By Robert P. Connolly
Nash Museum at Chucalissa and University of Memphis
Over the past five years the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa (CHNM) in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S., has employed an applied archaeology approach to engage residents of the adjacent community. The engagement includes the co-creation of museum exhibits, consultation on museum redesign, along with hosting community events, projects and programs. Simon (2010:187) writes the purpose of co-creative community projects is to “To give voice and be responsive to the needs and interests of local community members; to provide a place for community engagement and dialogue; and to help participants develop skills that will support their own individual and community goals.” The CHNM considers community engagement as the driving force behind such projects. Today’s level of engagement stands in sharp contrast to the relationship with the surrounding community when the Museum was founded in the 1960s.
The Mississippian culture (A.D. 1000 – 1500) temple mound complex, today known as the Chucalissa Archaeological Site, was “discovered” in the 1930s through a Jim Crow era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project to construct a segregated park for the African American community of Memphis. However, when evidence of the prehistoric occupation was encountered, the area judged to contain the rich prehistoric deposits was removed from the park project to become a tourist destination and research focus for the academicians. These revised plans did not consider the needs of the adjacent community that is 95% African-American.
In the summer of 2010, after a two-year period of increasing community collaboration, the CHNM partnered with the Westwood Indian Hill Neighborhood Association and received a Strengthening Communities Initiative Grant to create a Museum exhibit on the African American Cultural Heritage of Southwest Memphis. The exhibit proposal centered on a 1920s era African American farmstead excavated at the Chucalissa site in 2002. The CHNM had curated seven cubic feet of artifacts, field notes, and plan maps from the farmstead excavation. The excavation remained unreported at the museum because of an interpretive focus solely on the Native American occupation of the site.
To holistically interpret the built environment of Chucalissa, the historic era also needed to be included. In so doing, the Museum would incorporate a voice not heard in any other cultural heritage venue in Memphis—the African American community of southwest Memphis. Nine area high school students were selected to create the exhibit from an application pool of 35. The selection criteria required that the students live in the zip code surrounding the Chucalissa site, be enrolled in an area high school, and complete an essay on why knowing about the cultural heritage of their community was important. The essays were reviewed by area teachers, nonprofit administrators, and the staffs at T.O. Fuller State Park (TOFSP) and CHNM.
Samantha Gibbs, coordinated the project for her M.A. practicum in the Anthropology Department at the University of Memphis. Emily Schwimmer assisted Sam through an internship for the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program. Sam and Emily were the facilitators who worked with the high school students on a daily basis.
The high school students spent thirty hours per week for five weeks in the summer of 2010 creating the exhibit. From the outset, the students made the key decisions in the project. The museum staff and graduate students played only a support role. The first two weeks of the project were spent in team building exercises, discussing applied archeology methods, brainstorming, and visiting area museums to view collections and exhibit creation processes.
None of the high school students had participated in a similar project previously, so there was a good bit of uncertainty on their part. In the first week, one of the students, Jasmine Morrison, asked what the museum staff intended to do with the exhibit after the students left. We replied that the exhibit was to be permanently on display and that if she brought her children to visit 20 years in the future, the exhibit might be updated, but would still be in place. Jasmine’s question was a turning point for the project. The answer demonstrated to the high school students that we were serious about the exhibit and the creation was an opportunity to tell the story of their community.
The students decided which artifacts would be placed in the exhibit. They visited a local CRM firm where an historic archaeologist identified and contextualized the materials for them. The students performed archive research, wrote labels and didactic panels, and chose photographic images for the exhibit from digital collections curated at the University of Memphis. Initially, the farmstead exhibit was the project’s sole intended product. However, because the students were the decision makers in the project, they chose to create much more.
The students also created six 2 x 6 ft. banners that formed a timeline tracing the history of the African American community in southwest Memphis from the early 1800s to the present day. Then they created a series of “Did you know?” wall placards that recounted important historic facts about their neighborhood. The students also recorded over 30 hours of oral history interviews with leaders of their community from which they created a 20-minute documentary. Finally, the students began a resource center at the Museum to curate the documents they obtained over the course of the five-week project.
As one of the students, Davarius Burton, noted at the exhibit opening “It was all on us to decide what was going to be in the exhibit.” The only criterion the facilitators insisted on was that the exhibit must be focused on southwest Memphis. At first, when discussing the Civil Rights Movement, the student’s default was the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in downtown Memphis. Similarly, the default for music was to consider Beale Street instead of southwest Memphis. When refocused to southwest Memphis, the students interviewed their own pastors and elders who were active in the Civil Rights Movement, participated in bus boycotts, and went to jail with Dr. King. Similarly, the musicians they explored included legends such as Al Green, who the students often observe in their community today. The soundtrack for their documentary was performed by Mrs. Bobbie Jones, Stax recording artist Isaac Hayes’ high school music teacher.
Now completed, the community residents of southwest Memphis see the exhibit as an important asset. Westwood Neighborhood Association (WNA) President Robert Gurley commented at the exhibit opening, “We need to let more community residents know about our exhibit at the Museum.”
The Museum staff view the exhibit creation as a node on a continuum of long-term reintegration and relationship building of the CHNM with its neighbors. Since the exhibit creation, the CHNM hosted the first ever Black History Month celebration in the community. Of importance, for the past two years the celebrations are organized and presented by the community. The Museum functions only as a venue and community partner.
In a recent collaborative venture, the WNA, TOFSP, and the CHNM were invited to submit a joint AmeriCorps proposal for an eight-week community service learning team to live and work in southwest Memphis. The proposed AmeriCorps projects include collaborating with the Westwood residents to address code violations and present long-term sustainable solutions, maintenance activities at TOFSP, construction of a replica prehistoric house at Chucalissa, and archaeological testing of the 1930s era CCC camps located on the grounds of TOFSP.
This latter project is of particular interest to all three collaborating agencies. The 1930s CCC camp was a segregated Jim Crow era African-American camp that constructed the TOFSP for the African-American community of Memphis. This aspect of the community’s cultural heritage receives little formal acknowledgment though the community is well aware of and proud of this legacy. At the Friends of T.O. Fuller meetings, members speak of this important legacy and are anxious to have it documented in a formal exhibit. Using the farmstead exhibit project as a model, the AmeriCorps team will work with area residents to insure an engaging community based project. The AmeriCorps Team will serve as another node on the continuum of relationship building for collaborating agencies in southwest Memphis.
Most recently, University of Memphis graduate student Mallory Bader conducted focus groups and interviews to obtain stakeholder and visitor input on anticipated upgrades to all exhibits in the main hall of the CHNM. One of the focus groups consisted of WNA leaders. Mallory recorded that although the focus group expressed interest in the Museum exhibit redesign, they were even more interested in creating a food and herb garden that reflects the traditions of their community. The WNA could not identify a safe and suitable location in their residential community for the garden. The CHNM will provide a space in an open meadow area at the Chucalissa site. The WNA Executive Board, approved the proposal and are anxious to begin the garden process.
Applied archaeology has proved a useful means for exploring the cultural heritage of the African American community in southwest Memphis. Chambers (2004:194) notes “What is important to recognize here is that what makes this work applied is not the knowledge itself, which certainly can be relevant to the interests of others, but the act of engagement with others who are trying to make decisions related to particular heritage resources.” In this capacity, applied archaeology has played a pivotal role in forming a collaborative relationship between the C.H. Nash Museum and community partners in southwest Memphis.
Robert Connolly is the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa and an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Memphis. His blog Archaeology, Museums and Outreach is at rcnnolly.wordpress.com
Chambers, Erve, 2004, Epilogue. In Places in Mind: Public Archaeology as Applied Anthropology. Paul A. Shackel and Erve J. Chambers, eds.
pp.193-208. London: Routledge.
Simon, Nina, 2010, The Participatory Museum . Museum 2.0. Santa Cruz, CA.