In a way this post is following the previous discussion of generational differences within archaeology, but mostly I wanted to begin a more generalized discussion, because over the past few months, in various unique instances, I have personally come face to face with, and have had to figure out my own opinion of, the relationship of archaeology and the public. Thus, I want to throw out for discussion the subject of archaeology and the public, and the interactions, responsibilities, and obligations that exist between the two.
Obviously this is a (very) broad topic that can cover all manner of issues from looting, NAGPRA, museums, and much more, and can lead us down some great discussion rabbit-holes. The focus of my questions, however, stems more from the opinion that the current generation of archaeologists is being ‘forced’ to consider, and come to terms with immediately upon entering the field, the concepts of a more interactive relationship between archaeology and the public, which is perhaps more than what was expected of archaeologists in previous periods of archaeological practice (and if I am incorrect in this last opinion then I apologize).
The current atmosphere of “archaeology and the public” in becoming more crowded and complex, in part because of the increase in the overall numbers of practitioners and the broad range and nature of projects, but also in part because of what has been spread through the media with recent questions of the validity of anthropology as a field (such as comments by Florida Governor Rick Scott), or the questioning of the spending of federal funds for research on archaeology and other “social, behavioral, and economics sciences” (see comments by Congress members Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith).
On the other end of the spectrum, there have more positive interactions with the public through the increased appearances of public archaeology days, both at the individual site level as well as up to the state and national level, and innovative activities such as mobile archaeological exhibits. Furthermore, there have been more directed positive interactions such as indigenous archaeology projects, and the new children’s book “The Misadventures of Sandy Trowels.”
All of these examples (and the many more examples that I have missed), for good or ill, are increasing the interactions between archaeology and the public, and are also raising questions about these interactions, and the possible obligations of both archaeology and the public.
Thus, I have decided to present some questions that I have been grappling with of late, due to my recurring encounters with this subject, and I also felt that since I am dealing with them, why should I ‘suffer’ alone – even though my suffering only stems from the feeling of not wanting to ‘get it wrong’ more than any feelings of inconvenience due to obligations.
I have boiled down the various specific questions that I have, into more broad questions, and they are as follows:
– What is the value of archaeology to the public?
– How can (should) archaeologists convey this value to the public?
– Do we have an ethical obligation to interact with the public (and not just because we feel we should)?
– Inversely, do archaeologists have an obligation to the material we study to go out and make it public? Additionally, is (should) this be tied to (in a cyclical way) the value of archaeology?
– (How) Does archaeology, in a similar manner to cultural/social anthropology, benefit from increased interaction with the public?
– More practically (also to give me ideas and examples), what are some strategies (successful or not) that have already been implemented with the aim of increasing interaction with archaeology and the public?
Again, the reason for this barrage of broad questions is that with archaeologists now being increasingly called upon by public officials to defend their worth, with increases in legislation that bring archaeology and the public into closer contact, with funding being more strongly tied to ‘broader impacts’ and social relevance, with more people working with or within archaeology, and with (hopefully) and increased interest in archaeology by the public, current archaeologists (both new generation and “old”) are increasingly facing various levels of public interaction. All of which might be better built in to archaeological practice rather than just being ‘dealt with’.
So, in part to share my current mental burden, in part to get ideas from others, and in part because I feel that this is something that we, as a field, should be considering anyway, I put forth these questions (and any more that others may have) for general discussion.
Have at it…