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!