Blogs as exhibitionary media

My senior-level undergraduate course on Visual Media in Archaeology has been running this term—the second time I’ve taught it since I started at York in 2012. As per last year, my students are working on the production of independent blogs, and whilst I previously left the specifications for those blogs quite broad (the students simply had to tell a story about a subject of their choice), feedback from last year suggested that the brief needed to be more tightly focused.

This year, then, I redesigned the task to centre upon the creation of public blogging campaigns to promote objects, sites, archaeological features or figures of the students’ choice for an audience who would otherwise know little or nothing about them. As you can see, the students have taken a variety of approaches, and I am truly impressed by what they’ve accomplished so far, for reasons that I articulate further below. Some are using their blogs as modes of inquiry into larger archaeological and anthropological ways of thinking (My Student House, One Nation Under CCTV), archives (The Pursuit of Mitfords, The Wonderful World of Dahl), and intellectual and methodological practices (The Archaeology of Painting, Virt Arch). Some are exploring the characters of historic figures (Turpin Time, Diary of a Wimpy King)—and/or are constructing their own such characters in order to comment on and narrativise about material remains (The Cloud Man of Peru) or heritage sites (Legend of the Connacta). And still others are interrogating the histories of different buildings (The King and his Manor), towns (Toton Histories), museums (The History Shop), human material remains (What’s this Mummy Doing in Bolton?) and historic documents (The Bill of Rights 1689).

For some, this marks their first independent experience in doing class work that goes beyond traditional essay-writing. The project, therefore, has not always been easy, because live, creative production for the public, that draws upon more media than simply the written word, is exposing. Indeed, it is experimentation in the sense that Tim Ingold (2011:15-16) uses it: “to do our thinking in the open, out-of doors…[to] place the investigator, in person, right in the midst of things.” As such, any mistakes are made obvious, and everything is laid bare to scrutiny and criticism on a scale that none of the students have experienced before.

But this project is important, I would argue, because to borrow from Darren Newbury (2011), it teaches us to care. Especially as regards visual media, we are often only taught to deconstruct and critique other people’s outputs—a caustic form of practice that might hone our argumentative eyes, but that simultaneously leaves us blind to the complexities of making. Ingold (2011:224) puts it nicely when he says that the “spectator who stands at a distance, in order to make an objective study, is observationally blind.” In other words, to truly understand a type of practice—to truly see—we have to DO; we have to both look and act; we have to observe and participate because, as per Ingold, one is conditional on the other. It’s dubious, then, to teach criticism in the absence of teaching creation—we couldn’t possibly carefully and conscientiously conduct (and comprehend the implications of) the former without an intimate familiarity with the latter.

I am very proud of my students, and I’m lucky to have such an engaged and engaging group to work alongside. I’m not sure that every teacher would say that they thoroughly look forward to their upcoming classes—but I do, because it’s never quiet; it’s never untimely or peripheral to current events; it never lacks in debate or informed dialogue. I hope you’ll consider joining in on our journey by providing your constructive thoughts on the students’ efforts and encouraging them with their projects by commenting directly on their blogs and associated Twitter and social media sites. These have been risky endeavours for the students, but it’s also opened up spaces for them to push their expertise further—to create, to do, to care. I’ve been at the American Anthropological Association conference in Chicago this week where Maria Vesperi (professor and editor at Anthropology Now) said it nicely: to produce for public audiences is how you learn–you write to let go. It’s in this release, then, that real knowledge-making happens.

You can access our aggregate site here:

Ingold, T. (2011) Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.

Newbury, D. (2011) Making arguments with images: Visual scholarship and academic publishing. In Margolis, E., & Pauwels, L. (Eds.) SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, 651-664. London: Sage.

Heritage & the media

Screenshot by me of York's CHM 2 MA module outline on the web

I’m preparing the outline (syllabus) for one of the modules that I’ll be leading at York in the spring term–Cultural Heritage Management 2: Museums, Audiences and Interpretation.  While most of that outline is finalised, I’m still trying to settle on the reading list for a class on ‘Heritage and the media’.  A lot of the usual literature features in the list as it now stands, including Clack and Brittain’s (2007) Archaeology and the Media, and articles by Kulik (2006) on television and Pollock (2005) on newsprint.

But in terms of scholarship on web-based media, I’m keen to flesh out the readings that I currently have listed, and I’m especially interested to include rigorous literature that is itself hosted online.  I’ve mentioned before (here and in my list of links in the column on the right of my homepage) some of my favourite blogs and web-based knowledge sources, and I’d like to have students critically read the outputs of Colleen Morgan’s 4-week Blogging Archaeology project (which culminated in a Society for American Archaeology session), and the associated Then Dig peer-reviewed archaeology blog, as well as web-based journals like anthropologies, and the incredible Day of Archaeology.  I’d also love to be able to recommend forthcoming articles (which are being published online or in academic print) that assess the public and epistemological impact of this work, not to mention of the media themselves (as applied by archaeologists and heritage specialists).

I’m keen for suggestions, so please don’t hesitate to email me, contact me on Twitter (@archaeologistsp), respond here or via Facebook.  Thank yooouuuu!

Clack, T. and Brittain, M. (eds) (2007) Archaeology and the Media. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

Kulik, K. (2006) Archaeology and public television. Public Archaeology 5 (2): 75-90.

Pollock, S. (2005) Archaeology goes to war at the newsstand. In Archaeologies of the Middle East: Critical Perspectives. S. Pollock and R. Bernbeck, eds. Pp. 78-96. Oxford: Blackwell.

Media Strategy in Archaeology

As I’ve mentioned before, my PhD research centres on the exploitation of visual media in the establishment of the first university departments of archaeology in Britain (circa early-to-mid 20th century).  I’ve spent the last couple of years trolling through dozens of archives around the UK (everywhere from the Garstang Museum of Archaeology at Liverpool University, to the Society of Antiquaries, to the West Sussex Record Office, the BBC archives, and more), examining instances of visual artefacts & performances being manifestly — or tacitly — mobilised in the name of institutionalising the still-fledling archaeological discipline.  My thesis ultimately focuses on such mobilisation in context of the Institute of Archaeology (IoA) at the University of London (incorporated into UCL in the mid-1980s).

IoA 1938
Screenshot of photograph of IoA exhibition flyer from 1938

The example of the IoA is perfect for demonstrating the power of tools like temporary exhibitions, museological displays, TV, photography, and other two- and three-dimensional mediums for securing buy-in (i.e., financial, physical, intellectual, political and emotive support) for the creation and sustenance of university-based archaeology, not to mention the broader discipline overall.

What is important is that, in the case of the IoA, although such media savvy is repeatedly attributed specifically to the aptitude (and ego) of the Institute’s first honorary director, Mortimer Wheeler, there is clear evidence to suggest that it is actually practiced quite independently of Wheeler both at — and before — the establishment of the IoA.  Moreover, my research is making apparent the fact that, indeed, such savvy forms part of a strategic approach to discipline-building, rather than some kind of casual or narcissistic publicity posturing, as is often implied.

Ultimately, what I think is critical about the pursuit of such enquiry is the potential relevance that it has for tactical media exploitation in the present. With this in mind, I’m interested to track down rigorous published or unpublished analyses of current archaeological projects’ publicity & mass media policies. There are various cases from the University of Southampton alone of the very effective application of, e.g., the web, television, radio and other mixed media, for the purpose of both internal and external positioning, but I know of these cases mostly anecdotally.  I would thus very much appreciate reference to detailed analytical assessments of such on-the-ground media strategies — please don’t hesitate to email me!