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.

Top 10 Public Archaeology opportunities at SHA 2014

Interested in Public Education and Interpretation?  The 2014 conference is chock-full of opportunities to learn, share, and experience Public Archaeology firsthand.  Here’s my top 10 recommendations for sessions to join or meetings to catch.

1.  Attend JOIN SHA’s Public Education and Interpretation Committee!

Committee meetings are scheduled for Friday morning at 8 am.  The PEIC will be meeting in the Courville Room at the Hilton Quebec.  On the agenda: introductions and what projects SHA members initiated over the past year, recap of SHA’s participation in the Archaeology Education Clearinghouse and attendance at National Council of Social Studies in St. Louis, and an update on the Public Archaeology Toolbox.

If you can’t make it for the meeting, join the conversation on Twitter @FPANlive that morning or email me at semiller@flagler.edu for future committee updates.

2.  Municipal Archaeology (Thursday 8:30 Room 301B)

All municipal archaeology programs owe their existence to public engagement.  The session includes overview of several municipal programs from the US (St. Augustine, Phoenix, New York City) and multiple cities in Quebec and Ontario.  Tours, exhibits, heritage tourism, and public excavation are just some of the many public benefits of these programs.

3. PechaKucha!  (Friday 1:30 Room 207)

One of the things I’m most excited to see is “My Research in a Nutshell.” PechaKucha is a presentation style where the speaker selects 20 slides and must confine comment to only 20 per slide.  PechaKucha Nights have popped up all over the country as a fun, informal way to communicate ideas, projects, or creative works.  I’m curious to see the different ways the students are successful in interpreting their findings for the conference but will keep my potential public audiences in mind.  Come observe, then challenge yourself to sign up for your local group.  For example, St. Augustine just started a PechaKucha Night series last year (check out their webpage) and I’m looking to get on the 2014 roster.

PechaKecha in action!

4.  Community Archaeology for the 21st C (Friday 3:30 Room 205B)

Joe Hoyt of NOAA organized this session to highlight collaboration between professional archaeologists and avocational divers to study WWI and WWII shipwrecks off North Carolina’s coast. The session culminates with a roundtable discussion between Hoyt, John Bright of the National Park Service, Fred Engle of Battle of the Atlantic Research and Expedition Group, and Brandi Carries of Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.  I’ll be listening especially to the outreach products that resulted from the survey, particularly creation of a documentary and integration of cultural resources into scuba training as mentioned in the abstracts.

5.  Public Archaeology Panel (Saturday 1:30 Room 207)

Public archaeology issues are best expressed by deliberation.  An international panel organized by grad students Nicole Bucchino (FPAN-UWF), Jennifer Jones (ECU) and Jenna Copin (CUNY) brings together PubArch veterans to discuss their experiences for grad students.  Lively debate is ensured with the participation of incoming SHA President Charles Ewen (ECU) on the panel, as well as representatives from Thunder Bay (NOAA), NPS, Cayman Islands, and consulting firms.

6.  Posters! (Friday 12:20 Room 200)

Poster abstracts recently became available and I can see several public archaeology offerings in the hall.

  •  “Sharing the Sweet Life: Public Archaeology in Practice at a historic Louisiana sugar mill” poster by Matt McGraw, Rebecca McLain and Veberal Clement of LSU promises to highlight Facebook page, student blog, site tours, displays and media coverage.
  • “Black Experiences within the Field of Archaeology” by Ayana Flewellen (UT at Austin) and Justin Dunnavant (UF), will highlight progress from the Society of Black Archaeologists Oral History Project and touch on themes that arose through the interview process.  What a great resource to consult for upcoming talks, including but not limited to those requested during Black History Month.
  • Blackwater Maritime Heritage Trail poster by Benhamin Wells (UWF) will focus on a heritage tourism approach to interpretation.  Focus on maritime resources and how to overcome the challenge of sharing these sites with the public.

7.  New Acadia Project (Friday 4:15 Room  302B)

Mark Rees’ paper on Public Archaeology and Mythistory caught my eye.  The role of the archaeologist in exploring mythistory of Cajuns intrigues me, as well as use of crowdsourcing to fund the project.  This paper is part of a larger session on Archaeologies of Acadia: From Homeland to Diaspora.

8. Archaeologies of Memory and Identity (Friday 1:15 Room 206A)

Cross-cultural meanings of place and places of meaning will be presented with the intention of challenging us to use ethnographic approach in our work.   Patty Jeppson and Jed Levin are two of my PubArch favorites who always bend my brain to think in new ways.  Outside the US and Canada, this session will include papers from Australia, England, Portugal, Japan and the Canary Islands.

9. Community Education and Public Engagement (Saturday 3:30 Room 206A)

After you’ve had a chance to experience #10 (don’t peek!) come over to Room 206A and hear a variety of papers representing multiple approaches to public archaeology: social media, success of swag, hands-on excavation, avocational programs and archaeology months.  I’m particularly excited to hear from Archaeo-Quebec, an organization that looks similar to my own network.  Reading their abstract led me to looking up their website to learn more.    

10.  Last but not least….PUBLIC DAY!!!  Pleins Feux sur l’archaeology!!

Come see archaeology interpreted for the public Quebec style!  Each SHA public day is truly unique and I never lack for ideas to share (okay steal) after perusing the exhibit hall.  For a flavor of public day you can check out my blog last year from Leicester.  Full description of events available on the conference website.

Event Flier

Didn’t see your paper or poster?  Add it in the comments below!  And don’t forget to follow conference happenings on Twitter using the #SHA2014 and #PubArch hashtags.

Unless stated, all events take place in the Convention Center.  Refer to program for end times and full session descriptions.  While I took French for 9 years (yes, 9!) I’m obviously limited in my review of the abstracts submitted en francais.

Mes excuses à nos colleages francophones!  Si vous donnez un document de l’archéologie publique et je manqué, s’il vous plaît envoyer ci-dessous et je vais vous acheter une bière!

Public Education and Interpretation at 2012 Conference

With the annual conference just a few short weeks away it’s time for me to grab a highlighter and mark up the preliminary program.  Without a strategy in place too many opportunities are lost and I find out later all the papers, posters, and panels I should not have missed.  I put together a Top 10 list for public archaeology recommendations at SHA 2012.

Pre-Conference Workshop 2011 Activity

1.  Pre-Conference Workshop   Can They Dig It? Proexcavation Techniques for Archaeologists Working with Local Communities.  Facilitators Jay Stottman and myself (Sarah Miller) are putting the final details together on exercises and activities to spark deliberation over excavating with the public.  Participants will design their own proexcavation program and report on the before, during and after activities as we highlight tips and tools along the way.  Really looking forward to it! (Wednesday, January 4)

 2.  Historic Londontown and Annapolis Tour: The tours look so great this year, but if I had to chose one as a public archaeologist, I’d pick the Historic Londontown and Archaeology of Annapolis tour.  For years I had a calendar from the Anne Arundel County’s Lost Towns Project…pick one up for me if you go on this tour, such wonderful interpretive tools they used in showing how you can derive house structure from the postholes and features unearthed by archaeologists (and the public!).  The second stop on the same tour brings you to the front door of the Archaeology in Annapolis Program lead by the one and only Dr. Mark Leone.  (Wednesday, January 4)

 3. PUBLIC DAY!!   This year’s theme “Gallantly Streaming” will feature activity tables and exhibits from over 15 local and regional archeology programs.  The event is free and open from 11:00am-2:00pm at Fort McHenry.  Check out posters, interactive activities, and interpreters. Topics will include the struggles and triumphs of Maryland’s African American communities, Native Americans, colonial history, Civil War archaeology, historic shipwrecks, and plantations told through posters, interactive activities, and interpreters. (Saturday, January 7)

4. Solving Problems in the Public Interpretation of Maritime Cultural Heritage Symposium: I had a chance to talk to Della Scott-Ireton this week about this symposium which runs all day Thursday.  The presenters are leaders in the Maritime archaeology field and any of these papers should be well worth the public archaeologists time.  The maritimers in general have done a wonderful job integrating public archaeology into nearly everything they do, and it shows at the conference.  Proof is in this session–don’t miss!  (Thursday, January 5)

Look for PEIC Flier!

5. Public Education and Interpretation Committee Wake up, wake up!  The PEIC  meets early Friday morning from 7:45-8:45 am.  This committee welcomes new members and is eager to discuss K-12 education, displays and interpretation, social and traditional media, or just plain digging in plain sight.  Breakout session planned to brainstorm materials and topics for the Public Archaeology toolbox, blog and newsletter topics, and session ideas for 2013.  Please come, bring a friend!  (Friday, January 6, Room TBA)

6.  Roundtables:

Promo used for teacher conference.

There are two chances to join in public archaeology discussions over lunch on Saturday.  Terry Brock will facilitate discussion at his table focusing on Social Media, disseminating archaeology to diverse audiences through a variety of tools such as Twitter, Facebook, and the blogs.  Across the room pull up a chair at my Public Archaeology table where we can discuss archaeology education, particularly marketing to educators and gaining the audiences you want. (Saturday, January 7)

 

7. Toward an Archaeological Agora Revisited: Using Collaborative Approaches in Facilitating Public Participation and Creation of Archaeological Knowledge and Understanding Symposium:  I’ll admit it, last year I Googled the word agora during the session (it means meeting place, to congregate).  I loved each and every paper, particularly Pam Cressey and Douglas Appler’s paper on the City of Alexandria’s program and ways of making an unmarked African-American burial ground tangible to the public eye by placing luminaries to represent the number of known burials interred.  This year’s version is chaired by John Jameson and Harold Mytum, a definite must see with integrated terrestrial and maritime papers.  (Thursday, January 5)

Derek the Dredger Resources

8. General Outreach-Related Sessions:  Scheduled for Friday are the following two general sessions.  In the morning you’ll find me in the Maritime Heritage Management and Outreach session.  Since I learned about Derek the Dredger from Ian Oxley I make a point to see anything in which he’s taking part. In the afternoon Lessons from the Field: Public Outreach and Education session features PEIC member Laura Segna and other interesting PubArch papers.  Fresh from the PEIC meeting at 7:45 that morning there should be a good turnout.

Archaeology in Alexandria Presentation

 

9. Fifty Years of Community Archaeology on the Potomac: Lessons from Alexandria:  Alexandria is arguably the ultimate example of a community-supported city archaeology program.  I first met co-chair Doug Appler when he came to St. Augustine to do research on city permits, and of course I am in awe of the work by Pam Cressey.  Discussion is not to be missed, led by SHA outgoing President William Lees (full disclosure: also my boss!).  If you work in communities with archaeology ordinances this symposium should have a lot to offer on how to craft community involvement.  (Friday, January 6)

10. Reversing the Narrative Parts I and II:  An epic session unfolds Saturday with the who’s who of theoretical practitioners of public archaeology.  Paul Shackel and Barbara Little bookend this session, what more could you want? (Saturday, January 7)

What did I miss?  Give a plug for it below in the comments section and we’ll try and help get the word out.  Take some of my advice and have a good/bad story to tell?  Let us know what you saw and what you did in the PubArch frame of mind at SHA.

*Note: post written before program finalized.  Times and dates subject to change.  Individual papers and posters not available at the time of posting, please add below!