What is the role of academic training in bringing about change in the cultural resource management industry?


Based on the original image at Succinct Research

Based on the original image at Succinct Research

This recent post on Succinct Research has made waves across the CRM world and, to a lesser degree, among academic archaeologists. It speaks to the current state of the cultural resource management industry and suggests we are at a tipping point. As the doldrums of the recession begin to fade and new projects are showing up, the post suggests that CRM needs to reinvent itself to be more dynamic, innovative, and diversified. At the core of the post is a suggestion that the CRM world needs to do more than run compliance projects if it is going to reach its full potential – it instead needs to promote its public value by contributing to local communities in an active manner.

According to the post, there is a large public demand for authentic encounters with the past and a wealth of projects, partners, and opportunities left on the table by traditional CRM companies who doggedly focus on finding the next Phase I to keep their employees employed. Rather than curtailing our industry to compliance-driven research, CRM firms could branch out and provide new products and services to communities and other industries interested in benefiting from increased knowledge about the past. The post offers a wealth of very specific examples of how CRM could become better stewards of the past while also becoming more sustainable. I strongly suggest you all visit and read the post for these details.

In my opinion, it is difficult to read the post and not be struck by the logic behind it and be convinced that the CRM-world is well-positioned for positive change in the near future. But, even as the post offers an important vision for our field, it pays little attention to several critical questions – particularly, how do these changes come about? Is it feasible to ask current Field Directors and Principal Investigators to transform their business models to be something other than the average CRM firm? While there certainly is a significant number of CRM professionals in the field today with diverse skill sets and interests – is there the critical mass needed to make the dramatic transformations required for our field to remain relevant and vibrant for the foreseeable future?

Missing from the conversation is the need to train a new generation of archaeologists who can blend together the practical experiences, technical knowledge, collaborative abilities, and theoretical insights needed to reformulate the future direction of cultural research management. If we are going to transform CRM we need to begin by transforming our labor pool, and this will require a reformulation of our academic programs, particularly at the graduate level.

This is by no means the first time someone has highlighted the need to reformulate how we train archaeologists so that they are a better fit for the industry (see other examples, here, here, and here). But these prior calls for change largely argued that we need to produce graduates with proper field and laboratory training, and an understanding of how the cultural resource management industry operates within financial, legal, and regulatory contexts. These critiques have rung true and, I hope, have been at least partially addressed by innovative programs like CSU, San Bernardino or Indiana University of Pennsylvania. These programs excel at training students to be excellent field and lab researchers and many of their graduates succeed in the current job market.

But what the Succinct Research post suggests is that a new breed of archaeologists isneeded. This new breed will have to go beyond compliance regulations, field techniques, and lab methods. In addition to having those skills (because let’s not fool ourselves, those skills remain critical), this new breed of archaeologists will need to understand how to bring archaeological knowledge into the public realm. Although it sounds simple, this is no easy task. It is something that Universities ought to be capable of however, particularly if they have a diverse faculty and a program dedicated to this goal.

Here are some of the ways that Universities can begin to address this goal:

Direct interactions between students and invested communities – If it is going to transform, the CRM world needs to learn how to listen to local communities, understand their desires regarding historic resources, and develop heritage-based projects that meet those needs. Considering that archaeology is often considered a part of anthropology, you would think we would be producing students that were capable and interested in interacting with local communities, but this is unfortunately not the case. As we are so focused on cultural resource management (making sure archaeological materials and places are protected) we often forget their importance within local communities. This is where a focus on heritage becomes an important aspect of CRM training. A focus on heritage recasts the overall goals of archaeology to be less about mitigating the destruction of historic materials and more about how those materials inform powerful narratives for present peoples. This requires a direct interaction between archaeologists and the community. Students need to learn how to interview people, work with teachers and school boards, propose projects to city planners, and develop events, media, and exhibits in collaboration with interested parties. These are skills requiring training and refinement in the same fashion as how to excavate stratigraphic levels and to set up and run a total station. If a new vision of CRM is going to be fulfilled, academic institutions will need to develop courses for archaeologists that pull them out of the lab and the field and instead put them directly in the community.

Closer relations with cultural institutions – While there are some counter-examples, CRM firms rarely work closely or in a sustained fashion with museums, historical societies, or preservation organizations. There are obvious benefits with further developing these sorts of relations and a new breed of archaeologists would be well-served to better understand the inner workings of these cultural institutions. While classes can help inform students, internships within these systems provide a more in-depth and nuanced comprehension about how they operate and interact with the public. Exhibit design, development of public programs, and educational programming are rarely considered important skills within the CRM world, but this may soon not be the case if the field begins to transform itself into something other than a compliance-driven industry. Cultural institutions have long been bringing the public and the past together in interesting and compelling fashions – you would think we would have a great deal to learn from them.

Capitalizing on new technologies – Archaeologists have long been at the forefront of bringing new technologies into their research, especially technologies developed in other disciplines. This is particularly true in CRM where technologies are valued largely if they improve the bottom-line, usually meaning if they reduce labor-hours through increased speed or accuracy of data acquisition. If CRM is to become more than compliance-based and instead incorporate a broader public interface, technology may play an even more critical role. The public now demands far more than simple maps and poorly preserved artifacts when discussing the past. They now require virtual models of past settlements, 3D reconstructions of complete objects, and graphic representations of large-scale social and environmental changes. There is also an appreciation for the scientific process within many communities who are excited to hear about new techniques in compositional analyses, chronometric dating, and remote sensing. The ability to meet these requirements already exists in archaeology, but is under-valued in CRM and is rarely utilized as a method for interacting with the public. A new breed of CRM archaeologists needs to be trained to both use new technologies and to think about how they can be used to garner public interest.

These are but a few ways that academic institutions can do their part in increasing the skill sets of our graduates and prepare them for what may be a new world of CRM. This is not to say that academic institutions should ignore the need to produce strong field and lab researchers however. We still need graduates that are familiar with applicable laws and regulations and have a firm grasp on traditional techniques – but this may soon not be all we require.

Obviously, the MA program in Public Archaeology here at Binghamton is designed to address the need for new types of archaeologists and thereby help transform the CRM world. The Succinct Research post and the wave of positive interest following it helps to validate the goals of our program.


  • Jeremy Wells says:

    Why not consider some kind of combined historic preservation/archaeology degree? Historic preservation degree programs have been doing the kinds of things that are mentioned in this post for decades, including providing training on the regulatory environment — surely this deserves a mention? We’re all addressing the historic environment in some way, but only through our narrow disciplinary lenses.

    What would a degree program look like if we threw away the artificial disciplinary boundaries of anthropology and history/architecture and created a degree program around the conservation of the historic environment — addressing both below ground and above ground resources? And, to top this off, what if we blew away the artificial boundary between “natural” and “cultural” resources? Now we’re really doing “environmental review”. The world needs broader thinking in terms of what the environment is and less defensive posturing to justify the existence of academic disciplines. It’s this kind of posturing that makes us (i.e., academics) less than endearing to the public. We’d rather argue about what the episteme of anthropology and historic preservation is than actually try to solve real-world problems.

    Why should anthropology only be associated with archaeology? Why not also have it associated with the historic built environment and cultural landscapes? This is the kind of baggage that does no good in the 21st century. Historic preservation desperately needs an ethnographic approach to balance its over-reliance on positivism and expert rule. So where are the anthropologists working in historic preservation? They aren’t — at least not yet. Food for thought.

    • Matthew Sanger says:

      There are many excellent points in this reply – thanks for making it Jeremy! First, in terms of the (artificial) divide between archaeology and historical preservation – you are entirely correct that we are both coming up on similar regulations, goals, publics, etc. and that we would be well served to integrate our disciplines in a more fundamental level. I will point out that there are a couple of things that both of these disciplines struggle with however that speak to the original posts – including an ability to engage with surrounding communities. I think that this is where we can learn quite a bit from our ethnographic colleagues. The ability, and at times, even interest in going out and speaking with the public is something that regulatory archaeology, and in my limited experience, regulatory historical preservation are not well-versed in. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of this shared blind-spot, I entirely agree with your point that the divide between historic preservation and archaeology is not useful and we have quite a bit to learn from one another.

      In terms of the divide between natural and cultural resources, removing this boundary is quite a bit more radical and I am not sure if I am on board. This is not because I believe in a world easily divisible into pristine natural resources and humanly-manufactured cultural resources – but rather that different skill sets are needed to adequately engage with different sorts of materials. While virtually every forest in North America has been managed by humans for thousands of years, my training does not prepare me to talk about the best way of handling timber resources – nor should we have foresters making decisions about the archaeological record. I don’t think that this is your argument either, because if I read you correctly you are talking more about how we understand the environment and trying to be holistic about our approach. I am amenable to this sort of posture, but when the boots hit the ground, it is critical that we have the right sorts of experts.

      Finally, your question about why there are not more (any?) anthropologists in historic preservation is enlightening. Why is it that resources underground “belong” to anthropologically-influenced archaeologists while resources above ground are the realm of historians? Obviously, a factor is in terms of available datasets, with written documents being available for above ground resources – but archaeologists have been working on historic materials forever. So I am not sure why this divide exists, but it certainly does not seem to be either inevitable or necessarily beneficial.

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