Challenges, Strategies, and Solutions for Archaeology and Heritage Outreach Today: A Forum Summary

Challenges, Strategies, and Solutions for Archaeology and Heritage Outreach Today: A Forum Summary

Challenges, Strategies, and Solutions for Archaeology and Heritage Outreach Today: A Forum Summary

By A. Gwynn Henderson, Education Director at the Kentucky Archaeological Survey at Western Kentucky University

From April 2021

Months ago, Project Archaeology’s Public Education Coordinator Kate Hodge asked me to prepare a blog post for the Modern Issues in Archaeology series. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I would write about, but I was confident I could come up with something.  Closer to the due date, I started musing on my blog’s focus. Kate had already covered many important issues: Museum Changes, Repatriation, Terrorism, Looting, and Illicit Trade of Cultural Property. What in the world would I blog about that held relevance for Project Archaeology readers?  I worried. I wondered. I tossed and turned. The deadline of April 23rd drew closer and closer.

The Survey’s education series – booklets written for a general audience like this one on the Adena people of central Kentucky – also have been used in college courses.

A Last-minute Inspiration
Almost exactly a week before the blog was due, inspiration struck! What about the Society for American Archaeology forum I was going to participate in? Maybe a blog about that would interest readers…I explained to Kate that I was one of seven public archaeology/heritage education archaeologists who had been asked to participate in a 2-hour, virtual, live forum – Triumphs, Challenges, And Possibilities In Heritage Education – sponsored by The Heritage Education Network (THEN) at the Society for American Archaeology’s Annual Meeting on Thursday, April 15.  Would she be willing to wait until after that event, so I could determine if what I learned during my experience would hold any inspiration for Project Archaeology readers? If not, I’d have to punt. Or worse yet, Kate would have to step in and post a blog on short notice.  Kate said yes! The forum was fun and interesting and stimulating. And so, too, Dear Reader, I hope is the following blog.

What This Blog Is About
I will begin by telling you about the forum and its purpose, about the participants, and about how the live event played out. Then I’ll summarize the responses to two of the questions. And, in a bit of shameless advertising, this blog is illustrated with images linked to the  educational programs that the Kentucky Archaeological Survey has developed over the years. You can learn more about them through our new website

Archaeologists with several organizations and teachers from many school districts worked with Survey staff to pilot Investigating a Shotgun House. Here workshop teachers discuss stewardship issues lead by a workshop leader.

Forum Purpose and Members
The forum considered the successes, challenges, and strategies of heritage education. Forum organizers acknowledged that despite "major accomplishments in heritage education, including the successful implementation of new and established public outreach programs and additions to the scholarly and popular literature on programming and its assessment," many challenges remain. "Heritage educators are still not reaching all the audiences they need to reach…; funding remains a perennial problem, and looting is on the rise internationally." Prior to the session, the forum moderators provided forum panelists with seven questions. Our task was to consider, from our experience, "what has worked in heritage education in the past and what challenges remain…" and "what concrete steps we can take collectively in the future to reach across disciplines and specialties and help each other achieve our educational goals."

The seven panel members – all women – came from diverse personal and professional backgrounds. We were white, black, and Native American. Home bases were in six different states in the Eastern, Midwestern, and Western United States.  Members work for universities – as faculty, and or as staff with university-affiliated public education programs – for a museum, for the state as the assistant state archaeologist, and as the head of a woman-owned archaeology company. We were young and old(er) with a host of different public archaeology/heritage education research interests and experiences over years, and over decades. Prior to the session, we did not discuss the questions with one another (although I did so with my program director, to get his perspectives).

Offering opportunities to work side-by-side with Survey archaeologists on projects is one way of engaging the public. In this case, “the public” is classroom teachers.

The Live Event
The plan was that panelists would consider the first three questions – by answering a question, one panelist after another –and then move onto the next question. If time permitted, we would take up the remaining four questions. The moderators reserved the last half hour for Q&A from the audience.  It was an ambitious plan, as it turned out. We only had time to consider the first three questions and hold the Q&A. Panelists were enthusiastic and passionate, thoughtful and deeply committed. It was a real treat for me to discuss the subject with such creative, intelligent women. The forum was live, unlike many of the other meeting sessions, and was not taped for later viewing. Thus, I took copious notes. I didn’t want to take the chance of not remembering all of the great ideas or missing participants’ thoughts.

In this section, I summarize the main points raised during the forum in response to the first two questions we considered. I’ve left out the third question – How have you addressed archaeology’s lack of diversity through your work? What practical steps can we take to improve? – because, honestly, I don’t have time to consider it (maybe another blog – oh no!!!).

Because of the forum’s organization – one panelist answered completely, and then the next answered, and then the next – it soon became quite clear that panelists agreed with many previous panelists’ statements. Despite our diverse backgrounds and experiences, common threads extended through our answers. Thus, for later respondents (my turn was number six out of seven), we offered  different responses in order not to be redundant. This produced a greater diversity of answers than might otherwise have been offered, had the moderators simply asked for a show of hands.

The most recent episode in the Survey’s Archaeology and Heritage Series focuses on the economy and lifeways in early 20th century rural Kentucky.

Question 1: What do you see as the three main challenges to archaeology and heritage education and outreach today? As mentioned previously, panelists mentioned significantly more than three main challenges. Certain themes and topics did reoccur, despite the attempt by respondents to guard against redundancy. Some of the challenges mentioned were broad and systemic, while others were more concrete and specific. In some cases, panelists were saying the same thing, just in different ways. But in truth, there are many challenges to heritage education and outreach today. And that is because programs and projects take place in many different contexts, target different groups in diverse ways, and have a host of educational and outreach goals. Many respondents mentioned the challenge of reaching diverse audiences that don’t typically participate in heritage education programs. How do we identify them and break down barriers that stand in their way? This is linked to the broader challenges of inclusivity and diversity – in practitioners as well as audiences. Several panelists clarified that what they meant by diversity extended beyond race and ethnicity to include people with diverse abilities and genders. Heritage education needs more voices, and more different voices.

Other panelists mentioned the challenge of making heritage education relevant to and for a wider audience. This is linked to issues of heritage education’s significance and the need for buy-in by the public. It was noted that most archaeological work carried out in the US today targets the histories of people who are not biologically related to the dominant society. What difference does that heritage make to them? People are not interested because they don’t see those histories as part of their own. They do not see the relevance or connection of these histories to their lives. For some panelists, they linked this lack of public interest to American society’s current anti-science and anti-intellectual bias.

Panelists saw effective communication and collaboration – with each other as well as with descendants and stakeholders – as a challenge, too. The need for getting the word out effectively was cited. The challenge of interrogating the motivation behind heritage education and public outreach, and recognizing its potential for doing more (i.e., for addressing social issues) was mentioned. Fighting injustice and attending to economic emancipation were offered as examples.

More practical challenges included the continual urge on the part of practitioners to reinvent the wheel. Communication is needed between neophytes and those who have conducted heritage education and public outreach for a long time, because there really are things that do not work. This is wrapped up within the broader challenge of heritage education and outreach training and the need to for experiential learning: knowing how to do it and knowing how to do it well. The challenge of conducting robust formal research, assessment, and evaluation was mentioned, as was the need to set clear goals and realistic educational expectations. And of course, there is the perennial challenge of funding.

Multiple educational videos on diverse topics are covered in seven different episodes of varying lengths. Frequently, educational materials are developed to support these programs.

Question 2: In your experience, what are the strategies and solutions that have been successful in addressing these challenges? There was much accord among the panelists regarding strategies and solutions for addressing the challenges.

Several themes emerged:

  • collaborate, partner, and communicate
  • be creative and think outside the box
  • be relevant and know your audience
  • persist – it takes time and investment
  • assess and evaluate, and learn from your mistakes
  • be the squeaky wheel – advocate for your work and its relevance

The central role collaboration plays as a strategy to meet the challenges was mentioned by nearly every panelist. And when you think about it, whether it’s research or education, archaeology in all its aspects is a collaborative process. Panelists considered collaboration very broadly – among institutions, organizations, and colleagues (inside and outside of archaeology), and with the public and descendent communities and stakeholders. Pooling resources and networking means no single person or organization has to carry the burden.

Through collaboration, the panelists said, heritage educators can create or enhance inclusivity, and find different ways of thinking about, approaching, and meeting other challenges, too. Several noted that in many cases, collaboration cannot be scripted. It develops organically. Heritage educators should be open to unexpected opportunities, and pivot toward them when they arise. Pivoting is linked to the strategy of being creative, being aware in the moment, and thinking outside the box.

For heritage education and outreach to be relevant, heritage educators must know their audiences. Should there be a difference of opinion between what heritage educators think is relevant and what audiences think is relevant, heritage educators need to lean into, understand, and learn from that difference and dissent. Including the dissent will improve what heritage educators do.

Archaeology and heritage education and outreach practitioners are public servants. Literally. It’s their job to work to figure out what’s important to their audiences; and how to make those connections to the ancient past and ancient places for their audiences.

Assessment is key. Only by learning what works and what doesn’t, and sharing these findings with other practitioners in the discipline, will archaeology and heritage education and outreach practitioners learn, grow, and improve their programs and their service to their publics.

With respect to funding, to get the necessary financial support for our programming and materials development and projects, practitioners must be the squeaky wheel. Perhaps even within our own institutions is where education must occur.

And I will close my blog on an optimistic note, sounded by several of the panelists. Persist. Heritage education and outreach work is slow and it takes time, but it is valuable.