Connecting Communities with Their Past: Maryland’s County Archaeological Exhibit Project

The completed exhibit for Washington County on display at the Newcomer House at Antietam Battlefield.Participants in a Native American Lifeways program held at the Lexington Park Branch of the St. Mary’s County Library get a hands-on experience in making fire. The students also learned to make cordage and pottery, as well as about Native Maryland agriculture and hunting.

The Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory (MAC Lab) currently curates eight million artifacts from every county in the state.  While these artifacts are available for research, education and exhibit purposes, only a fraction of them are accessible through public display.  In order to make the collections more widely accessible and to connect local communities with their past through archaeology, the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) and the MAC Lab have embarked on a project to place small traveling exhibits throughout the state. These exhibits will promote a more public discussion of the importance of archaeology both locally and state-wide, particularly within the context of a series of public lectures and workshops held in conjunction with the exhibits.

In the spring of 2010, we received funding from the National Park Service’s Preserve America program to undertake a pilot exhibit project in two Maryland counties. St. Mary’s County in southern Maryland and Washington County in western Maryland were chosen as the two locations for this pilot project. In St. Mary’s County, we partnered with the St. Mary’s County Public Library and in Washington County, partners included the Washington County Historical Society and the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau. In both counties, local chapters of the Archeological Society of Maryland (ASM) partnered with us. The ASM is a statewide organization of lay and professional archaeologists devoted to the study and conservation of Maryland archaeology.

Curator Sara Rivers-Cofield preparing the artifact drawers. Artifacts were cut flush into a thick sheet of ethafoam, as well as being secured with fishing line. The ethafoam block was inserted into a drawer and covered with plexiglass to protect the artifacts.

Working in consultation with the local partners, MHT staff chose three previously excavated archaeological sites from each county that formed the basis of the exhibit and accompanying programming.  Exhibit design and fabrication took place at Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, where the MAC Lab and the collections are located. The exhibit furniture was designed to be sturdy and secure, but easy to transport and set up. Seven foot banners and a lighted exhibit case were visually appealing and beckoned visitors to explore the three drawers filled with artifacts and text about the sites.

The first of the two exhibits opened at St. Mary’s County’s Lexington Park Branch Library in February 2011 and remained on display for six months. From there, it has moved to the two other branch libraries in the county. The Washington County exhibit, opened in June, 2011 was a key element of the Washington County Historical Society’s centennial celebration. This exhibit is currently in its third of four locations in the county and will return to the lab in late 2012. As a part of the grant project, public programs were created around the exhibits with the assistance of representatives of the Archeological Society of Maryland and the Council for Maryland Archaeology. The St. Mary’s County Library requested programming for children, while the Washington County programming will focus on adult audiences.

Kirsten Buchner, a professional museum evaluator with Insight Evaluation Services (IES), conducted a formal evaluation of the pilot exhibit project.  This evaluation determined:

  • the audience’s reaction to the proposed exhibit design and content
  • what the audiences took away from their experience with the exhibit
  • the reactions of archaeologists from the local avocational archaeology groups
  • the reactions of staff at the host venues
Artifact drawer for the Fort Frederick Site, created as part of the Washington County exhibit.

Overall, the public, in both the library and the visitor center, had a very positive response to the exhibits.  They found them visually appealing, well designed, and easily accessible.  They felt the exhibits clearly explained what archaeology is and what an archaeologist does, as well as teach about the lives of the past peoples who had once lived in their communities.  The archaeologists and staff interviewed also had a positive response to the design and content of the exhibit. They felt the project provided an excellent opportunity to engage members of the local archaeological and museum community.

MHT and the MAC Lab hope that this pilot project will inform a larger statewide initiative to place exhibits in all 23 counties throughout the State of Maryland.  In the Fall 2012, MHT will apply for a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Sciences’ (IMLS) Museums for America Program, in its Engaging Communities category. This program supports projects that represent a broad range of educational activities by which museums share collections, content, and knowledge to support learning.

Have you used travelling exhibits as a means of engaging the public? Have you had success with them? What sorts of challenges did such a program include? Share with us in the comments!

Fort McHenry Public Archaeology Day at SHA 2012

 For the last two years, I have been lucky enough to bring my family along on our cross-country trips to the SHAs.  My husband and daughters get to visit with family and do some sight-seeing while Mom is off doing conference-y things, and we all meet up on Saturday to enjoy public archaeology day together. Each year at the SHA Conference, the conference committee organizes a day for the public, to offer local archaeologists an opportunity to interact with the public, and the public a chance to learn about the archaeology that happens in their communities. This year, it was held at the Fort McHenry National Monument.

Ellie: “I think that archaeology makes you learn a lot, and I like it a lot!”

Now, given the fact that I LOVE this kind of thing (education + archaeology = awesome), my husband and children have visited many, many public archaeology events.  They have been to sites, helped wash artifacts, helped screen excavated dirt, and they have just about every “Archaeology for Kids” book in publication.  The girls are, in essence, experts in engaging public archaeology exhibits.

There were several booths set up in a side room in the visitor’s center at Fort McHenry, and several more were located in a heated tent outside (which turned out to be completely unnecessary, as the weather was sunny and warm and absolutely perfect). Among those displays we were able to visit were The Lost Towns Project of Anne Arundel County, NPS American Battlefield Preservation Program, the Prince George’s County and the Montgomery County Departments of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Archaeology in the Community, The District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office, Monocacy National Battlefield, the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum (representing both the State Museum of Archaeology and the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory), and the George Washington Foundation. Let me apologize in advance if I have missed any presenters, as I was there with my children and did not have much chance to linger and fully appreciate all the displays. Please drop your links below if you’re not represented in this list!

Abbie: “I liked the artifacts you could touch and the puzzles.”

In going back through the many flyers and brochures I picked up from the presenters, I noticed a few different flyers discussing “How to Report an Archaeological Find” with contact information for state archaeologists in Maryland and additional information on teacher training and children’s archaeology programs.  What a great venue in which to communicate such important information! There was also a free archaeology tour for SHA members, but I was unable to attend. If any readers participated in the tour and would like to comment below, I would love to hear more about it.

Almost every exhibit had a professional display describing their site and/or agency, and a few of the exhibitors had hands-on activities.  For the most part, my girls went immediately to the tables with some sort of interactive display.  The Lost Towns Project of Anne Arundel County and the Prince George’s County Department of Parks (part of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission) had excellent artifact assemblages for the kids to handle, and the latter had both artifact photos and feature photos that had been turned into puzzles for the kids. 

The girls got so into the spirit of it all that they couldn’t wait to show me a brick they had discovered outside the visitor’s center!

The girls also enjoyed the display by the DC Historic Preservation Office.  The artifacts displayed were off-limits for handling, but the display incorporated questions on large cards that acted as a guessing game for the kids.  Ellie told me later “I like guessing the artifacts!”

When I asked them afterwards what their favorite part of the day was they both gave me the same answer: “I liked being able to dig with a spoon and find artifacts in a can!”  Montgomery County Department of Parks (part of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission) had really wonderful interactive activities.  Both girls LOVED their “Archaeology Site in a Can” activities, and their ‘excavations’ revealed fascinating artifacts including projectile points and historic-period ceramic sherds.

The girls get their hands dirty.

I was super-impressed when the girls figured out (on their own, with no help from Mom!) that their sherds from each can would cross-mend.  Like I mentioned, these girls have become real experts at kid-friendly archaeological activities!

The other big hit of the day with my girls was a seed identification activity, also presented by the Montgomery County group.  The girls had to sort through a mix of sand and seeds to find and identify six different types from the ten listed with examples on the display.

Identifying Seeds.

Now, as a mom, I am totally thrilled when I see my girls really excited and interested in such educational activities.   As a member of the Public Education and Interpretation Committee, I would also be interested in hearing from other attendees about what they thought about the day.  Did you attend the Fort McHenry Public Archaeology Day?  What did you best enjoy?  What would you like to see more of as a member of the public? As an archaeologist, what more can we do to make these days as accessible and educational as possible?  Please leave your feedback, insights, and opinions in the comment space below!

Author note: See some more photos of our day at our flickr site.

 

Considering Public Archaeology in the Long Run: Capacity Building, Sustainability, and (sometimes) Closing Things Down

The last decade has seen a huge growth in writing about public archaeology – of all sorts. Happily, much of the recent writing has moved beyond the very descriptive, somewhat celebratory accounts which appeared throughout the 1990’s. These earlier accounts were a useful way of sharing strategies, ideas, and encouragement as archaeologists began to better understand the intersections between archaeological agendas and diverse “public” ones. Over time, and concurrent with recent efforts to decolonize archaeological practice, the “prime mover” for public archaeology work has moved well past “just” promoting stewardship, into arenas which are more self-critical, reflexive, and analytical. This is to be expected as any specialty matures and is a positive development.

One area that remains less explored, however, is how all of this laudable and sometimes even “activist” public archaeology work plays out in the long run. Traditionally, archaeologists (and arguably, all anthropologists) have tended to think of our work in terms of this or that “project”. The assumption, implicit or otherwise, is that our projects are likely to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We start our work (either on our own or at the behest of a community), we find ways to pay for it (or we do it for free), we work to create community alliances, interest, and networks…and then what? What do we do when the excavations end? Or, what do we do when we have a new project that beckons?

Obviously the answer to this varies, but the point is that public archaeologists cannot, usually, simply write their reports, pack up their trowels and move on to the next project. Doing this is difficult in part because of the personal relationships that we develop in order to do the work. It is especially difficult if part of our work has been to develop processes for moving the work forward – especially development and administrative processes, such as fundraising, program development, minute-taking, meeting-arranging, and the like. That is, we sometimes call “administrivia” is not trivial at all. I suspect that many successful, engaged, and productive community / collaborative / participatory projects begin a downward path the first time that someone important fails to be invited to a meeting, thanked for a donation, or otherwise taken care of administratively. Or, even more important, when funding cannot be obtained to keep the post-excavation work going – the outreach, the oral history interviews, the kids’ programs, the museum displays, etc. Often these things are done, during a project’s heyday, by the public archaeology person who is trying to generate interest, get local input and publicity – and, to meet their own agendas, gather data. Local community groups usually have few resources to fund this work as paid work, and if/when the archaeologist leaves, it is all too easy for the work itself to falter.

It is true, of course, that these concerns are often more important to archaeologists than to communities themselves – as my colleague Patti Jeppson pointed to me when she read this draft (she allowed me to share it here to help generate blog discussion). Jeppson noted that in her experience public archaeology is part of a “community’s historical trajectory (with archaeology dipping in and out rather then ending)”. I agree, and would just say that, like everything else, each context and situation are different. In my experience, the public archaeologist often takes on the “Initiator” role (described in the literature about “participatory action research” – see Stoecker 1997). When acting as “Initiators”, the archaeologist comes up with a research or project idea and invites the community to participate – and keeps the process going, as described above. Other potential roles would be the “Consultant”, in which the community commissions the research and the academic is accountable to it, and the “Collaborator”, which would be the ideal. In this last scenario the community would be driving the research, including partnering to formulate research questions, analyze results – and keeping the process moving. Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh and T. J. Ferguson described something similar in their discussion of a “collaborative continuum” (Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson 2008). The idea is that all collaborative projects fall at one point or another on this sort of continuum, and their location on it can shift over time, or as different players become involved.

The dilemma I am concerned with here reflects my current experience with two different projects, in which local community groups, consciously positioned as “in charge”, still rely on me to keep the sort of processes I described above going. This has happened to varying degrees in each – there are some key community people who do continue to function as full partners in the work, and to drive much of it. The reality is, however, that during periods of time where I am less active, forward movement tends to slow, or sometimes stop. Because we are partners, we have had conversations about this, and together are asking the following sorts of questions:

• Do some public/collaborative efforts simply have a life cycle?
• To what extent should “capacity building” be a part of what public archaeologists do – for some sorts of projects?
• How do we (or should we?) devise ethical exit strategies from projects which have reached either a natural or unnatural end, or in which our work is no longer effective, or even just when we reach a point of wanting (or perhaps, needing, for our own professional or personal well being) to move on?
• How do issues about “sustainability” play into the decisions that we and the local communities we work with make?
• How can projects sustain themselves in the face of contemporary financial challenges and the evolving interests and skillsets of individual professional and local collaborators?

I do not have the answers to these questions, and welcome further ideas and potential solutions.

References:
Colwell-Chanthaphonh, C. and T. J. Ferguson
2008 Introduction: The Collaborative Continuum. In Collaboration in Archaeological Practice: Engaging Descendant Communities, edited by C. Colwell-Chanthaphonh and T. J. Ferguson, pp. 1-32. Altamira Press, Lanham, Maryland.

Stoecker, R.
1997 Are Academics Irrelevant? Roles for Scholars in Participatory Research. Paper presented at the 1997 meetings of the American Sociological Society. A revised version was published in the American Behavioral Scientist, Vol . 42, No. 5, 1999., page 840-854. The Conference version is available online at http://comm-org.wisc.edu/papers98/pr.htm