeological community under a focal event.  We may sometimes feel as though our institutions are lone archaeo-bubbles awash in a cultural vacuum.  I see Archaeology Day as a perfect opportunity to reach out to the institutions around you.  Why not join up with the county museum, the historical house museum, or the battlefield site near you to put on an archaeology activity or a lecture series?  Bigger events that draw more visitors are more feasible when multiple parties come together under one overarching flag.

Excited?  Interested in joining the fun?  There is still time for you or your institution to sign on.  Fortunately for us all, the AIA National Archaeology Day website has everything tied together neatly.  Submit your group’s name to become a Collaborating Organization or donate to the cause by becoming a Sponsor.

Too late for you to plan and promote an activity for 2012?  Check out the Calendar of Events and blog for opportunities near you to help you plan for next year!  National Archaeology Day is also on Facebook and Twitter.  Make sure to use the hashtag #NatlArkyDay while tweeting from one of the amazing National Archaeology Day events!

It is heartening to see how well received National Archaeology Day has been.  I find it to be a positive sign of things to come, despite our current institutional concerns.  Will you be participating in National Archaeology Day? How will you be participating?  Can you translate your archaeological “aha!” moment for a new audience?  Do you think that events like National Archaeology Day have the power to inspire a long-term shift in support for archaeological and cultural resources and institutions?

If you are participating, please share with us in the comments below, on our Facebook Page, or send us a message on Twitter. We’d love to hear about it, and to let other people know about how historical archaeology will be represented!

Bibliography