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It’s time to practice (and reward) public outreach

March 22, 2012

A public excavation at Hamline University's “Old Main." Source: olddirt.wordpress.com

In an excellent post at the Society for Historical Archaeology blog, Jamie Brandon makes a case for  public outreach in archaeology that should be required reading for anyone working in the field. And I’ll go one step further: He suggests a standard of practice to which everyone with a stake in archaeological research in the U.S. should hold the professionals.

Archaeologists, especially those working for colleges and universities, spend a lot of time talking about “public outreach.” That’s an unfortunately vague term for what, to me, should be a vital part of our professional practice. On its most basic level, public outreach means demonstrating to people outside our classrooms and labs both what it is we do as archaeologists, and why it’s important.

There is a pressing practical reason to make public outreach a priority: Most archaeology in the U.S. is funded, to one degree or another, by public money. Tax dollars. If we’re spending tax dollars, we are obliged to justify our work to the folks who pay for our research. There should be some sense of public benefit for it.

But on a more abstract level, there’s a professional, ethical obligation for public outreach. Our work is destructive, and our object is finite. Excavation takes a site apart in the most literal sense. We can never go back and take another stab at digging the same thing. We have to be able to justify why excavating a place is the only way to learn something important or useful. Similarly, we need to be able to justify protecting something from destruction without any knowledge gained. This may seem contradictory – I just said archaeological excavation is destructive – but the knowledge gained from systematic, documented destruction trumps the sort of destruction caused by, say, a construction project ripping through a historic site. That’s the assumption that underlies cultural resource management laws and “contract archaeology.”

As Brandon notes, the consequences of taking public outreach lightly are significant. People outside the profession generally don’t know what we do, or why. Out of that, we get tv programs that glorify looting, and pronouncements from state governors that we don’t need no more anthropologists (for a great example of public outreach following that little comment, see these responses from working anthropologists on the Neuroanthropology blog, and this remarkable presentation from students at the University of South Florida).

But Brandon implies that academic archaeologists share a good chunk of the blame because we often fail hard at public outreach. There are both disciplinary and professional reasons, chief among them that public work is generally not valued when it comes time for university types to get together and decide if archaeology professor X deserves promotion and tenure. This is a real problem that needs to be fixed, and Brandon makes a suggestion that could go a long way toward it.

Simply put, he says we all need to make outreach a part of our daily practice (emphasis below in original).

If we are unhappy with these shows (including Time Team America?), we need to ask ourselves “What should the public image of historical archaeology look like?” and “How do we get there?”  I believe the answer is not in a single pop culture icon (i.e., Mead) or show (i.e., Time Team), but in all of us doing small, daily acts of outreach. So we all need to ask ourselves on a regular basis, “What have I done lately to tell people what I do, and why it is important?”…What are you doing to make historical archaeology visible?

There are many, many great examples of working archaeologists, both within and outside of academic settings, doing things to up our visibility and make the case for our work. Brandon lists several, and I’ve written recently about another. I consider this blog to be an exercise in public outreach, but after reading Brandon’s piece, I know I need to do more. Because that’s the key point he makes, and it’s one worth hammering: Small, daily acts of outreach by thousands of people will give us better results, in the long term, than waiting for some media-savvy personality to become the face of public archaeology.

And this is where “the public” comes into the picture. We need to be held accountable by the people who pay the bills for our work. We need to get out there and publicize the importance of heritage, preservation, and pure research, explain our projects, show people real examples of what we know now that we didn’t know then, and answer the “so what” questions. If every working archaeologist made a commitment to public outreach and worked it into their practice, then, say, promotion and tenure committees would be forced to value that sort of work.

Can you imagine a future where potential academic hires are weighed – in part – on the strength of their blog and Twitter posts, their public radio programs, their speeches at the local historical society or VFW hall? If Brandon’s call catches on, it’ll be hard not to.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2012 10:09 pm

    Excellent post – thanks very much for your thoughts on this.

  2. April 17, 2012 10:10 pm

    Reblogged this on Archaeology, Museums & Outreach and commented:
    Here is an excellent post from the Digs and Docs blog

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  1. New Blog Post on SHA Blog
  2. Digging into the reportage: Archaeology and the media « Digs and Docs

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