Interesting and exciting things are happening at MAPA! This is an intro and kick-off piece to our MAPA Guest Editor Series starting this month, which will star several amazing graduate students at Binghamton University right now.
The idea for this series blossomed out of several conversations with MAPA Director, Dr. Matt Sanger, about how we could create a platform for our graduate students to discuss issues they feel are currently at the forefront of our field. We went looking for a space in which contemporary issues could be brought up and discussed, and also of course somewhere to showcase the phenomenal graduate students we have hanging around ol’ Binghamton. This blog seemed like an obvious arena for all those things. After a some consideration, Dr. Sanger has chosen a few folks that will each be bringing their own thoughts and skills to discuss the central theme of MAPA: our many “publics.”
At Binghamton we have ten archaeology faculty spanning the breadth of the discipline, which is then reflected in their students. Collectively the research of our graduate student body traverse hundreds of places, thousands of years, and infinite approaches. As such, each of the upcoming editors has a different take on what “Public Archaeology” is, which, in turn, creates a diverse collection of approaches and work. In this series, each guest editor will spend a month writing a few posts about those research avenues.
For my contributing month I’ll be writing about the public engagement aspect of archaeology. As referenced in a previous post (Engaging the Public as an Archaeologist), this is my wheelhouse. Public engagement encompasses such a massive conglomerate of practices, it’s a bit overwhelming. It even took me a while to figure out how I wanted to define “public engagement” for this piece. Public engagement centers around the programs/means of dissemination and outreach an archaeology project is employing. This is where it spreads out like runny eggs; anything from project public archaeology days, youth archaeology programs, targeted community archaeology programs, museum displays, social media outreach, education modules, to engagement program development. All of these fall under “public engagement.” It seems that most academic and government funded archaeology departments have now developed more or less formalized public engagement programs, and while CRM firms have a more limited portfolio, some have also developed a public engagement aspect. My contribution to this series will work within these rather large parameters. I would like to create a space here for some dialogue about where public engagement in archaeology stands now, where it is going, and how that should shape our goals as archaeologists.
It feels right to reflexively introduce my background here, as my motivation and passion for public
engagement has been obviously shaped by past experiences in archaeology. As I sunburned my way through my first field school I had no idea that I was starting on a journey revolving around public engagement and outreach, but the wheels were in motion. I came to archaeology not as an adventurer or artifact buff, but more as a historically grounded social justice advocate. From my first forays into American historical literature back in the 3rd grade, I was aware that my increasingly rabid appetite for history was more about searching for my own missing history (both personal and in general sense) than about Andrew Jackson’s conquests or Abraham Lincoln’s work ethic. I began to realize the history I was being fed was patchy and was clearly one-sided; the pilgrims came to Plymouth rock and the Indians were excited to help and moved over, the civil war was about freeing enslaved folks from the south because the north knew it was a terrible thing, women apparently just hung around and weren’t important enough to mention, and so on. And that’s where archaeology became my thing. I recognized that through archaeology, personal historical perspective could be both mapped and contextualized in a way that is decidedly lacking in 4th grade history books. We know all these lines, we’ve learned them all. But its important for me, that that is where I entered my archaeological adventure.
In a twist of fate, during the summer after graduating high school, I earned my first calluses at “James Madison’s Montpelier, Home of the 4th President of the United States, Author of the Constitution.” The Archaeology Dept. at Montpelier just happens to be fiercely dedicated to public engagement and during my many field seasons there they were launching a program specifically designed to make public engagement one of their main goals. As a tourist destination, Montpelier offered an opportunity to enjoy all of the classic questions often heard when engaged in public archaeology; “Where is the cannon?”, “Where are the bones?”, “Where are the dead people?”, “How much money is the stuff you find worth?”, “You must love your job to dig in this heat!”. But it also presented moments of true significance that I was lucky to witness. I was able to watch descendants of the enslaved folks who worked and lived at Montpelier come home; I could see them healing slightly, and knowing how their own lives were part of Montpelier’s fabric. I was able to witness visitors struggle with the complexities of slavery, white privilege, and recognize the significance of enslaved folks carrying on in the face of inexplicable brutality. Through these experiences my passion for public engagement grew; as did my weariness.
As I have grown in my archaeological career my understanding of public engagement has deepened, as
have my respect for the ramifications. Public engagement isn’t an easy track to run, and is quite often unsuccessful. I plan to write about how public engagement is characterized, launched, neglected, executed, and developed by discussing several different public engagement programs that are currently being worked on. Though I’m not an authority on the subject, I’ve spent the last nine years surrounded by “public engagement” and observed how regionally, temporally, and racially it differs greatly. Over the next month, I’d like to start a conversation about the places we think public engagement in archaeology is going and how that will define who we are as archaeologists.
Katie Seeber is a MA/PhD student whose research interests focus around heritage archaeology, public archaeology, and utilization of archaeological data to engage contemporary communities with the past. Her work with Dr. Siobhan Hart and Dr. Nina Versaggi focuses on 18th century Haudenosaunne communities in the southern tier of New York state. She is currently researching the socio-political and geographical ramifications of conglomerate, multi-national, multi-lingual indigenous settlements. She is working for MAPA (Master’s of Arts Degree in Public Archaeology at Binghamton University) to develop their new program and help create a new space where public archaeology and academic archaeology can intersect and develop new paths for future archaeologists.