One of the most important elements of any study of cultural heritage is the communication of conclusions about research to the communities they impact. Archaeologists have been engaged in this process for some time, not only by presenting their findings through museums and talks to the public, but also by inviting the public to visit archaeological sites being excavated, and even take part in the excavations or lab work themselves. The tangible nature of the archaeological process makes it a unique discipline that members of the community can participate in, while also learn about their own cultural heritage. This is a powerful element of our discipline, and has been categorized in what archaeologists call Public Archaeology. At Michigan State University, advances in Public Archaeology through the use of digital tools has expanded the potential and reach of Public Archaeology.
Public Archaeology as traditionally practiced has a few limitations. First, it is almost entirely site specific. It has been nearly impossible for the public to visit an archaeological site if they are not physically at the site. This can be difficult for sites that are not accessible (i.e. in the middle of the woods, or on a restricted access site such as a construction site, private property, etc.). Second, the public has to make the active choice to block off a day or afternoon and visit the site or museum. This can take time and money. Third, public archaeology days are often scheduled affairs: archaeologists will block off a couple of days or a weekend dedicated to the public, while other days remain closed. These all limit the accessibility of the sites to the public, and reduce the likelihood that the community will take part. Recently, through the use of digital social media and the emergence of virtual presentations of archaeological sites, these barriers are removed. At Michigan State, the use of digital social media has become a regular part of the public archaeology component for the MSU Campus Archaeology Program (CAP).
The Campus Archaeology Program was developed in 2007 to ensure that MSU respects and protects its cultural resources. Its primary function has been to mitigate construction and landscape projects conducted by the MSU Physical Plant, to make sure archaeological sites are not harmed by their efforts. CAP has conducted a number of projects across campus, making important discoveries such as identifying a 16,000 year old sand dune behind Munn Hall, and also discovering the foundation to College Hall, MSU’s first academic building built in 1856. Due to the nature of the archaeology, which limits excavation spots and the size of our excavation areas, these projects are often small, scattered about campus, and only last for a week or two. If they are longer, they fall in areas that are often unaccessible by the public due to safety hazards, such as on construction sites. This limits our ability to engage the public in traditional ways.
The community that CAP hopes to serve is also unique. In addition to members of the East Lansing community, the cultural heritage of MSU is that of students, faculty, staff, and alumni, an enormous community, and one scattered across the globe. The limitations of site location and accessibility, in addition to the inability for traditional site visits to be conducted by a community that does not live near the sites, has led CAP to pursue new ways to present and engage communities through social networking sites.
Digital Social Media, which incorporates online social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and blogging, has been an avenue used by CAP to adopt traditional forms of public archaeology to adapt to the type of excavation that they conduct, and reach their large community. The benefits of such media is that they allow archaeologists and the community to take part in learning about the excavation process that occurs in real time, is two-way, and that can reach an expansive network that crosses the globe.
Twitter, for example, is a social media tool that allows users to share 140 character messages with other users who choose to “follow” their content. These messages can include links to pictures, videos, or other websites, and users can directly communicate with each other through reply or direct messages. Most importantly, Twitter is a highly mobile technology: it can be operated from a mobile phone. CAP archaeologists regularly post pictures and comments to their Twitter feed, allowing followers to read, see, and respond to the artifacts that are being discovered as they are discovered, and then share those things with their friends, family, and followers. Additionally, they can ask the archaeologists questions and get responses from archaeologists while they are in the field. Most importantly, they can do this from across the world.
Using media such as Twitter has allowed CAP to usher in a new form of public archaeology through the use of technological tools. By making their posts on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and their blog educational and engaging, the public can learn about the process of archaeological investigation, how archaeologists carefully conduct their research, and how they draw their conclusions about the cultural heritage of different societies. Additionally, it allows archaeologists to reconsider the community that they are engaging: using social media allows them to span across geographical limitations, meaning that “community” might mean something larger than “local”. Most importantly, it allows the public to be a part of discovering their own cultural past, a process that archaeologists have noted, is not only educational, but empowering.
I hope to write additional blog posts for the CHI Initiative about Campus Archaeology’s continued use of digital social media as a means for engaging the public, and how new technological tools can be used to communicate and engage communities in their cultural heritage. In the meantime, I would encourage you to visit the Campus Archaeology Home Page, which provides links to their numerous social media accounts such as Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr.