Sunday, September 19, 2010

The context of public archaeology in NYC

Yesterday I attended a symposium called “Archaeology and the Public in New York” held at the African Burial Ground National Monument. The five speakers discussed publicly-engaged archaeology at various sites across the metro area, including the African Burial Ground, Seneca Village, Washington Square’s potter’s field, the ship at the World Trade Center, and Joseph Lloyd Manor on Long Island. What I found most compelling about the symposium presentations was the idea that archaeological sites frequently take on significance (signify) outside of the context in which they are interpreted by most archaeologists. This is particularly apparent in the case of the African Burial Ground, as its tortuous and tumultuous history from rediscovery to landmarking amply illustrates.
The notion that archaeological sites exist and are shaped in a present and public context becomes more complicated when examined in light of questions raised by practitioners and critics of contextual archaeology. According to Johnsen and Olsen (1992: 420) the concern of hermeneutic philosophy is how we understand: “What conditions make understanding of otherness, past or present, possible?” Hermeneutic philosophy (however problematic are its various incarnations of Volk and “objective mind”) asks us to consider the connection (or leap) that we make between the material culture we find and the meaning it had for its users. Frequently the public(s) and descendent communities intuitively make these leaps, unconsciously (or consciously) connecting their own contextual experience to material culture in order to understand the past, in much the same vein as the Historicists advocated. Some archaeologists working at the African Burial Ground who feel deeply connected to both the buried and descendent communities freely make these connections. Many archaeologists, however, express a greater reluctance to make such leaps, yet that we do indeed leap is undeniable. In public archaeology, perhaps a relevant question is how do we leap together?
The question of connection is a difficult one. Bloch and Thomas (discussed in Buchli 1995) raise additional challenges for considering the question of interpretation and connection: the significance of objects is shifting both in the past and the present, and the significance of material culture is what we in the present take from it and use in our own understanding of ourselves. Both public engagement and the epistemology of our discipline thus challenge us to reconsider prevalent notions of what constitutes valid knowledge production, how we connect the past to the present (which we inevitably do), and the goals of archaeological investigation.

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