Public Archaeology and Education: Present Relevance to the Past
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Public archaeology can take many forms and, in its most popular ones, aims to bridge the distance between archaeology and people who are not trained in or have had exposure to archaeological practices and their subjects. Within this interaction, education takes center stage, as it is often the goal of such interactions to educate (and at the very least satisfy the curiosity of) the public. In this entry, we will explore several ways in which education is enmeshed in public archaeology, some current debates, as well as potential future directions.
Public archaeology is any archaeological practice which involves (at the receiving end) audiences and practitioners other than trained and qualified archaeology specialists (cf. the similarly broad definition Schadla-Hall 1999: 147). This usually (but not always) means that experts create opportunities for or invite collaborations with nonspecialists, not the other way round (i.e., it is usually a top-down approach). I take education to mean here any action which leads a person or group to acquire more knowledge than he/she/they possessed prior to the action and, as is often the case, to consequently change their understanding of a topic or even their worldview and practices. I therefore take public archaeology and education to be the relationship and entanglement of these two types of action (Franklin and Moe 2012 summarize this, helpfully in my opinion, as “archaeological literacy”; and Bartoy 2012 as “teaching through archaeology”).
Archaeology as a discipline started, to a certain extent, as an educational endeavor. From their very early days, collections of archaeological (together with other) artifacts served to primarily showcase the social and cultural capital of their owners. However, archaeology’s first disciplinary steps as the practice of collecting and exhibiting past material were already permeated by a desire to educate either the collector/patron about the past or his/her equals and then wider publics. Such material collections were eventually gradually configured into the holdings of public, private, and university museums. In addition, this desire did not arise only because these publics were thirsty for knowledge themselves but also because collectors and patrons, and eventually local and national governments, saw the public’s education in archaeology as a service which they were morally obliged to provide and portrayed themselves as suitable to facilitate or impart it.
In time, this type of public archaeology, largely driven by museum education, diversified. It also began to include volunteering opportunities in the museum sector, public talks, and exhibitions based on public interest (e.g., in nationalist content, seasonal relevance, etc.), as well as volunteering opportunities in the field, from site tours and community events to excavation participation. Over time, the demographic of the involved publics also broadened. Originally, only the affluent upper and aspirational middle classes entertained archaeological interests in the intellectual context of the museum or the site visit (even the Grand Tour), the latter facilitated by the “great man” or (more seldom) the “great woman.” At the same time, the lower classes were engaged with archaeology in either more practical ways (e.g., as excavation workers) or in folkloric practices (e.g., using sites for pasture, local festivities or even worship, cf. Hamilakis 2009). Gradually, however, there was a general tendency for the “opening up” of museums, excavations, and archaeological practice more generally on particular occasions or seasons. There was also a tendency for a better public understanding of and desire for heritage to become more widely accessible than it had been previously (for a very good overview, see Schadla-Hall 1999; Bartoy 2012; also Kehoe 2012).
This gradual “democratization” was precipitated by profound political, social, and economic events, which created the right environment for such changes. For example, the nineteenth-century nationalism and state formation in a number of locations worldwide fostered a larger appetite for new excavations, museum exhibitions, talks, and public debate about the past of these territories. Similarly, the two World Wars of the twentieth century C.E., the sociopolitical events of the 1960s and 1970s, the proactive introduction of conservation legislation, and the advent of postmodernism had an immense impact on the (sometimes radical) reconfiguration of national and community identities and especially class systems. They also created new needs and opportunities for education through public archaeology (also see discussion of the North American Education and Archaeology Work Group and its agenda in Franklin and Moe 2012).
At the same time, the economics of archaeological research changed significantly. In its early days (but also to some extent until now), archaeology as a discipline was sponsored, much like the arts, by wealthy patrons or governments which saw it as a sociopolitical investment, in the context of the “public service” described above. As both archaeological and public spending paradigms shifted, e.g., due to the different priorities for education, training, and public investment after especially World War II, the patron system largely migrated to the university, museum, charity, and local government sectors. It also diversified to operate within a complex network of funding schemes for humanities in general, where archaeology had (and still has) to compete with a number of other “causes.” Consequently, public archaeology, apart from its public service persona, had to adapt to a new role: that of a fundraiser in the age of consumerism. In other words, engaging and educating the publics became fundamental to the very existence of archaeological practice, because it meant that educational, humanitarian, and even recreational outputs needed to be seen as worthy of monetary contributions and, conversely, that the public money spent on these now demanded public accountability (cf. Schadla-Hall 1999: 152–153). This shift is also connected to a great degree to the development of mass tourism (cf. discussions in Silberman 2007; Kouri 2012). This directly funds archaeology in a number of ways, as we will see below, and so making the past relevant to the present through public archaeology education ensures the survival of both the artifacts as the subjects of research and of the discipline itself.
Key Issues/Current Debates
Archaeology engages and educates the public in diverse ways. One of those is through experts enabling people outside the archaeological and museological sector to volunteer in, e.g., excavations, museum curation, open days, etc. (cf. Bridge Farm [a Romano-British site] excavation open day, Council for British Archaeology 2019). In these cases, the nonspecialists provide help as unskilled resources for the specialists, and, in return, they are trained in (often transferrable) archaeological and museological skills. They also connect with other like-minded people. This is a type of engagement which may be invited by experts, but is more proactively pursued by non-experts.
Another way in which educational engagement happens is through the organization of public talks, excavation and site tours, and school visits, as well as the creation of materials by museum professionals and excavation project directors offline (e.g., site information panels) or online (e.g., websites). In these cases, public archaeology education is actively initiated and pursued by archaeology experts with the intention of communicating their latest finds and research, or little known information, to wider audiences. This might be, as suggested above, in order to raise funds, to provide a public service, or to inspire new generations. Related to this is the presence of archaeology in the current school curriculum in any one country. It can be argued that this is a type of public archaeology education on the basis that it devolves archaeological knowledge to non-experts with the explicit purpose of educating them and of making the past relevant to their present realities. For example, the recent synergy of the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education in Greece (see below) saw the involvement of several experienced archaeology specialists in the composition of high-quality heritage materials for the primary education curriculum, which was conceived (and to some extent implemented) within an interdisciplinary framework. Another example is the community archaeology outreach of Surrey County Council, which enmeshes archaeology into the (UK) national curriculum by going beyond archaeological/historical subjects, e.g. by using it in math, english, science, etc. (Surrey County Council 2019).
Public archaeology can also take the form of media presence, including the contribution to or even creation of documentaries, interviews to the press (e.g., local newspapers), social media presence, etc. (cf. Richardson 2013). There may be several reasons for this, and, as such, the educational outcome of this type of engagement is variable. For example, in the case of a heritage interview (cf. Cameron 2014), the educational purpose of the archaeological outreach is more explicit. In contrast, a newspaper interview might involve an archaeologist writing a column about an archaeological matter, offering a public announcement on a current excavation season or reporting on the retrieval of looted antiquities. Although these are less explicit ways in which education is imparted by the act of an archaeologist addressing the public, they do serve to create new knowledge and perhaps attitudes (e.g., about the local historical event, the excavation results, or the ethics of looting archaeological artifacts; cf. discussion on UK legislation and action in Schadla-Hall 1999: 153).
Other ways in which the public face of archaeology might educate in a top-down approach include the opportunities for the public to bring to experts found or inherited artifacts for valuation (several museums and archaeological authorities around the world hold such scheduled or ad hoc sessions). There may also be archaeologist-run workshops on subjects such as pottery dating, archaeological law (e.g. regarding metal detecting practices), and the like. They may even include the involvement of local publics in archaeological bureaucracy (e.g. when acquiring permits for building, collecting, etc.). This, of course, is not necessarily a positive educational experience, and it almost invariably alienates citizens from their archaeological authorities, especially if the bureaucracy involved is cumbersome. However, although it might be considered as perverse to count archaeological bureaucracy as public archaeology education, I would very much argue in favor of this. Such processes do indeed educate the publics regarding the legal and ethical status of antiquities, as well as invite them to reflect on their own legal, historical, and intellectual relationship with them.
Museums, galleries, and sites may also be used for non-archaeological reasons, such as hiring for private events (e.g. wedding receptions at the Roman Baths site and museum in Bath, UK) or concerts (e.g. at the galleries of the Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece). In such cases these publics may also be incentivized to attend such venues in future on their own and to seek more archaeological information. They certainly learn, in subtle ways, that these museums, galleries, and sites make the past relevant to the present by putting it in the service of modern events of personal or collective importance. Therefore, these heritage venues entwine the lives of modern people with the past in ways which are meaningful beyond the formalized circumstances of an expert-non-expert relationship. The counter-argument, of course, involves ethics and capitalism. Especially in more conservative heritage environments like Greece, antiquities are venerated to an extent (e.g. Hamilakis and Yalouri 1999) as “public right” relics and the fact that museums and archaeological services are in these cases being potentially sacrilegious is problematic. In addition, the use of antiquities as backdrops to (private) economic or other activities can be taken as a prime example of the way in which archaeology is instrumentalized for purely capitalist purposes which are irrelevant to education or heritage (cf. extensive discussions and contributions in Hamilakis and Duke 2007). We should therefore consider what social, ethical, and other repercussions this type of private capitalist normalization of public goods affords.
More “extreme” cases of archaeological educational initiatives are the public adaptations of what is often termed “fringe archaeologies” (cf. Schadla-Hall 1999: 154–155; Simandiraki-Grimshaw and Stefanou 2012). This is the use and interpretation of archaeological elements (usually artifacts and monuments) by nonspecialists for professional, personal, social, religious, and other reasons. Such practices involve some familiarity with, through study of, the material, but may significantly deviate from official interpretations and uses. These practices may range from the private collection of artifacts (e.g. through metal detecting) and neo-pagan worship (e.g. in archaeological sites or through replicas of ancient artifacts, e.g. Rountree 2006) to conspiracy theories (e.g. alien or ultra-nationalistic interpretations of material culture). Consequently, these types of knowledge, although they can be categorized as public archaeology education (insofar as they constitute archaeological knowledge arrived at by publics who self-educate), often pose a direct threat to the kinds and methods of education that the official gatekeepers of the discipline (certified professionals) espouse and impart.
Examples of chiefly commercial adaptations of archaeology include (but are not limited to) mass tourism and popular culture. We saw above that public archaeology education happens, among other places, in museums and archaeological sites, where people go voluntarily for education, recreation, edification, socialization, etc. Commercially speaking, this practice is inextricably linked to tourist sales (hotel bookings, travel tickets), heritage ticket sales (museums and sites admissions), the souvenir trade, etc. (cf. Silberman 2007: esp. 181–182). But how do public archaeology and education fit with these? One useful lens through which we can approach these is branding (cf. Holtorf 2007). Archaeology often attracts its publics through public outreach and brands itself as the authoritative provider of associated education and entertainment. By providing information (just facts or more educational opportunities) on websites, tourist guides, advertising, etc., it creates incentives for people to directly or indirectly partake in this type of education. Tourist bookings, which, e.g., take the initiative of including site and museum visits in package holidays even if some of their customers would not automatically do this, deliver such audiences to the archaeology sector. The latter benefits from selling tickets, souvenirs, and other materials to these audiences, directly or indirectly educating them. The local product and souvenir industries provide these audiences with artifacts which are artistic adaptations of differently digested public archaeology education (Fig. 4b, c). These industries benefit from the education of such publics when the latter buy local products and souvenirs invariably not only as recreational artifacts but mainly as tangible aide-memoirs, often for explicitly educational purposes (e.g. to build a collection). An often hidden aspect of this interdependence of sectors is the (sometimes substantial) fee that the makers of souvenirs, guidebooks, tours, alcoholic spirits, etc. have to contribute to the heritage sector for the use and, to some extent, interpretation of the relevant material culture. These funds, in turn, are fed into public archaeology education in the form of updated displays, workshops and other events, curriculum provision, tourist advertising, etc. (cf. discussion in Silberman 2007).
As the outputs of all the aforementioned types of public education archaeology can serve different purposes, which may or may not be archaeological, they are not usually judged by how accurately (according to the specialists) they have reproduced the archaeological knowledge gained, but by how they have interpreted the spirit of the artifacts, monuments, and sites they have used and so how they contribute to an aesthetic and humanistic dialogue between past and present.
The author’s specialization lies in Greek (especially Bronze Age) archaeology. My experience is also principally rooted in the archaeology, museum, and education sectors of Greece and the UK. Consequently, I have been actively involved in practices and debates regarding public archaeology education in both countries. I have also been informed by examples from other countries and heritage sectors through collaborative and research work. From my point of view, therefore, there are a number of examples (in addition to the aforementioned ones) of how the past can or may be made relevant to the present.
As mentioned above, one such example was the recent synergy between the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education in Greece. This was called the “Melina Educational Programmes” (after the late Melina Mercouri, actress, activist, and politician). It aimed at a more holistic redesigning of the curriculum, in which archaeological education per se, and as contributions to other subjects, played a vital role. Similar archaeological education initiatives include educational materials created and events run by museums and archaeological projects with the intention of being integrated to the current school curricula (e.g. the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK; the Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece; Stonehenge, UK). The educational tropes, approaches, and interpretations in such public archaeology pedagogies may be different, depending on the country’s archaeological and educational traditions and practices (cf. discussion in Kehoe 2012: esp. 548). For example, there is a clear difference of approach between Greece and the UK in how local heritage is communicated, taught and interpreted. More emphasis is given to local identity in Greece and to multicultural/multitemporal perspectives in the UK. For nonschool learners, public archaeology education in Greece is (or at least has the semblance of) a more top-down process: the heritage sector either imparts knowledge (lectures, guided tours, excavation open days, etc.) or brands such knowledge as the aspirational goal of those who want to be educated archaeologically (e.g. through specialist language in museum displays and media releases). Public archaeology education in the UK is (or at least has the semblance of) a more grassroots process: the heritage sector either aligns itself more often with contemporary topics, especially in order to attract funding from funding bodies, or projects a more “industrialized” image of archaeological practice (cf. contract archaeology), designed to instill in the public a sense of education acquired through scientific labor. In fact, a more integrated heritage-tourism-education model can be discerned in the case of the UK rather than that of Greece (cf. in-depth policy discussion in Kouri 2012), especially as far as funding, cultural sustainability, and conservation are concerned.
There are several issues which arise from the educational interaction between archaeology and its publics, and these precisely concern if and how the past is made relevant to the present (cf. McManamon 1991; McGill 2010). These issues, of course, are encountered in a number of countries around the world, but my examples here concern the two countries I am most familiar with. One such issue is whether archaeological educational intentions can (or should) be disentangled from non-archaeological (e.g. political) agendas. The Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, a set of sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, is a very famous and still highly controversial example (see “Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles: Case Study”, in the entry by Stefanou) which involves the heritage (and politics) sector of Greece and the UK. The two countries have opposing views as to the legal status and therefore rightful home of the artifacts, and so the public educational provision in both countries (museum spaces, school materials, public talks, guidebooks, events, etc.) is skewed toward each country’s interpretation.
Another such issue is how publics are educated about or even allowed to shape the relevance of the past to the present. In the case of Greece, excavations or (more seldom) artifacts processed and communicated by archaeology professionals in specific disciplinary ways are taken up and often radically reinterpreted by their publics, creating types of knowledge which directly affect, e.g., the site’s funding, security, political, and social role. This has been the case with the excavation of the site of Amphipolis in Northern Greece. The public education attempts by its archaeologists (in the form of talks, interviews, media releases, high-level site tours, etc.) have fueled a range of public receptions and understandings, almost none of which might have been intended by the experts: the politicization of the site in the Greece-FYROM/North Macedonia debate, its use by ultra-nationalist groups as a banner of Greekness, and its interpretation as a potential burial place for Alexander the Great.
Similarly, in both countries, there have been long-term tensions between the archaeological and religious use of non-Christian monuments, e.g. at Stonehenge (UK) or at the Temple of Olympian Zeus (Athens, Greece). In such cases, the past is made relevant or irrelevant to the present, depending on the site’s sociohistorical circumstances. It can be made relevant by agreeing concessions between interpretational disagreements: e.g. the archaeological interpretations of the use of Stonehenge are not necessarily those held by its druids. It can also be made irrelevant by banning conscious efforts at mutual education: e.g. the archaeologists ignore and condemn neo-pagan worship at the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
The aforementioned examples and discussion raise several questions, which ultimately affect the ways in which we can conceptualize potential future directions of public archaeology education. On the one hand, we would have to survey the desires, goals, and needs of archaeology’s stakeholders; on the other hand, we could conceive possible directions which might incur collective benefits.
In order to do this, we first need to ask who owns and can control archaeological knowledge in the case of public archaeology, which, in turn, directly or indirectly funds archaeology as a discipline. An easy answer, especially a few decades ago, would have been “the professionals,” perceived to be the experts in what the public (singular) needs. As we have seen in this entry, however, this is no longer a tenable position: there is no such thing as a single public, and the professionals may be aware of (and indeed constrained by) their own methodologies, but they are in need of constant dialogue, especially in this postmodern, pluralistic age. Indeed, a considerable source of tension currently seems to be that the archaeological educational relevance advocated by specialists through official publications, events, and outreach (e.g. press releases, site tours) may not necessarily be the relevance desired by publics in topoi such as social media, public activities, and public debate (e.g. press articles, marches, and demonstrations). In addition, is public archaeology and its educational provision always voluntary, or can it also be an involuntary action, and should the latter be regulated? The issue here is really whether the education imparted is distorted or used for different agendas and, consequently, whose standards are being followed (the specialists’ or the funding publics’). If we are able to answer these questions, then we will be able to reflect as to the makeup of the body (co)creating educational opportunities, as well as the nature of these opportunities. And if we want to progress public archaeology education in meaningful ways, a more inclusive and interactive synergy is needed, through ethnographic research, consultation, co-curation, etc. (e.g. Bezerra 2005; McGill 2010), without necessarily falling into the trap of relativism or dissolution of archaeological method.
Second, we need to reflect on the goals of public archaeology education. As we have seen above, they can be very varied, depending on how heritage is perceived and legislated, as well as how archaeology and education are practiced around the world. One of the goals is the physical and notional sustainability, stewardship, and conservation of archaeological sites and materials. Another is the financial and professional sustainability of the archaeology sector. Yet another is the political instrumentalization of archaeology in the public domain (e.g. in nationalism, activism, etc.). Consequently, is public archaeology education more about manipulated information (i.e. facts and figures) or about pedagogy (i.e. the cultivation of attitudes)?
A number of voices, including this author’s, as well as a number of examples discussed above, suggest that the overarching educational desideratum in most cases seems to be how to make the past relevant to the present. There are many ways in which this is currently being implemented, which can be enhanced in the future: outreach, inclusive events, curriculum design, site protection and education about this, new technologies, and reconceptualization of publics and communities (online, cf. Richardson 2013, and offline). Such educational opportunities create local and regional pride, connect people’s lives to the past in meaningful ways, build communities, and often change people’s worldviews. The latter, I believe, is the most important future direction of public archaeology education. Through informed and collaborative provision (e.g. community service learning, cf. Nassaney 2012, etc.), public archaeology and its pedagogies can truly be forces for social change (cf. Silberman 2007: 190; Little 2012: 405–407). In a world of social and economic upheaval, “post-truths,” and disenfranchisement, an informed and multi-sited archaeological education has the power to provide valuable service. “Archaeological literacy,” as Franklin and Moe (2012) put it, can empower us collectively toward critical thinking and historical insights (Batroy 2012: 564), toward an understanding of the human condition, and toward community building, inclusivity, and pluralism (social, national, cultural, etc.). It can thus enable us to safeguard our past, comprehend our present, and plan for our future.
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