This past week I attended the Society for American Archaeology conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This international conference highlights the newest archaeological research, and is always the highlight of my year. Visiting a new city, trying new food (this time it was oysters from off the coastline in BC), and seeing new sites are always fun, but what I find most useful is being around so many like-minded people and hearing new and exciting ideas.
My attendance at this conference was made possible with travel money from my CHI fellowship; as part of that, I attended some sessions on digital heritage. The first session I sat in on was “Methods and Models for Teaching Digital Archaeology and Heritage.” The session highlighted digital archaeological projects from across the country, including a variety of methods from robotics to social media. Some of my takeaways from this session are that the public is really excited to engage with archaeology in a way that is meaningful to them. One of our tasks is to make what we do accessible and interesting, and in a way, collaborative. We need to find ways of engaging with people that they want. Social media is an excellent example of this. We already do it, people already consume it, so how do we do it better, in a more meaningful way? This session also noted, in multiple presentations, the lack of digital training for students and professionals. The current curricula rarely highlight how to handle digital data (even just the curation of digital images), let alone the creation of online digital heritage projects.
However, I see this as only half the problem. We need to have the skills, but also the knowledge on public interaction. To that end, I also attended a lightning round session entitled, “So do you, like, wear a hat like Indy? Cool, I love dinosaurs! My Grandpa has this really awesome pot in the attic. Can you shut down the pipeline?—Effective communication about Archaeology in Three minutes or Less.” This session had multiple presenters that were limited to making their point in 3 minutes or less. The goal was to effectively communicate archaeological topics to a general audience. It was fascinating to sit in on, and I picked up a few key points, which can be divided into “how to talk to the public” and “how to make archaeology relevant”: 1) Keep the archaeology local and relevant to your audience. They will get so much more out of it if you are talking about a site they personally care about; 2) Tie archaeology to a contemporary problem, such as sustainability, climate change, human trafficking; 3) Use archaeology as a gateway to talking about other issues (linked closely to #2); 4) In the current political climate, the past is being highly politicized (see the slogan, “Make America Great Again”, which asserts that sometime in the historical past, America was great—this is an active reinterpretation of history for contemporary use). As such, find a way to present archaeology to make it easy for politicians to use.
So how do these two ideas relate? Often when we are working on digital heritage project, it is for the public to use. As such, they need to be accessible, and the information communicated in such a way that people understand what you are trying to say and get the message you are trying to get across. While the second session didn’t directly relate to digital heritage, I think its message is directly relevant. Digital heritage projects, much like my own CHI project (the Time-March: A timeline of Michigan Archaeology), are for the public, and need to be presented in such a way that we draw people in, make it relevant to them, while also clearly stating the message we want them to walk away with.