Public Archaeology Through the Eyes of Descendant Communities
University of the Arts, MFA
Archaeology is an important way we learn about our past as human beings. It provides the evidence of who we are, creating a connection between our past and our present. Over the past half-century, archaeology has undergone a shift towards increased inclusivity, both in terms of project participants and the focus of studies. In public archaeological projects archaeologists strive to engage a variety of stakeholders. One of the most significant publics to emerge as stakeholders in projects are descendant community members, who have very personal connections to the past being studied. Engaging stakeholders in projects can be a challenging process, but it is ultimately rewarding and has the potential to transform individuals, projects, and the field.
This thesis explores the potential of using descendant community participation in archaeological projects as a lens to create interpretation that connects visitors to both people of the past and the present and helps them understand why archaeology matters. The study examines current museum approaches to public archaeology using two case studies: the exhibitions at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum and the exhibition Digging Veritas at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. The study then explores two Philadelphia-based projects, the President's House Project and the James Dexter Site Project, through scholarly and popular media coverage, the interpretation they created, and interviews with stakeholders. By digging deeply into these two projects, the study evaluates the merits of using stakeholder engagement and the descendant community perspective as a lens for creating interpretation about public archaeology projects. It demonstrates how creating dialogue about issues important to descendant community members and framing those issues in relationship to archaeological evidence speaks powerfully to the public and can be transformative on many levels. The study concludes with a set of considerations for those undertaking public archaeological projects and creating interpretation about them.