The Case for Critical Evaluation of Outreach Approaches in Archaeology

In situations where the goal of archaeological work is not to produce a product, but to successfully engage a particular group of people, it seems like common sense to try to figure out if it is working. Archaeologists are used to assessing human behaviors by measuring material signatures – indirect evidence – and most public outreach efforts in our field also follow this model. Where with zooarchaeological evidence we might use a Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI) as a rudimentary measure of the abundance of an animal in the diet of past people, with public archaeology most people are using number of attendees or online hits as a measure of engagement. But just as MNI is but an entry point to understanding the role of animals in the past, counting heads is only the first step in understanding if public archaeology is “working.” (I know I am talking about a huge variety of goals that archaeologists have, but I will try to be relevant across the spectrum, like horoscopes.)

As I outlined in my first post, the ethical underpinning of public archaeology (the “big umbrella”) is that archaeological practice has sociopolitical consequences for contemporary communities. As Dr. Randall McGuire (2008:48) put it:

Recognizing that archaeology is a social product and process and that multiple stories, addressing different interests in the present, may always exist raises questions of what interests archaeology should serve and how these interests are best served.

Archaeologists have not given enough attention to identifying these interests or to building dialogues between those interests and us (Shanks and McGuire 1996; Faulkner 2000; Moser et al. 2002). As socially engaged scholars, Marxists and other emancipatory archaeologists should remember that we cannot trust in “correct” theory or “true” knowledge of the world to direct our praxis. Critique must remain a constant and central part of what we do.

Applied to public archaeology, this is a strong argument for critical engagement with practice. Even the forms of public archaeology which change scholarly practice least – where archaeologists present completed research in public as experts – are often justified as empowering the public with knowledge to act as citizens. Of course, usually we hope that they will act in a way that supports archaeological preservation. But if we stop at just counting how many people show up to read or listen, how do we know if our efforts are working? I don’t think we do.

This is not to say that there is not work being done to critically evaluate public archaeologies, but this largely takes place in the realm of peer reviewed publications. There are thousands of peer reviewed, published works identified as public archaeology. The vast majority of these works focuses on the theoretical and ethical underpinnings that motivate, or emerge from, public archaeology. The vigorous debate in American Antiquity about why indigenous perspectives are needed in scholarly archaeology is one example of such rich engagement (see McGhee 2008, and reponses by Colwell-Chanthaphonh et al.Croes, and Silliman). Why are we doing this? Who does it benefit? These are questions which are incredibly relevant to all of us, and continue to deserve our attention.


Above: Some of the many literatures under which public archaeology work is otherwise labeled

Also deserving of attention is how we enact our principles in the daily work of archaeology. Of the published literature on public archaeology topics, few projects have described their process for reaching their intellectual and ethical goals (the Community archaeology special issue of World Archaeology is a rare and notable exception.) Most public archaeology is never published about, perhaps because outreach is treated as an “extra” in our profession. I think that attitudes are changing, however, as evidenced by the active discussion among academics across disciplines about how to ensure that digital and analog public outreach is considered during tenure evaluation.

Recently I have seen two things that I think will lead to support for more rigorous discussion of evaluation in our discipline: stronger public archaeology networking and more people bringing up evaluation in their research agendas. Within professional organizations in the United States and Europe, public archaeology interest groups have grown, and facilitated greater collaboration among practitioners. On online platforms, especially Twitter, archaeologists have sustained scholarly discussions of the field among like-minded colleagues year-round, one of the most popular topics being #pubarch (public archaeology).

If critical evaluation of methodologies is indeed the next step in developing democratic public archaeologies, then how? I don’t have one answer, but a few suggestions (this is but a draft of my paper, after all):

1. We should use the theories of practice that our colleagues have rigorously debated and developed (return to the umbrella image above for some examples). Social scientists have long engaged with versions of such ‘daily work’, using the terms praxis (Marxism), habitus (Bordieu) and practice (practice theory). Not so long ago, sociocultural anthropologists debated major restructuring of their traditional methodologies to respond to similar concerns about both ethics and the creation of knowledge. These theoretical threads, and the ways cultural anthropologists employed them, should be instructive. (A neat guide to the reflexive turn in anthropology created by Dr. Carole McGranahan’s students is here, if you want a good overview.)

2. We should build on and debate the proposed Attributes of Community Engagement from Guilfoyle and Hogg (2015, on or the stable url), an effort to draw out shared qualities of community engagement across collaborative archaeology publications. Guilfoyle and Hogg make an important, but uncommon, push toward a more unified methodology of public archaeology.

Guilfoyle and Hogg's proposed framework for characterizing the community engagement in archaeological projects

Guilfoyle and Hogg’s proposed framework for characterizing the community engagement in archaeological projects.

3. Literature under the label of “heritage work”, particularly that of Dr. Laurajane Smith, provides useful examples of how to assess the impact of site visits on public perception of heritage. An example I go to over and over again is Smith’s survey of visitors to English Manors in the book Uses of Heritage. Smith describes how she identified demographics, motivations, heritage-related values, and the impact of the visit for each visitor during her study. Her summary of this work shows that going a few steps beyond attendance can provide a wealth of knowledge about how public heritage (and archaeology) is actually impacting the public.

4. Critiques of participatory practice in other disciplines are also instructive. I have been influenced particularly strongly by critiques of participatory art, where viewers become part of artistic creation (especially the book Artificial Hells by Claire Bishop and one of my mentors, Dr. Pamela Smart.) Read this passage and tell me it couldn’t equally likely be talking about archaeology outreach:

“Although the artist delegates power to the performer (entrusting them with agency while also affirming hierarchy), delegation is not just a one-way, downward gesture. In turn, the performers also delegate something to the artist: a guarantee of authenticity, through their proximity to everyday reality, conventionally denied to the artist who deals merely in representations.” (Bishop 2012:237)

5. We should encourage our colleagues who have worked tirelessly in public archaeology to share their knowledge either in traditional forums (such as peer-reviewed, printed publications) and create more spaces where informal scholarly discussion of these issues is encouraged. Follow Anne Pyburn’s example. Public archaeologists have a great opportunity to talk across traditional boundaries of seniority, geography, and specialization, and should continue to do so.

6. The sociopolitical implications and communities involved in each research encounter are different. Public archaeology theory tends to be very particularistic, so we need to consider the argument that each project needs its own framework for what constitutes success, and a particular set of tools for evaluating whether goals were met (more on that in the next post).

As you can see, there is an existing body of work that could be informative for exploring how to evaluate the impact of public archaeology work, but it still remains to be seen whether there is a community of scholars behind the cause of evaluation. I believe it would be a worthwhile intellectual pursuit. On the other hand, evaluation as concept and practice could do harm in any number of ways. Next week, I’ll discuss some of the potential hazards of pursuing evaluation in public archaeology.


  • Thanks for your final suggestions, they are very stimulating!

  • Kellam says:

    Hi Kate,
    I’m thinking about the first point you describe. The “reflexive turn” certainly has not gone unnoticed in archaeology, though perhaps it has been directed towards issues of theory/data or the recognition of “subjects with agency” in the past. A lot remains to be said about the role of archaeology within contemporary communities. Can you elaborate more on how you would like to see a theory of practice integrated into the evaluation of public archaeology?

    • kellenberger says:

      Thanks for the comment, Kellam! I certainly agree, I think the contemporary focus is easier for me to connect with the contemporary focus of much public archaeology. Since my mind is not settled on this topic by any means, I am not sure I have a satisfactory answer to your question.

      I hear a lot of frustrations with how disconnected theory is from practice, and how theoretical language is impenetrable. I think to advance public archaeology practice and integrate existing theory more effectively, we need to have an idea of how our public outreach work is actually impacting stakeholders’ (“the public’s”) ideas about heritage. It is not clear how stakeholders’ actions change (or not) based on their interactions with us. We do not have enough information to move forward with building a methodology until we know how our practice is operating in the complex sociopolitical landscapes where we intervene. To me this is a compelling call to action.

      On the other hand, there is real danger in appearing to ‘tidy’ the messiness and particularity of public archaeology practice. It is in some ways contrary to the theoretical underpinnings of the field; each research setting has different stakeholders and sociopolitical concerns, and we should not assume our colleagues do not already navigate these with great care.

      I think the issue of training future public archaeologists is a major reason why a set coherent, visible methodologies by experienced scholars is an important thing for the discipline to produce. I am not sure if those scholars would agree with this idea, though, and I am sure they train excellent students in the current system. But working with international students who have a much harder time accessing that kind of mentorship, I think it would be a good idea.

  • Paula Hertfelder says:

    I really like how you brought up critiques of participatory art as being an influence on you, and as being extremely relevant to this discussion. Can you elaborate on this a little? What have you found particularly useful in this for evaluating public archaeology?

    • Kate Ellenberger says:

      I guess I am not necessarily influenced by participatory art so much as the actual critical work of Artificial Hells by Claire Bishop. There are some passages which could equally describe collaborative archaeology’s goals and blind spots. (I don’t say public archaeology here because these critiques are most relevant to the kinds of public archaeology where the public participates in the research and knowledge production process.) In the next post, I will use another quote from the book that I hope clarifies this a bit.

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