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A Dual Identity: Public Outreach in Archaeological Conservation

January 29th, 2013

A Dual Identity: Public Outreach in Archaeological Conservation

Jeneva Wright

The role of archaeologist is often debated, especially when juxtaposed against the rising call for public outreach in cultural property management. Some archaeologists describe the gulf between public interaction and resource protection as irreconcilable. “When an archaeologist has finished his report, the physical remains are often found in zip-lock baggies, and the product is a report. [Historic preservationists] focus on providing sustainable public access, not on preserving archaeological data” (Hannahs 2003:8-9). While many individuals in the field recognize the importance of public engagement, it remains that there is a gap between archaeology and outreach. What is the best methodology to pursue public interpretation, and who is responsible in this endeavor? Is it really important, and is it in the best interest of the resource? Are members of the public really capable of providing stewardship for cultural property? A scientist, after all, is not necessarily an educator, much less a public relations manager. In the face of this veritable Venn’s diagram of priorities, responsibilities, and aptitudes between the archaeologist and the resource manager, it seems to me that the elements of research, outreach, and resource protection are strengthened by the field of conservation.

The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) Code of Ethics spotlights the simultaneous importance of both resource protection and public involvement and awareness, thus displaying the conservator’s dual role in cultural property management. The conservator preserves artifacts for display or future research, stabilizes and protects them against deterioration, and can even restore them to original appearance. The motivation for doing so is at the core of conservation’s potential role as segue between archaeology and public outreach. Artifacts are not conserved for their own sake, as a scientifically-enhanced antiquarianism, but rather for their ability to present a greater range of information for current study, preserve their qualities for future research, and present a tangible material culture for appreciation by scientific and public audiences. The ultimate goal of conservation is to protect these artifacts’ abilities to share their stories and to convey historical information. If artifact interpretation is considered an integral component of cultural resource management, conservation seems well-situated to enhance both archaeological understanding and public education to mutual benefit.

 AIC. 1994. Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.

 Hannahs, T. 2003. Underwater Parks Versus Preserves: Data or Access. In: Spirek, J. and Scott-Ireton, D. (eds.) Submerged Cultural Resource Management: Preserving and Interpreting Our Sunken Maritime Heritage, pp. 8-9.



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