Ten Take-Aways from SHA Public Day 2013

Every year on the last Saturday of the Society’s annual meeting we open our doors to the public, in one form or another.  Since the 1996 annual meeting in Cincinnati some Public Days have taken place at historical sites, museums, or ballroom of the conference venue.  For the 2013 Public Day the University of Leicester opened its student union, lecture hall, and common grounds for the benefit of the community.  And come they did!  Hundreds of people swarmed in the disco-turned-expo hall on two floors—people upstairs in period dress and info tables, activities for all ages celebrating all the senses down below—while others participated in a metal detector demonstration on the lawn, and others still attended lectures in the auditorium.

As SHA’s Public Education and Information Committee (PEIC) chair, I feel a duty to attend and support the local chairs. But let’s be honest, I also attend to beg/borrow/steal outreach ideas.  It was painful to narrow to a manageable amount, but here are my top ten take-aways:

  1.  Clanging of the coins.  The activity that demanded the most attention was the percussive minting of a Richard III coin.  I heard banging across the expo room and fought against the current to find the origin: people invited to pound etched stamps together using a sledge hammer and make their own Richard III coin.  Brilliant!  I often shy away from coins at outreach events, afraid I may inspire harmful habits to root out coins on archaeological sites.  But this activity focused instead on the symbolism of the coin.  It also satisfied one of the hardest customer wants, the desire of the public to take something home.  The aluminum blank inserted between the engraved steel plates was a 2013 artifact okay to take home.  They let me take home three!  I came home and did a bit of research.  If you want to adapt this activity to coinage found near you, get in touch with an engraver and have them design two steel plates for your event.
  2. Planview tiles.  I took two ideas from the English Heritage table.  First was the birdseye planview of Stonehenge affixed on square tiles.  The focus of the site shifted from the megalithic center to the pathways and greater landscape.  I can think of a whole host of sites in my area that can be adapted to this activity.
  3. Stereoscopes.  I’m no stranger to stereoscopes at historic sites, the difference at the English Heritage table was the scale of the scope.  The viewer was huge and the 3-dimensional image enlarged.  Like the companion tile activity, I can image the elevation view of the same sites being really useful.  I’m not sure where they ordered theirs from, but I found something similar, Geoscope Pro on the ASCS webpage.
  4. Touch tables.  Ten years ago we had artifacts on the table for the public to touch.  The pendulum has swung to the other extreme, for our events at least, where we rely on replicas and put original artifacts out in cases behind glass.  There was no end to the artifacts you could touch: Roman tiles, Stafforshire pottery sherds, lithics and animal bones.  While many artifacts require careful handling and are fragile, many are victims of lost provenience and can stand up to public affection.  I’m inspired to get more creative about packaging objexts the public can touch- it gives them that immediate, personal connection to the past.  A powerful tool too often ignored. 
  5. Music to my ears.  Throughout the day musicians played on the front stage.  The music spanned several different eras and types of instruments.  As archaeologists we often think of the past as something people can see or maybe touch, but it was delightful to my ears to hear music brought to life centuries later through living musicians today.
  6. Let them eat cake!  On a similar sensory theme, one table featured chronology of different foods the public could taste.  Health code in the states may not allow for such a station, but it was a great activity to connect food and foodways with the different cultures over time that consumed them. 
  7. Toys!  I never thought to invite toy merchants to an event, but it makes sense for the little ones that they would want an appropriate souvenir to take home.  These Play Mobile figures are inexpensive and allowed some to carry the magic home.
  8. Books!  Beyond merchandizing for kids, several tables offered books, posters, and resources for adults.  Too often I rely on a site’s gift shop or book store to provide economic opportunities to support the vendors.  I really liked the idea the if certain tables encouraged you to learn more, you could immediately act on that impulse and take a book home that very day.
  9. Dressing the part.  While some public days are specific to a certain time or site, in Leicester any time period was fair game: Roman, Plantagenets, Elizabethan, even up to WWII.  To visually survey the expo hall and see such a range of first person interpreters or re-enactors was also very inspiring.  There was a Richard III near the stage, a man in armor near the entrance, a whole corridor of WWII soldiers.  And it extended to the children’s area where they could play dress up across different time periods.  As an archaeologist at outreach events I feel living history is often far afield from what I’m trying to do.  But it was marvelous to see walking, talking representations of the time period and no doubt drew the audience further into the expo fray.  The hall of kids activities also featured a dress up station that was busy every time I walked by.
  10. Activities, Activities, Activities.  In talking with the organizers before the big day, one thing that seemed important to them was to make sure there was enough for little hands to do.  They accomplished this throughout the expo hall, but also had an entire hallway at the entrance full of hands-on activities.  Tables included making pottery, zooarch analysis, artifact drawing, the dress up station mentioned above.  One thing I’d heard of others doing but had yet to try was a metal detector demonstration.  The sound of it drew passerbyers over and added excitement I never considered in only reading about the demonstration on paper.  It sounded like trying to tune in distant radios from the other side of the world!  The crowd became instantly engaged when the youth hit a hot spot.

The day was a success, both from the quantitative measure of public served (2,000+ estimated) and from a professional development measure.  In fact, we already “stole” the seed activity and put it to practice at a recent science activity day in northeast Florida!  Congratulations to the Public Chairs and local committee.  And thank you to the University of Leicester that did an excellent job in cross promoting the conference and public day to visitors of all walks.

For more pictures and comments from the actual day, check out the Facebook event page: http://www.facebook.com/events/403052999760928/

Diversity and Difference in SHA

In 2012 the SHA has been active on a number of fronts, and this month I want to examine two of those that I think are exceptionally important to the SHA in the coming years: one revolves around the diversity of the discipline in general and SHA in particular, and the other is the representation of archaeology in popular media.  Both are sufficiently complicated to deserve a posting of their own, so this week I take on the former and I will discuss the latter in my next post.

The Questions in “Diversity”

This year I have reported several times on the SHA’s effort to make diversity an increasingly articulate part of the SHA mission and our collective scholarly practice (compare columns on Global Historical Archaeology, Historical Archaeology in Central Europe, and Diversity and Anti-Racism in SHA).  There are a cluster of practical questions raised by “diversity”:

  • - What does it even mean to be “diverse”?  Many of us have become somewhat wary of the term “diversity,” so this demands some concrete definition;
  • - Why might we or any other discipline or professional society desire diversity?;
  • - What access barriers face various archaeologists and SHA members across lines of difference?;
  • - What are the international implications of diversity when we step outside the familiar lines of difference in America?

Many of these questions are to some extent rhetorical in the sense that they have no satisfying answer with utter resolution, but the honest, reflective, and ongoing discussion of all of them is critical.  The most recent discussion on these issues came in a Gender and Minority Affairs Committee Panel at the 2013 conference in a session that included Carol McDavid (Community Archaeology Research Institute) and Maria Franklin (Texas) as Chairs, with panelists Whitney Battle-Baptiste (UMass), Chris Fennell (Illinois), Lewis Jones (Indiana), and Michael Nassaney (Western Michigan).  They were joined by Richard Benjamin (International Slavery Museum, Liverpool) and Bob Paynter (UMass).  Some of the issues are familiar to long-term members, but Board of Directors’ goal is to produce increasing clarity and concrete action.  These thoughts are simply my own as an audience member in the session and a Board Member who is committed to an inclusive SHA.

Welcoming Diversity in SHA

The GMAC session revolved around, to paraphrase GMAC Liaison Carol McDavid, making SHA a welcoming environment to a variety of voices.  This is perhaps a more difficult thing to measure than mere demography of the membership, because it fundamentally defines diversity as a shared social and emotional sentiment.  Nevertheless, it is an absolutely worthy goal that consciously embraces curiosity about and acceptance of people unlike ourselves across time, space, and every conceivable line of difference.

A “welcoming” professional home ensures that colleagues with distinctive experiences and scholarly voices can have significant impact beyond little circles of specialists.  We should not underestimate the influence of even a single thoughtful voice, and SHA should be absolutely certain that such a voice feels welcome and supported and can secure a firm and fair foothold in our midst even if we disagree with their scholarly conclusions.  I very strongly believe that since the moment a group of 112 people gathered in Dallas in 1967, the SHA has been fundamentally committed to casting itself as a democratic, international scholarly organization, and we have long taken pride in archaeology’s capacity to “give voice” to historical agents who have been overlooked by other scholars.  I do not believe that this means SHA is not a “welcoming” professional environment, but some of our members are reluctant to become part of some scholarly discourses or SHA governance, so we need to systematically ask how we can create comfortable places and roles for all our members.  Many of the measures to fashion such an environment are apparently modest mechanisms that we can do now, and I have three general thoughts that came out of the GMAC session and broader discussions in Leicester and over the previous year.

Feeling and Being Diverse in SHA

First, I fundamentally agree that in North American historical archaeology in particular the absence of people of color inevitably risks compromising our scholarship.  Many of us self-consciously sound the mantra that the meeting seems aesthetically homogenous, which is an inelegant way of saying we are overwhelmingly White and do not appear to reflect society.  I am not in disagreement with this observation as much as I hope we can push it to some substantive action.  I do not personally think that any scholarly discipline actually “reflects” society in an especially substantive way:  that is, scholars gravitate toward the academy, academic production, and particular disciplines because we have specific sorts of creativity, experiences, and personalities.  Nevertheless, even within that aesthetic of homogeneity there are a breadth of class, ethnic, international, or queered voices who come to SHA through a rich range of paths, and a vast range of us partner with community constituencies.  During the GMAC session Tim Scarlett suggested that it may well be that one thing we need to do is more assertively tell our unacknowledged stories of difference to encourage others that their voices matter in scholarship and SHA governance: that is, being an SHA member is a mechanical act of paying dues, but feeling that we are each an important part of the SHA discussion may be different for our colleagues who feel most marginalized because of race, class, sexuality, age, disabilities, or myriad other factors.

International Diversity

Second, a question sounded in Leicester was what constitutes diversity as we move beyond the confines of North America?  As we grow and become a truly international, wired organization connected across increasingly complicated lines of space and difference, SHA needs to assertively work to advocate for all our members and the diverse worlds in which we all live.  Our international membership provides a rich way to confront Americans’ distinctive experiences of lines of difference, so I hope we will cast diversity in the most complex social, historical, and international terms that are compelling to all our members and make all of us feel welcome in SHA.  We are an international organization in a transnational moment in which many of us are increasingly threatened by the decline of jobs in the private sector, agencies, and the academy alike, and for many of us SHA provides a refuge and a voice for our collective scholarship.  We must always assertively and self-critically assess shifting lines of difference, so I do not believe what we call diversity will ever settle into a few neat categories.

Diversity as Good Scholarship

Third, like all scholars, we will continue to have standards of scholarly rigor we are all held to regardless of our demography or identity.  Some of our work will always be somewhat particularistic and descriptive, and not every project or research context needs to be focused on inequality or public engagement: lots of us need to do the fine-grained artifact and documentary research that makes historical archaeology so compelling in the first place.  Respect for scholarly rigor and difference alike breeds civility and personal humility that encourages talent and makes for good scholarship: multiple and often-dissentious voices constantly destabilize normative methods and narratives, while homogeneity simply reproduces itself and is at best boring scholarship and at worst socially reactionary.  It is absolutely true that we are all part of employment and educational contexts that have a variety of structural inequalities that risk yielding social and intellectual homogeneity.  We should be prepared to acknowledge when some standards hinder our colleagues, and in SHA I think this means always pressing to be transparent, respectful, encouraging, and clear about the scholarship, service, and communication done in our collective name.  We remain committed to diversity simply because a welcoming and creative intellectual environment produces the best scholarship.

Diversity as an SHA Value

Will SHA resolve all those questions I posed at the outset of this blog?  Of course we cannot resolve structural inequalities that took a half-millennium to develop and now have a rich range of international faces.  SHA is one professional organization, and while we advocate for a rich range of scholars and our members touch the lives of countless people beyond our membership, our mission remains focused on encouraging the scholarly study of the last half-millennium.  Nevertheless, in recent years the Board of Directors has undergone diversity training, a Gender and Minority Affairs Travel Scholarship has been created, and we have begun to examine the concrete ways we can invest the organization from top to bottom with an embrace of difference.  Now we need every SHA Committee to ask itself what its stake is in this discussion on diversity: If these moves are going to create genuine change in SHA, then diversity needs to be on the agenda for all committees and not simply the GMAC.

At the 1968 SHA meeting in Williamsburg, Kathleen Gilmore, Dessamae Lorrain, and Judy Jelks were among a very small number of women at the conference, which apparently included no people of color at all.  Today our membership is nearly evenly split between men and women and our Presidents have included 12 women, including 11 of the last 24 Presidents.  We continue to work to ensure that we are the best possible advocates for all our members because we carry an important role, and we should never underestimate the many lives each of us profoundly touch, sometimes without even knowing it.  While we will not resolve the inequalities that hinder access to the academy or scholarship, we can place these issues in discussion, embrace them as our core values, and persistently press to be a good example of inclusion, respect, and acceptance.  I truly believe SHA members have always been committed to a truly democratic scholarship, and I think in many ways we are simply continuing to articulate the values of many scholars before us.  It is important to keep articulating those values and doing all we can to move this discussion to the heart of SHA’s culture.

SHA 2013: Easy Trips from Leicester

With just over two weeks to go, the team in Leicester is busy putting the finishing touches to the conference (with perhaps a short break to consume Christmas pudding, and sit down for the Downton Abbey Christmas Special).

You can find all the information you need to complete last-minute travel and accommodation arrangements on the conference website, where Local Arrangements Chair Ruth Young has compiled a list of easy trips you can make from Leicester, if you fancy a day out.

Pre-registration for the conference has now closed, but you can still register on the day, by coming along to the Percy Gee building at the University of Leicester campus, where all delegates should also collect their conference packs and name badges.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/23/University_of_Leicester_-_Percy_Gee_Building_-_geograph.org.uk_-_2730645.jpg

The Percy Gee Building, home to the Leicester University Students Union, and SHA 2013 registration area

If you do have any questions or problems, please send us an email at sha2013leicester@gmail.com