Surveying the Present

Four years ago I was an environmental archaeologist focused on prehistoric peoples living in the Great Lakes and Northeast with plans to remain on the academic track. I specialized in research on how humans modified their environment through the analysis of microscopic plant remains. My layman’s description was that I looked at the burned remains of a prehistoric person’s dinner. Today, I’m an evaluator for the Institute of Museum and Library Services* and focus on the social impact of cultural organizations such as museums, archives, and libraries.

The obvious question is what does one have to do with the other? On the surface, not much. But I employ my training as an anthropological archaeologist almost daily.

I used to think about how prehistoric peoples used, modified, and moved around their environment. This involved consideration of local and regional environmental resources (water, raw materials, seasonally available food resources, etc.) and where, when, and how/if people accessed them. Now I consider why people are visiting museums and libraries and the resources available to them through these institutions. I think about how people move around a modern landscape (e.g. walking, biking, car, etc.), barriers or impediments that might affect their access to museums and libraries (e.g. safety concerns, cost, transportation, walkability), seasonally vs. year-round available programming (e.g. summer and other school breaks, services for retirees or unemployed persons), and local/regional issues of cultural significance. My conception of people and their environment has moved from a primarily natural environment to a primarily built one. The issues and questions I address in my current work are not ones unfamiliar to archaeologists either; it’s the tangibility that differs. It’s possible for me to collect information directly from the folks I’m studying rather than relying solely on the artifacts of their past activities**.

So instead of this:

Some considerations to think about moving around a primarily natural environment when thinking about prehistory

Some considerations to think about moving around a primarily natural environment when thinking about prehistory

I now think about this:

Some considerations for moving around a built modern environment.

Some considerations for moving around a built modern environment.

My archaeological training has also meant I’ve worked in the very kind of institutions my agency funds. Generally speaking I’m familiar with the processes, resources required, and the kinds of constraints cultural institutions face (e.g. limited budgets or staffing, space constraints, collections care, etc.). As an evaluator these issues are already on my radar when thinking about how best to implement evaluation methods, appropriate questions to ask, and relevant information to collect.

I may no longer be spending my days in an archaeological trench but the interdisciplinary training I received enables me to make connections related to policy and how people operate in and conceive of their world in ways that others might not.

*The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

**With the caveat that some historical archaeologists are able to do this as well