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.

Historical Archaeology 46(1): New Journal and New Design!

The new issue of Historical Archaeology, the Society for Historical Archaeology’s academic journal, 46(1) is hitting your desks and is certain to catch your attention.  This is the first in a new generation of the journal that features a glossy color cover with the contents listed on the back for easy reference.  But it deserves your attention for more than that. This thematic issue compiled by Uzi Baram and Dan Hughes looks at ethnogensis and other topics through the lens of the many cultures of Florida, and explores the ways in which archaeological and historical research can reveal the way the multiple cultural identities of Florida were created, negotiated, and reformed.  Baram and Hughes’ Introduction, attached, gives you a sense of the historical archaeology of Florida and the contents of this issue, which is one you won’t want to miss.

Download Baram and Hughes’ introduction to Historical Archaeology 46(1), Florida and its Historical Archaeology, for free here.

To receive Historical Archaeology quarterly, consider becoming a member of the Society for Historical Archaeology. 

School’s Out for Summer: Explore Arcadia Mill

 

Entrance to the boardwalk at Arcadia Mill (Courtesy of Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site)

Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site in Milton, Florida provides a multi-disciplinary educational experience for people of all ages. Arcadia Mill represents the first and largest water-powered industrial complex in northwest Florida. Between 1828 and 1855, the industrial complex developed into a multi-faceted operation that included two water-powered sawmills, a railroad, bucket factory, shingle mill, textile mill, and an experimental silk cocoonery. In addition to the industrial facilities, Arcadia had an ethnically diverse community populated by enslaved African American laborers, Anglo American workers, and an elite Anglo American management class. In the late 1980s, local awareness and efforts made by the Santa Rosa Historical Society and the University of West Florida helped to save a portion of the Arcadia Mill site from residential development.

Today, Arcadia Mill functions as an archaeological site that is open to the public. Our facilities include an elevated boardwalk with interpretive signage, a newly renovated visitor’s center and museum, and an outdoor pavilion with working replicas. Arcadia hosts thousands of visitors annually including a large number of students on scheduled field trips. Our educational programming at Arcadia has made great strides over the last few years, but we are always looking for new ways to reach our younger audience.

During the summer months when field trips have tapered off, Arcadia hosts a portion of the University of West Florida archaeological field school. This gives our visitors a chance to see an active archaeological dig; however we are missing part of our audience and the opportunity to use the dig as an educational tool for school children. With a little brainstorming, we came up with the first of several steps to take in order to beat the summer time slump.

A year ago we launched a pilot summer camp, Explore Arcadia Mill, as a new way to provide educational programming when school is out of session. The weeklong camp features a multi-disciplinary approach that is designed for upcoming 4th through 6th graders. Campers learn about geography, history, archaeology, and historic preservation through lessons that feature hands-on educational crafts, group projects, and outdoor activities. Arcadia Mill is a case study for many of the lessons such as understanding the landscape, how to use historical documents, and how historic preservation has helped to save the site.

Learning about stratigraphy (Courtesy of Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site)

The archaeology portion of the camp involves lessons and activities focused on principles and ethics. The campers learn about fundamental concepts such as the Law of Superposition and then test their knowledge on our stratigraphy canvas. We also teach them about the different tools that archaeologists use followed by a seek-and-find exercise using real photographs from our field school. Once we have completed the introduction to archaeology, the campers are taken to the field school excavations where they can visualize everything they’ve learned. The campers do not participate in the actual field work, but they observe and document the visit in their field books.

Campers visit the field school site to learn more about archaeological excavations (Courtesy of Arcadia Mill Archaeological Site)

The campers really enjoy the archaeology lessons and activities in the classroom, but the crowning achievement is the ability to incorporate an active archaeological dig. Aside from being an excellent visual aid, the ability to visit the field school helps us to educate the campers on ethics, stewardship, and professionalism. At the end of the week the campers combine everything they’ve learned and create a primary document, but for fun sake it is really a scrapbook! The parents or guardians of each camper are invited to come view the scrapbooks and learn about what went on throughout the week. Therefore, the campers become the teachers and the camp directors stand by with pride.

With one successful camp season behind us and another just around the corner, the possibilities for activities and lessons have become endless. The camp was giant lesson for us as professionals since we quickly learned what worked and what didn’t work. It will get much easier with time, but now we are ready to implement additional programming. Where do we go from here? The camp was such a great experience that we are now looking at large scale or year round programming. The idea of an after school program came into question, but is that too much? There’s a fine line between educational programming and babysitting. It would be a large undertaking, but it could be very rewarding and worthwhile. Have you tried an after school program or a similar concept?