Why is public engagement so important to me? After the intro piece last week, it’s time to delve into the heart of “public engagement” and why I feel so strongly about using it as a foundation for performing archaeology. In my previous post I had said I wanted “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.” As a graduate student, I spend a lot of time thinking about those questions, because they will shape my future as an archaeologist. I have observed that archaeology is undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. Having worked professionally as a field tech for years before heading to graduate school I feel like I’ve crossed into another world; and after talking with other students who’ve done field time, many of us feel that way. After being in academia for a while, I’ve begun to question the role of academic archaeology as a whole (as we’re meant to), and the validity of it as a practice. As the divide between CRM archaeology and academia widens, so do the problems inherent to public engagement. Though it may feel like different topics, this divide ties into why I believe public engagement to be so key to the field. I see both sides of the archaeological divide and the pros and cons that linger with each. I also see ways that public engagement can address these issues. In this post I’ll start with what I’ve observed public engagement to be in the past, follow with where it seems to be headed, finishing up with how that shapes my goals as an archaeologist.
I want to quickly define what I mean when I say public engagement. I mean the dissemination of information about archaeological projects to NON archaeologists. While there is obvious value in presenting archaeological work to contract and academic archaeos, it seems far less important than presenting it to non-archaeologists. A growing number of archaeologists have argued that the validity of our work is the ways it impacts communities we are working in (physically, geographically, associatively). For example, Sonya Atalay has defined community-based archaeology, as “with, by and for Indigenous and local communities”. That’s what I consider to be public engagement on a deep level. Surfing through field school websites and project pages, there is some mention about learning or doing public outreach for a little less than half the time spent on the project. It’s almost always listed last on a list of project goals or initiatives, and instead of being a part of all archaeologist’s job descriptions you can literally get a separate degree in it (e..g.MAPA). What do most projects consider as public outreach or engagement? By most I mean the run of the mill archaeology project across any part of the U.S.; there are a lot of places that stick out for their public outreach programs (like the folks presenting here) but they are the exception, not the rule.
Public engagement is like an ethical add on that folks know they should include, so they throw in an archaeology day at the end of the season and pat themselves on the back for telling “the public” what they were doing all summer in that field. But it’s becoming clear that research for research’s sake is not viable nor productive anymore. As more and more archaeologists have begun to take public engagement to a deeper level than a “public archaeology day” here, and “one local talk about the site” there, the tides are beginning to turn. This is where I cite a bunch of archaeologists like Silliman, Jordan, Chilton, Hart, McGuire, Means, Ellenburger, etc. Furthermore, by making archaeology a publicly engaged project, it reaches past the academy into what matters most about what we do; enriching and educating those folks it should be with, by, and for. What could matter more than that?
With this question about where public engagement is moving towards in mind, the last few months I’ve come across a lot of signs that the quick and easy approach to outreach may be changing. At both the Southeastern Archaeological Conference and the Society of Historical Archaeology Conference this year I saw countless papers about how/why creating a deeper commitment to engaging communities in our work is imperative. At SEAC I saw several papers outlining how integrating descendant Native community’s approaches to traditional archaeological data was creating new and amazing possibilities for both Natives and archaeologists. At SHA’s I heard talks about how to cultivate long-term relationships with those communities that are involved in the work. These were all CRM and academics alike. Also, several folks have published pieces in the last few months about the future of CRM and archaeology (like Succinct’s “The Time to Change CRM Industry is Now”) which also suggest that taking public engagement seriously should be part of that process. More departments (case in point), programs, and companies are trying to engage with folks daily via social media. These all point to a new trend developing around heritage management instead of artifact management. This is the idea that archaeology should go beyond data recovery (both academic and CRM) for many reasons. When archaeology goes beyond a one-night (season?) stand and digs deep into the public they are working for it elevates the craft of archaeology to a meaningful, contributing, functioning program within a community instead of an academic offshoot that doesn’t mean squat to them. Though I didn’t start out intending to talk specifically about Binghamton archaeology, we’ve got a great example of cultivating those deeper connections happening right now.
The Neighborhood Heritage and Sustainability Project provides a great case study for both why and how to construct deep, long-term commitments to the community you’re working with. A project run jointly by Dr. Hart out of the anthropology department and Dr. Homsy out of the Public Administration department, it blossomed out of an existing local community action program called Safe Streets. Currently, it is focusing on collecting place-based stories from within the Safe Streets neighborhood to address several questions about heritage and sustainability (which will be discussed in depth by an upcoming guest editor). I’ve gotten to work on the project several times (at various stages) and at each stage it becomes more apparent that their engagement strategies are working. Drs. Hart and Homsy have seriously committed to this project; attending neighborhood meetings regularly, teaching joint classes that bring their students into the neighborhood to collect stories, or help with clean up days. Last fall, we helped to orchestrate the yearly fall community party getting volunteers from across the community and Binghamton University to attend. None of this is archaeology, but is instead the building blocks of a long-term relationship. Through these deep connecting efforts, Dr. Hart is setting herself up for future work (by creating and maintaining relationships with a wide array of folks from the neighborhood). It’s through this process that Drs. Hart and Homsy are beginning to be trusted as reliable, honest folks who are in it for the long haul – they’re playing the long game.
As a person who’s gotten to be there from the beginning, the process has been inspiring. It feels real. It feels like a project that will do something. Not because of new and innovative archaeology but because of the effort I’ve watched them put in to cultivate real connections with the Safe Streets folks and reach out in the neighborhood. As a result of my own involvement in the project there have been times when I’m at the grocery store and I run into folks from the neighborhood (who recognize me from clean ups, interviews, and the festival,) and we’ll stop to talk. It seems, in that moment that we have a deeper connection than a field interview. I’ve helped their kids paint pumpkins, I’ve walked with them and picked up cans and cigarette butts off their streets. It appears to me it is in that relationship building that the future archaeological work will gain its deepest meaning. When it comes time to do some archaeology it will be with people who know who Dr. Hart is, and what she’s doing. The community will be able to help define the goals of the archaeology, they will be able to tell Dr. Hart what is most important to them, and decide what to do with the results. Furthermore they’ll know that what they find will be for them as much as for the university. It’s a committed, symbiotic relationship. And though I don’t want to toot Binghamton’s horn too much, it is just impressive.
It is this kind of commitment to public engagement that to me, justifies academic archaeology. It moves past one-sided benefit that university academics have a reputation for. This is all well and good, but requires an incredible amount of dedication of time and energy to a specific community and project. How translatable is this kind of engagement beyond this community, furthermore is it translatable past the confines of academia? I recently asked Dr. Hart why or if she thought CRM could begin to utilize a heritage mgmt. style archaeology. She said yes, of course! She pointed out that many CRM field directors and P.I.’s from smaller local companies that have been in one area for many years have exactly the kind of knowledge base you need for this work. For example, she noted that at Binghamton’s archaeology firm, The Public Archaeology Facility one of their long term field directors has been doing work in Binghamton her whole career. Piece-meal, Dr. O’Donovan has pretty much done the archaeology of the city Binghamton, and is furthermore from Binghamton herself. She pointed out that after working in one area for so many years (like many small/medium scale firms do) you know the area, the people, the stories. That’s a perfect set up for beginning to engage in a more committed way.
I don’t have the answer to whether CRM firms should or even could adopt this kind of long-term project, but there are signs on the horizon that a more publicly engaged approach is becoming more common outside academia. For example Succinct Research wrote about the need for CRM to move past traditional approaches that focus on mitigation and compliance and instead embrace something closer to heritage mgmt. Though most firms seem to be sticking to the general formula a few companies are branching out. An obvious example is Binghamton’s firm, the Public Archaeology Facility that has had a long history of public programs such as their Community Archaeology Program. While PAF is doing great work, it is part of a university system and likely doesn’t really reflect the larger world of private firms. That being said, while at SHA’s I spoke with and observed a number of different firms who were clearly adopting a more public engaged approach. There was a larger contingent of CRM folks present at SHA’s this year than I can remember in past presenting and tabling. Many of them were talking about their efforts in outreach. A few companies have very active Facebook pages, like Panamerican that regularly update folks about what they’re finding, where they’re going to give talks (much like the City of Boston’s Archaeology page). They have been out in force this year talking about their recent underwater project that gained nation attention. But perhaps one of the most engaging and interesting efforts made towards public outreach came from New South Associates out of Georgia.
Sitting on a table of the book room in SHA’s I spotted a kids book they’ve just put out based on the archaeology they’ve done on the Abercorn site Georgia. It’s a story of two small boys, one who grows up on the site, and one who’s the son of an archaeologist digging up the site. Upon doing a bit more research I found a printable book available online. I was so pleased and thrilled to see such an effort. It seems like a small step toward a more heritage based approach to CRM. Taking a step towards managing more than just artifacts opens up so many possibilities for more work and more stable, local income. Diversification of the ways archaeology can be useful is happening in academia, and is leaking into CRM. This brings us full circle. A CRM approach that focuses on heritage management can also focus on deep public engagement. For me, this seems like a future for archaeology. The pipeline boom won’t last forever, and small firms can’t sustain themselves on well pads and bridges. The opportunity to simultaneously bring archaeology into the public sphere on a deeper level, engaging stake-holders on a real, meaningful level while creating more stable jobs, income, and work force seems like it had real possibility. I don’t see public engagement as an after-thought or add on. I’ve always felt it was our most important mission. In these last few years I’ve observed an over-all trend or maybe recognition that there is a future for archaeology that puts public engagement first. I’m hopeful that diversification of what we consider cultural resources can branch out to heritage resources, and I’m hopeful that such an approach can bring archaeology to the forefront of communities; that it can bring deeper meaning to archaeology beyond data-recovery and mitigation. I’m betting my future on it.