Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Public Centipede

     I’ll be honest. This started in a pub. I’d escaped the house over the Christmas holidays, and was trying to write in my local, aided by a pint and some biltong, when a couple sat at a table opposite me. I wasn’t trying to listen in, but they were talking loudly, the pub was quiet, and I was not in the grip of writing fever…

     I don’t know who they were, other than they mentioned Public Archaeology quite a few times. What I do know is that they appeared to be engaging in some seriously painful handwringing about The Public and some project they were working on. ‘Do you think The Public will like that? Do you think The Public will understand this? Do you think we should contact that professional person to deal with The Public? Do you think Person A would be equipped at communicating with The Public?’ The Public this, The Public that…

     And, if I’m honest, it really started to get on my wick. Who, exactly, are The Public? Because the distinct impression I got was that in this case, The Public appeared to be one, multilegged, singleheaded creature, distinct from the couple sitting near me.  By constantly referring to The Public, they were distancing themselves from anyone who lacked their specific knowledge – in effect, othering The Public, in order to elevate themselves. Not once were ‘people’ mentioned, just The Public.

     As a few of you know, I have been described as a history obsessed moo in the past. I don’t know much, but I want to learn, to discover, to explore, to feel the past and be drawn into the details of people who went before me. To walk up worn down steps, to trace my fingers over ancient stones, to read about history around me, and then to be able to go out and see it for myself with greater clarity and understanding. It’s always been about people for me, right back to that bored ten year old girl in Salthouse, suddenly having her eyes opened. People. Not The Public.

     And this is where I take issue with some Public Archaeology, which seems to seek not to embrace people outside that specific profession, but to hold them at arm’s length. To refer to them as The Public, not as people, not as individuals, but as one homogenised mass blob of humanity who need to be spoonfed, told what they can and can’t touch, and need ‘special’ projects, designed for The Public, not for people. The Public, who are ‘allowed access’ to archaeology and the past, rather than welcomed in, inspired, encouraged, and valued. The Public, who simply by being referred to as The Public, are somehow lesser.

     Do we have Public Historians? Public Gardeners? Public Geographers? Public Chemists? Or do we have those professions, and people who work within them seeking to bring their message to a wider audience, without the need to add the word ‘public’? Something about the term ‘Public Archaeology’ irks me. It suggests an ‘us and them’ mentality, the archaeologists and ‘The Public’, an inner circle and ‘The Public’ being permitted to  look in, rather than valued guests and possible future contributors, which is surely where a lot of archaeology is going to end up… mutter, mutter, undervaluing of our shared past, cuts, lack of funding, heritage in crisis, bloody politicians… 

     Archaeologists should be the facilitators of encouraging people to get involved, to find out more, to fall in love with the world around them and see it anew, with a greater, deeper appreciation of something as simple a landscape feature, a building, or even some scratches on a wall. They shouldn’t be the gatekeepers, deciding when and where ‘The Public’ are allowed in, for how long, and under what conditions.

      I appreciate that everything has to have a starting point, that just because you build it, doesn’t mean that they will come. That archaeologists have to have ways and means of attracting people into their projects in the first place, a hook, something that will work as a method of enticing people outside heritage/history/academia in the first place. That some consideration has to be given as to how to get people to want to become involved. But a better way of doing that would be to engage with people as people, not as The Public, not as something distinct and different. To use facebook, twitter, blogs, whatever – hell, perhaps even real life interactions - to talk to people who are currently outside the inner circle of Public Archaeology, which can sometimes seem to an outsider as a very closed clique that only talks to other members.

     The Public aren’t a segmented single being. We’re people. Just like the people that archaeologists study.


  1. Hello Jess,

    I really enjoyed your post. The issue you raise is central to all attempts of groups of people to connect with people who aren't them. I'll start off widely then come to archaeology in my response!

    I was once at an academic workshop on 'public engagement' with science where one of the participants snuck back into the room during a coffee break and wrote 'Sod The Public!' on the board. She meant, as you do, that the discussion was unhelpfully focusing on an anonymous mass rather than groups of individual people. The sentiment is absolutely right and I think anyone who goes down that route is unlikely to create anything of much importance and, as you point out, can end up insulting people. My PhD was based around investigating the connections between people and 'public art', so I'm well aware of how much people hate being told what to do and what to like. The fact that the vast majority of big money 'public art' pieces are ignored post-installation while the more relevant, informal stuff that people tend to identify with is driven underground (and called 'illegal') speaks volumes.

    With the PublicArchaeology2015 project, of which I think you’re aware, we are, despite the name, addressing just the point you raise. The project is based around the assertion that public archaeology must at least allow the possibility for non-archaeologists to do archaeology, without archaeological supervision (to avoid angering colleagues, I’ll point out that archaeology takes many forms and I’m not talking about digging holes in things willy nilly). The project will see six archaeologists and six non-archaeologists creating their own archaeology projects centred on engaging people other than themselves with archaeological themes. Each will do it differently and we will see twelve very different takes on what ‘public’ ‘archaeology’ and ‘engagement’ mean over the year. One thing we won’t be doing is bringing it all together with any unified conclusions. Each bit of engagement will be left to stand for itself, having either worked or not. In that sense, the public of each mini-project will be the individual humans who take part in it and in some cases the project will have no (formally defined) archaeologists directly involved at all. I think it is moving things in an interesting and useful direction and I hope you have time to give your opinion over the course of the year.

    Just to address the wider perspective again, you ask “Do we have Public Historians? Public Gardeners? Public Geographers? Public Chemists?” I think we do and I think parts of each of those disciplines discuss ‘the public’ in exactly the unhelpful way you identify, they just don’t do it in the open and what we see, despite the absence of the p-word in their output, is their assumption of what we want or need to see. Public Archaeology, for all its flaws is, I think, generally reflexive and open to debate.

    Hope that makes sense! I look forward to continuing the discussion and am glad to have made contact.

    James Dixon (@James__Dixon)

  2. Hi James, thanks for taking the time to read and comment - proving rather neatly that there *are* Public Archaeologists who want to bring archaeology out into the world for everyone to enjoy!

    I've been reading about your project recently, and I think it has great potential to get to people who may otherwise feel somehow excluded from what they mistakenly think is not for them. Despite being a relative newcomer to community archaeology, I've seen how it can transform peoples lives, including mine. I've also seen how there is huge potential for ordinary people who have no formal training or qualifications to engage in meaningful archaeological work through the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, and how valued that contribution is. The potential offered by non-archaeologists is huge, and I very much hope your project can help to shift their perception of what archaeology is, and what they can offer to it.

    Thank you again, for getting in touch - and I'm very much looking forward to following the project. Maybe even getting involved myself...

  3. Gabe Moshenska (@gabemoshenska)15 January 2015 at 10:35

    Hi, this is a really interesting piece, and I find it thrilling and terrifying to see how clearly the divisions within Public Archaeology are visible to The Public (hello The Public! How you doing?). I’m a public archaeologist who teaches other people how to be public archaeologists, so I feel like I’ve got a stake here. You raise a couple of fundamental points in this and your follow-up piece, and I want to respond.
    First, you are right to suspect that public archaeologists know next to nothing about the public as anything other than a blob. This is a failure of research: the last UK-wide survey of public attitudes to archaeology was done in 1986. We know very little about what people outside the profession want from archaeology, what their interests and priorities are. Crudely speaking, this is a failure of market research. Our failure.
    Second, you are right that many archaeologists – including some who do community archaeology – are nervous and suspicious of the public. Partly this is because public archaeology is still viewed by some firms/museums/academics as a box to tick, so people get pushed into it sometimes reluctantly and often without being trained. In short, the people you heard in the pub were probably working a little outside their comfort zone and skill-set, hence their nervousness. Cut them a bit of slack – they meant well. Probably.
    On the other hand, there’s a control-freak tendency within public archaeology that drives me nuts. I heard an American pubarch talk about the “failure” of her project, because the participants returned to the site after the project ended and KEPT DIGGING WITHOUT PROFESSIONAL SUPERVISION. I pointed out that OMG you empowered them AND you inspired them what a DISASTER, but she really really didn’t get it. Again, fuck that.
    My own public archaeology is inspired by public historians and public scientists. Public history comes out of Marxist history and the History Workshop movement with its belief that people should “dig where they stand” and write their own histories of their communities, workplaces, schools, families and lives.
    Public science is interesting because it includes people at the top of their game – Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins (I know, I know), JBS Haldane and others who believed in sharing their work. Like Carl Sagan said, “when you’re in love you want to tell the world”. Public attitudes to science are studied in the UK with massive national-scale surveys every couple of years, that effect science policy and education. Oh if only we had this for archaeology…
    You say that public archaeologists should be facilitators for the public’s engagements with the past. Yes, yes and yes. I have an analogy I use in teaching public archaeology. It’s based on the idea that most people are like Victorian antiquarians: they want a little local history, a bit of genealogy, a spot of archaeology, they might want to collect antiques, do a bit of metal detecting, visit a cathedral or castle, and watch Time Team. So my analogy: archaeologists bring one dish to the antiquarian pot-luck, and if our offering is good, people (the pot-luck public) will take a bit of archaeology potato salad to go with the local history hotdog and the genealogy… er… whatever, you get the point. But if you bring a bland, meagre dish to a pot-luck and demand that people ONLY eat your crappy food, and eat ALL of it, and use their fork properly, then you’re an arsehole and won’t get invited back. This is a common public archaeology fail, as you saw.
    So, to wrap us this over-long comment: public archaeology is a small, chaotic and diverse thing, and we’re still learning. We have known unknowns (i.e. we know that we know next to sod all about the public) but we’re working on it. So any so-called public archaeologist who doesn’t listen when the public speaks is a fucking idiot, and I’m going to be thinking about what you wrote and sharing it with my students, in particular the idea that we should be facilitators not gatekeepers. Thanks.

  4. I read an interesting thing the other night about Time Team. I know, I know, 'bloody Time Team' says virtually every archaeologist I've ever met... What made it interesting was one of the reasons that C4 decommissioned what had been a terrifically popular piece of TV, and that seemed to be the dwindling figures watching it. Part of the reason for this seemed to be Mick Aston leaving in a grump, but the main reason was the insistence of the producers in making the 'cast' dress up in stuff and do experimental archaeology. The conclusion was that the show should have gone back to digging things up and showing people what they'd dug up and what it meant rather than descending into street panto. I have to say I agreed pretty much, that and I find Tony Robinson a bit irritating, but I'll let that go.

    I'm outside archaeology too or sort of straddling the border between outside, with a foot in community archaeology and that small amount of knowledge that's dangerous...

    I'll leave that there I think.

  5. Hello, I enjoyed this post, it needed saying and has needed saying regularly for 15 years because archaeology doesn't listen. There are public historians, you evidently are one of them, and your fellow enthusiasts include a great swathe of the population from genealogists to treasure seekers, place historians to preservationists, collectors to field walkers and of course lots of bloggers and also public archaeologists. I hope your posts on history and also archaeology continue to appear, I'm off now to James's site to arm wrestle with 'public archaeology'. All best wishes, Brian