December 3, 2012 by Lorna Richardson
In February 2013, I start a 6 month full-time funded internship at the University of Cambridge Museums, working in their Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, and their Museum of Zoology. I feel tremendously lucky to get this position – one of just five PhD students and post-doctoral researchers in the UK – and to be funded by the AHRC as part of their ‘Connecting with Collections’ project. As the main focus of our internships, we have to undertake a project within the museums, attend various conferences, create scholarly outputs and present the outcomes of our projects at a conference at the end of the summer next year. We are also going to be involved in working within the museums, learning skills such as collection handling, exhibition management and displaying objects. I may have just died and gone to heaven.
My Connecting with Collections project is aligned very nicely with my PhD research topic, but steps out of my Public Archaeology ‘silo’ and into a whole new world of museums and public engagement. My project will explore the forms and methods by which both the public and fellow museum professionals outside of the University of Cambridge Archaeology and Anthropology Museum and Zoology Museum are engaged with the Museums through digital technologies, the potential for future developments in the digital direction for public outreach and assess how these communications could be improved, to benefit both members of the public as users and the Museum itself.
On Friday I went to the UK Museums and the Web conference at the Wellcome Collection, thanks to a bursary from the Association for Computers and the Humanities. I was looking for a springboard to get me thinking about how I would tackle the Connecting with Connections project, and the UKMW12 was titled ‘Strategically Digital’ – strategic approaches to digital projects is something I have advocated for in Public Archaeology, and something that will be absolutely key to the success of the project at the University of Cambridge museums. The conference was a great source of information and inspiration and I came away feeling very happy and excited for the new chapter in my life.
There were a few key points from the conference that really stuck out, and these have been summarized by Andrew Lewis from the V & A here, but I wanted to paraphrase them again. They are just as relevant for Public Archaeology:
- digital technologies are ubiquitous in (most) people’s lives, and we need to be able to provide digital services that are relevant, and can react to shifts in technology and interest
- mobile technologies have a huge impact on how we access and use the Internet, and we need to consider this in our digital outputs
- understanding and reacting to user-behaviour data will help to make sure the information we provide is used and useful – and we need to ensure that we are able to react rapidly if we want to respond to audience demand. Google Analytics is your friend!
- having online access does not equal engagement, doing digital does not equal an audience
- just because an online resource is being looked at, this doesn’t mean it’s having an impact – see Simon Tanner’s work on the Balanced Value Impact Model here if you want a REALLY good resource to help you think about what impact means to you
Lots to mull over, but for Public Archaeology practice, we really need to think about the need to measure our audience engagement and respond to this information – and most importantly for me, the ‘ethical’ issue of what impact we want to have on society through Public Archaeology. The more diverse the audience we can engage, the better. And the more methods we use to do this, the better. But we need a bit more understanding of who they are, what they like, and what we can provide within reason..
“Engaging the public is difficult. Most people, most of the time, do not care too much about archaeology… It is possible to live a full, happy life without knowing much about the distant past or material culture… However, we need to engage a much wider public in the creation of archaeological knowledge. The public may not need archaeology, but an accountable archaeology needs the public.”
Bo Jensen ‘Let’s not go to the dogs tonight’ Rhetoric as a Strategy of Accountability in Archaeological Outreach. In: I. Russell & S. Koerner (eds) Unquiet Pasts: Risk Society, Lived Cultural Heritage, Re-designing Reflexivity Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Farnham. p.179