Today’s blog is the first of a short series that deals with the experience of the archaeologists at Cosmeston in engaging with the public during the 2011 excavation season. Unlike other posts so far it is a multi author effort, with contributions from John’s Oberst & Durman (undergraduate tour guides) Julia (re-enactor, PhD student & animal bone specialist) Alice (finds co-ordinator) and Matt N (person in charge of directing unsuspecting dog walkers into the village):
Our Getting Medieval! open weekend was a fantastic success thanks to the hard work everyone on site put in. Whilst all and sundry dug in to answer questions and engage with visitors, one group in particular was heavily relied upon. These were the day promoters and tour guides, who spent their time circling the lake, leafleting, visiting Penarth and local supermarkets and providing top class tours of the excavation and medieval village.
All this work was undertaken by students (with support from University Community engagement team and Archaeologist). A key element of the training students receive during the excavation is in public engagement. For some, this is a walk in the park (quite literally), but for others this is their nightmare. Over two days we had four people working as guides; John’s O & D, Rachel and Rob. For two of the group public speaking was not a big deal. Rob is a film maker extraordinaire and, being bilingual (Italian/English), was able to help out when an Italian family were making their way around the site. John O is also a confident speaker, who happily took on this role for the whole weekend, sharing his knowledge of the site and instilling enthusiasm into those he took around. John found one of the key pleasures of the work was the wide range of people of all ages he got to work with, not to mention the invaluable documentable transferable people skills developed.
For all those who are happy to talk, there are plenty who would rather hide in the Portakabin, clean the toilets and cook (not at the same time). This was particularly a familiar feeling for John D who found the prospect of talking with strangers daunting:
“Acting as a tour guide for one day was really hard for me as I am a very shy person who does not enjoy talking to more than two people at a time… I did my best and did enjoy meeting a variety of new people from young children to the older generation. I am pleased that I had the chance to pass on my experience of the Cosmeston site to the variety of people and I hope they enjoyed the experience as much as I did.”
Rachel also didn’t feel particularly comfortable with the process, however, once into the swing of things and happy with her information quite enjoyed the whole public engagement experience.
Public Engagement, Public Space
There was a strong feeling in several of us that the experience not only helped develop our communication skills, but also enabled us to better understand the archaeological significance of Cosmeston. For, whilst archaeology is a team effort, the focus on a sole feature or idea whilst working can make for an individualist experience and, sometimes, an individualist interpretation. Consequently it can be easy to lose sight of the ‘big picture’. Opening up the site forced us to step back and consider the wider narrative, as throughout the day the feedback loop forces you to consider the values and desires of the public; the site was no longer the preserve of the specialist, it was a public space in which debate occured.
From the many heritage bodies facing cuts to the recent Fenland ‘bunny huggers’ row over archaeological planning conditions, there appears to be an increasing array of challenges facing archaeology. Heritage departments in universities are not immune, with significant changes in funding and the tuition fee rise potentially having a detrimental effect on archaeology in higher education. Archaeologists, however, are tackling this head on, with much of the response being positive and community orientated, such as the Southport Group report. Universities are taking a similar track, developing their own community projects (if you would like information on Cardiff’s please contact the Community Archaeologist Dr Paula Jones). All this is crucial for the survival and interpretation of our shared past. As Julia points out in her blog, what value is archaeology if we archaeologists keep it to ourselves and do not share it with the world? How can we expect to survive as a profession if we do not excite interest from a wide range of people, and show them that they too can get a lot from the past?
Anyone need a tour guide? We have at least four well qualified people here!