Public Outreach: anytime, anywhere

There are particular challenges and opportunities involved with public archaeology when the archaeology is under water or on the muddy foreshore. The very nature of such sites limits public access and visibility. Nevertheless, and perhaps because of this, there is an inherent public fascination with underwater heritage, from shipwrecks and crashed aircraft, to submerged historic and pre-historic settlements. For more than 20 years, the Maritime Archaeology Trust, based in Southampton, UK has been overcoming the challenges and realising the opportunities, to bring maritime heritage into the public’s consciousness.

The most recent addition to our toolbox for this work, is a purpose-built maritime archaeology outreach vehicle. For the past three years we have had the benefit of this unique tool to help us reach remote audiences. To our knowledge, this is the only such vehicle in existence. It has been possible due to generous support from the UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund under a project called ‘Engaging New Audiences’ but does being mobile, necessarily mean you’ll reach more people and more diverse audiences?

The Maritime Bus on the road

Many years of delivering public talks, internal and external school workshops, public events and outreach activities from the back of cars helped identify the need for a mobile outreach unit. On the road the vehicle is an eye-catching Luton-style lorry. But within 30 minutes of arrival, it transforms into an interactive discovery centre, with artefacts (real and replica), models, a digital microscope, HD DVDs, posters and audio. Of course the outreach staff are still the lynchpin to engaging and enthusing the public but this bespoke mobile resource makes the task much easier. We call it the Maritime Bus and visitors are invited on board to make the most of a strict ‘Look AND Touch’ policy.

The Maritime Bus in ‘exhibition mode’ set up on site.

Content for a typical public outreach event might include Palaeolithic hand axes and a mammoth tooth, parts of a Second World War crashed military aircraft, artefacts from a First World War shipwreck, assorted faunal remains, models and underwater video footage from wreck sites or prehistoric landscapes and examples of materials with different states of preservation. The public are often amazed to hear that all this material has come from underwater sites.

Associated hands-on activities include trying on SCUBA equipment, excavating with a miniature air-lift, exploring with a miniature Remotely Operated Vehicle or viewing super-magnified microscopic environmental evidence with 3D glasses.

The mobile nature of the Maritime Bus enables us to address potential barriers to access. Taking this exhibition come research laboratory into the heart of communities, overcomes not only travel and transportation issues but also anxieties about visiting more traditional heritage venues. As a recent visitor to the Bus said:

Stepping into this van is like stepping into a museum. I didn’t realise the Solent hides so much history beneath the waves. It’s quite unique to have this kind of information out here for the public and I think it is really cool that we get to see it and hear about it without going into a museum. 

visitors ‘playing’ with the Bus’s contents

The entire content of the Bus can be very easily changed to suit a particular theme or to create a site-specific exhibit. By choosing an appropriate geographical ‘pitch’, it can therefore help highlight and explain the existence of nearby sites not otherwise visible to the public.

As well as public events, the Maritime Bus is popular with schools where pupils and teachers particularly value its ability to offer practical, hands-on sessions, creating a stimulating, unfamiliar venue without having to leave the school grounds. Schools and communities geographically located inland, value the Bus’s ability to bring the coast and underwater environment to their doorstep.

School students trying to identify a mystery shipwreck.

The reach of the Maritime Bus is not confined to UK’s shores. In 2009 the Maritime Archaeology Trust took the Maritime Bus on a mainland European Road trip. Working with partners in France and Belgium, the Bus visited schools and public events in France, Belgium and the Netherlands where it was well received by an international audience.

A mobile until like the Maritime Bus enables us to reach more people, not least because of the efficiencies achieved by having everything ready to go (no more loading and unloading cars). It also enables us to take resources to more remote places, where local access to cultural heritage is limited. The fact that it constitutes an exhibition and activity space all rolled into one, means we can reach more people at a time and offer them a variety of formats and media. This helps with engaging more diverse audiences. The Bus enables us to offer visitors a variety of media to choose from, including video, audio, models, books, posters, equipment, artefacts, games and computers. Everybody usually finds something that piques their interest and suits their abilities. Recent visits to schools for young people with Special Educational Needs have been particularly successful as the Bus provides a new aesthetically attractive and safe venue on the school site and both teachers and pupils have found the ‘Look AND Touch’ approach particularly beneficial. When the environment allows, we will have brightly coloured bean bag seats outside the front of the Bus with a variety of relevant books. The informal nature of this approach is very popular, particularly with young families, but also with teenage visitors who have been heard to say: “This is the first time I’ve read a book out for school for years!”.

So this is our experience with a mobile public outreach unit. We’re more than happy to share our experiences further, so if you have an interest in this area, please do get in touch. We’d be particularly interested to hear about any other experiences with mobile units. What other mobile outreach projects are out there? Do you have similar or contrary experiences?

Hands-On History

Over the last several years, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum (JPPM) has enjoyed a productive relationship with Huntingtown High School in Calvert County, Maryland. In previous years, the school’s archaeology classes produced cell phone tours for the park, with the students working on the projects at every level, including conducting oral history interviews, developing tour themes and scripts, recording the tours and writing press releases.

Rockingham hunt pitcher from the privy.

This year, JPPM decided to take on a different type of project, with the newly-formed “Historical Investigations” class. The students are analyzing the contents of a mid-19th century privy from Baltimore’s Federal Reserve site (18BC27). Archaeologists excavated the site in 1980, but since the artifacts were never studied or a final report prepared, the students are working with an assemblage that has never before received any attention.

This particular privy was filled with broken plates, spittoons, chamber pots, medicine bottles, and a torpedo bottle once used to hold carbonated beverages. One spectacular find from the privy was a large Rockingham pitcher depicting a boar and stag hunt, made around 1855 by a Baltimore pottery firm.

Teacher Jeff Cunningham and a student mend a creamware chamberbpot, while another student works on a sponged cup.

The students completed cataloging the artifacts (2,200+), mended the ceramics and glass from the privy and determined minimum ceramic and glass vessel counts. Each student chose a particular artifact to research in depth, creating illustrated essays that were both posted on JPPM’s website and produced as posters for display. In addition to writing a standard archaeological report on the privy, the students also created an exhibit of their findings that are currently on display at a local public library.

Two of the students are justifiably proud of the exhibit on display at the local branch library.

It was exciting to work with students on a project that provides them with real-world experience in a supportive setting, conducting the type of analysis normally done by professional archaeologists. Even better, is watching the students get a thrill from each new artifact and the information it holds.

What types of engaged work are you doing with local high schools? Share your experiences with us in the comment section!

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!