Following last week’s post, you may sense that I am on the fence about “evaluation.” I am passionate about public archaeology and heritage work, and I believe we should strive to gather more information about how our actions affect other stakeholders. (Side note: you can learn more about how Program Evaluation professionals do this in a reply to my post by Victoria Dekle.)
And yet, “evaluating” ourselves is an uncomfortable concept that brings to mind a universal system for “testing success” when success is subjective. We all have goals for our specific contexts, and stakeholder communities in those contexts who have their own priorities and criteria for “success”. How could we possibly be expected to create a methodology that could address such a tangle of potentialities?
Well, we don’t have to.
For my final post as Guest Editor of the MAPA blog, I am going to explore a few hypothetical arguments against evaluating public archaeology work. (As far as I can tell, there has not been much discussion about the perils of assessment, besides that people probably don’t want to be perceived as tearing down colleagues.) If the budding discussions about public archaeology outcomes continue, these arguments should be considered.
Why not evaluate?
Because peer review is sufficient evaluation
The foundation of modern academia is peer review. Funding, publishing, and job opportunities are all mediated by the process. Regularly presenting your work to colleagues for feedback has proven a robust mechanism for developing archaeological theories and ethical frameworks, so where is the compelling evidence that we need a separate process for determining if public archaeologists are doing enough self-assessment? This very discussion of evaluation/assessment in peer-reviewed venues may be the most appropriate path forward.
Because we don’t need anything but authenticity out of public archaeology
Doing public archaeology is often described in terms of its emancipatory effects for both researchers and stakeholders. Underlying these statements seems to be relief that something can be done to address the colonial heritage of archaeology.
With the massive expansion of public archaeology events this decade, a skeptical (cynical?) viewer might say that what practitioners are really after is authenticity. That is, using non-archaeologists and their legitimate claims to the past to make our work more essential. This is a critique levied on other participatory practices when the critic does not believe in the objectives of the enterprise (the first to come to my mind are community based participatory research and participatory art.) It is worth considering that each of our individual public archaeology practices are shaped by our own internal struggles in addition to our judgment about what is appropriate intellectually or ethically.
Because public archaeology exists to challenge economic neoliberalism
Recent Western politics have emphasized the ideal of independent, unregulated individuals and corporations rather than on reinforcing the social bonds within society. Although there are myriad ways in which heritage, archaeology, and history are used in politics, the arguments they are a part of usually are meant to draw people together. De-emphasizing what is good for the collective is almost certainly, in my opinion, not good for archaeological preservation. That message trickles down. For example, collectors often articulate the market value of an artifact or its sentimental value to them as equally as important as preserving material culture in museums or following indigenous heritage management practices.
Our being visible, accessible messengers for archaeological ethics has been noticed. That action is a success. All those questions public figures in our field get in their emails are a sign we are on peoples’ radar. Our excavations making headlines and our colleagues winning grants for their compelling public outreach are signs we are already moving in the right direction. Do we really need to pick apart why or how to move forward?
Because we cannot expect to control how the public uses archaeological knowledge
We don’t get to decide what the people who attend our educational programs do with what we teach them. They can choose how, when, and if they will reconsider their way of interacting with archaeological materials and contemporary people who care about them. (Just look at the science news cycle if you need an example.)
The public does not get to decide what we tell them about archaeological work. We can choose how, when, and if we will listen to their points of view on archaeological materials, including why they care about them. We still hold the power to control a lot of information we obviously think is important, and a lot of non-archaeologists think is important, too. The public knows this and is often very skeptical of our motives.
If we did get more information on public perceptions of our work, it would not necessarily make us more successful in creating more citizen advocates for preservation, because ultimately we cannot control peoples’ use of archaeological knowledge. Is it worth the potential risks if we reconsider the traditional role of scientists as gatekeepers to knowledge? Would we be willing to share any more than we already do if we found out we were not, for example, influencing more people to vote for preservation legislation?
Because evaluation would silence voices from underrepresented groups
The standards by which we judge success are built within a Western elite discipline that has deep historical connections to colonialism. If we pursue a form of evaluation, the very form of that assessment will be shaped by Western epistemology.
Indigenous archaeologists have crystallized the notion that there are many theories, methods, fieldwork practices, pedagogical strategies, and interpretive models that are valuable to our understanding of the past but which do not conform to the norms of mainstream archaeological practice (Atalay 2008). Sonya Atalay has emphasized the importance of not only having Native people at the metaphorical interpretive table, but also teaching a tolerance for ambiguity and multivocality in archaeological practice going forward (Atalay 2008:37-38). One way of interpreting this argument is that a multiplicitous landscape of public archaeology assessment is as valid as a singular method.
It is not clear that any questions, methods of asking those questions, or indirect ways of assessing peoples’ thinking about archaeology could be universally applicable, so it may not be appropriate to attempt a unified discussion about assessment. Indeed the very idea of universal applicability is uncomfortably Processual whereas the pursuit of collaborative, indigenous, and even some unidirectional public archaeology communication is rather more Post-processual. But some form of unified, multivocal, debate about public archaeology assessment practices could be a middle ground.
I strongly believe we must strive for more extensive self-assessment and peer assessment in public archaeology, but that does not mean there are not legitimate arguments against it. It is exactly this kind of critical self-awareness that lead us toward engaging the public as a discipline, in many different ways, with a huge variety of results. I am looking forward to discussing these issues in my session at the SAA conference next week. I’ll leave you with this:
Public archaeology is not a product.
Whether we are presenting to the public or working with the public, the purpose is not to make that presentation (or whatever it is.) We all know this. But we should explore more about public archaeology as a process, a process in which we are powerful and affecting agents.