First week in a Public History PhD Program

This has been a great week of learning!!  I have really high hopes for the rest of the semester.  Currently I am working on applying for credit through portfolio review, and once that is finished I will have a better idea of the courses I will take next semester, but for now, I’m quite happy with my classes.

I am enrolled in Public History Seminar, which introduces the field and contains an interpretive project with the Stones River National Battlefield.   I also signed up for a management course,  Operations and Foundations of Management, as part of my interdisciplinary studies.  Foundations of Educations, also an interdisciplinary course, will hopefully help me to build my skills as an educator with a more “formal” education (irony).  Lastly, I’m taking an Ancient Egypt course as part of my historical field requirement.

So far, I have been able to relate everything in the business class to a museum in some way.  We had an interesting discussion in class about efficiency and effectiveness and what the results of each are (or are not).  I have some thoughts on this and hope to expound upon them in the near future..

For foundations of education, I had to write my “Philosophy of Education.”  As the only student without experience in graduate level education department courses, I have some concerns about whether or not mine is exactly what the professor is looking for, but I will include it here anyway:

My philosophy of education is not, perhaps, as developed as others who have been in the teaching field in the past, or those who have had formal teacher training. My philosophy comes from the school of informal and participatory education within museums. As discussed in class, traditional learning is becoming obsolete. I believe that all students learn differently, and while some students may learn from typical lecture structure and taking notes, most students gain more from lessons in which they can see results or tangible evidence. Students should be engaged and involved in the learning process, not passive bystanders.

I wrote a book review on Elaine Davis’ How Student’s Understand the Past for Museum Practices at the University of Memphis, which further explains my views on why experiential learning is so important.

This semester has had a promising start, and I can’t wait to share all that I learn with the museum world.

Musing on Chucalissa

Today was my last day at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa

Having spent the last year at the museum, I’ve had really strong feelings about leaving it.  I started as an intern last summer, ended up accepting a position as a graduate assistant there, then continued this summer after my graduation as a temporary employee.  As I prepare to leave Memphis for Murfreesboro and the PhD program, I’m leaving behind this great museum and taking with me so many awesome memories, great experiences, and incredible lessons.

After a year of hard work at the museum, I actually feel like I have accomplished something.  Some of you who work in museums may not often get to experience that feeling.  Chucalissa is definitely moving in the right directions under the supervision of Dr. Robert Connolly and

Rachael and I make a stop at Lambert's while on our museum field trip

Rachael South, and I feel like I was very lucky to be a part of those changes.

In addition to general daily museum operations, I spent most of my time at the museum working on educational programming using artifacts with no known provenience and working to improve our teacher information packets.   I definitely benefited from these experiences, and I like to think that the museum did as well.

There was also a fair amount of time spent promoting the museum with videos, such as the one about our musical instruments that Sam and I improvised on a cold, slow, January day, as well as the Relic Run documentary, and the video featuring Sonny Bell and the pow wow drum.  Now I’m just getting nostaligic!

Even though I did accomplish a lot in my time at Chucalissa, I can’t help but feel like there is still so much to do.  I hope to return to the museum to complete my PhD Residency, as soon as I finish my coursework at MTSU.  I left just an hour ago, and I already can’t wait to get back to the museum, the projects, and the people who work there!

I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am now without the help of all of the employees, especially my professor/advisor/boss and the director of the museum, Dr. Connolly (insert shameless promotion of his blog here).  He has been a great mentor to me, and I look forward to working with him more in the future. Rachael,the administrative assistant, has also been an essential part of life the past year, and I would probably have lost my mind by now without her.

Not just wolves, but all manner of critters!

The day ended appropriately enough with Natalye buying me the obligatory Chucalissa wolf shirt (much appreciated!).

I also bought myself Nina Simon’s Participatory Museum, which I hope to read before classes start, and post more about here.

So long for now, Chucalissa, with your “hut”-less earthworks complex and NAGPRA compliant exhibits!  I’ll miss you, but I’ll be back to visit and see the improvements as they occur!

Organization and Flexibility in Museum Education

There is something to be said about planning.  However, there is also a whole lot to say about rainstorms, middle-schoolers, and outside educational events.

When one is involved in a museum or public education role, one must always remember that while groundwork and orderliness are important to the planning process, flexibility and improvisation are also essential attributes.

This past week, the Museum of Biblical History’s Archaeology was an excellent example of organization gone out the window for uncontrollable reasons.

I have always been a planner and an organizer.  I run off prioritized lists and goals.  I probably spend more time preparing for things than actually doing things.  This event was no exception.  The detailed daily schedules, worksheets, and activities, attest to fact that our camp was set to run like a well-oiled machine.

Our Happy Diggers

And the first day, it did!  Gracious volunteers and a fabulous director prepped our freshly dug archaeological “excavation”, and the kids were eager to get in that dirt and dig.  After a lesson on the basics of archaeology, we headed out to our “site”, Rome, and got to it.  The kids were a bit hasty and sometimes did not use exactly the proper techniques of a “real” archaeologist, but at least they were getting some good information about how we learn new things without text documents, stratigraphy, and excavations.

Then came the Memphis Monsoon of July 26, 2010.  Monday night brought storms and rains the likes of which we had not seen in this part of town for weeks.  The wind blew away our tarp (which was not going to hold out too much rain anyway), and Tuesday morning we were left with a pit of mud and muddy water.

When the students arrived, we started work on invitations for the opening of our exhibit, “Rome at Home,” which exhibited the artifacts that the students found throughout their days of digging.  After delaying the trek out to the pit in hopes that it just might dry out some for the kids, we finally headed out to the trench with the children to assess the damage.

Jacob and the Mud Pit

Jacob, the director of the museum, is luckily a very good-natured and obliging man, and he jumped right in the middle of that pit to test it out.  After immediately sinking up to his ankles in mud, and becoming a little bit stuck, we decided that it wouldn’t be safe or really even a good idea at all to let the kids in the pit, or too close to it.

Luckily for me, I had a pair of rain boots stowed in my car, so after grabbing those, I jumped right in with Jacob.  To save the kids from potentially cutting themselves on glass or pottery sherds, Jacob and I sifted through the mud as efficiently, yet archaeologically-accurately, as we could.  We put the mud into buckets and let the kids more safely search for artifacts in those

Sortting through mud for artifacts

.  Some kids set to sifting through the mud or recording what had been found.

Overall, the students still had fun searching for artifacts and essentially playing in the mud.  I believe they did still learn something, even if that lesson was simply that archaeology isn’t always fun, and that life doesn’t always go exactly as you had planned.

Once they all made their ways home, Jacob and I returned to the pit to dig through Layer 3 to uncover all of the artifacts that were meant for Thursday.  The trench was so muddy and so wet that we had no hopes of it drying in the night, especially with the threat of more rain and storms clouds overhead.

Wednesday morning, we built a small new dig area with topsoil, and reburied the artifacts so at least the students would have a chance to get in there with their tools one last time before the dig was completed.  After a morning of recording artifacts, using archaeological tools correctly, and cleaning up our dig site, we all returned to the air-conditioning to finish our exhibit for our visiting families.

Building the exhibit "Rome at Home"

The exhibit was, I believe, a success for several reasons.  Students learned how a museum works and deciding what information about an object is important for the visitor to know.  In addition, they had to analyze the objects they chose from their grid-square and decide which are important, and what stories those objects tell.  Teamwork was also an important lesson of this activity, and throughout the whole camp, because of the need to work as a group to figure out what exactly was going on.

As is usually the case with groups of 9-15 year olds, crazy Tennessee weather, and just life in general, our plans and schedules went out the window for the most part.  Fortunately, just about everyone involved in this process was flexible and understanding and willing to simply go with the flow to make sure everything we set out to accomplish was completed.  The students still seemed to learn a lot about Rome, archaeological methods, teamwork, and museum exhibits.

I am by no means saying that the scheduling and planning are unimportant or unnecessary, because without that structure we would have been even more lost than we already were.  However, if you are in this business or hoping to get into it someday, you should be prepared for the unexpected, because Murphy’s Law is inevitable.

When working with the public, especially in an educational role, keep up the planning and organizing, but always make sure to stay flexible!

The happy, muddy archaeology team after a hard day's work

Beginning the process…

Well, the time has come for me to launch my very own professional blog and website!

I realized that once I am no longer a temporary employee of the University of Memphis (next month), I won’t have the ability to host my portfolio on their network anymore.  Additionally, I have a lot to say about museums, public history, informal learning, and so many other topics that having a blog where I can express my ideas was the next logical step.

On this website, you will find information about my work in museums, historical organizations, the museum studies program at the University of Memphis as well as samples of my work from these institutions.

Please feel free to comment on my blogs or pages, and if you have any questions, you can email me at mkatestringer@gmail.com or through this webpage.

I plan to update regularly as my portfolio grows and as I learn more about public history as a PhD student at Middle Tennessee State University beginning this fall!

Happy Reading!