Throughout our careers, we as archaeologists participate in public outreach programs. Whether through public dig sites, school programs or artifact identifications, outreach programs come in many shapes and sizes and can be rewarding in unexpected ways for everyone involved. Being raised by my grandparents, I grew up surrounded by my elders. My afternoons were spent playing checkers in the senior retirement complex activity rooms and having dinner with my great-grandparents. My grandfather would meet me after kindergarten and take me to the park every day after school. In the evenings, before dinner we would watch the birds at their bird feeders and pull out their Little Golden Guide to Birds to find out what we were seeing. These are special memories for me.
Sadly, this past spring, my grandmother walked on to join my grandfather. When Dr. Goldstein approached us asking who would like to speak at Crosaires Assisted Living Facility about Campus Archaeology, I immediately responded. The campus archaeologist, Lisa Bright and I, answered the call for a presentation about MSU’s history. In early November, Lisa and I presented artifacts and visual representations of the excavations done on campus, documenting MSU’s extensive history. In attendance at Crosaires were a woman named Alex, her son, a graduate of MSU history, two other residents and the director. We passed around artifacts from the various periods of MSU’s past and listened as elders told us their own stories about the artifacts. Alex and her son were avid participants in our discussion, asking questions and offering anecdotal stories about the things we had documented through archaeology. Alex’s son remembered many of the changed landscapes we discussed from his time at MSU some forty years ago. Before leaving for the evening, the residents, family and director all expressed their appreciation for our work, saying that it made them feel good that young people actively sought to remember and educate others about the past. It made them feel important that the things they remember from their youth are being studied and discussed by younger generations. Lisa and I were very happy to have had this experience and touched that they were proud of our work.
Before leaving for the AAA’s, we received an email informing us that Alex had passed three days after we left. As I read my email before I left for the airport I got teary eyed. The director from Crosaires wanted to express her son’s appreciation for the presentation and the hands-on approach we took. He asked the director to express his gratefulness for the work we do and that we provided a beautiful last experience he got to share with his mother.
As an academic, I often struggle to find ways to explain my work to the general population. Many of us often feel that public outreach is not heard or noticed. It is a rare treat to truly feel the impact your work can have on the general public and to realize the unexpected ways you can impact people’s lives simply by explaining what you do. Campus Archaeology is one of the most publicly visible programs that our department has and our outreach is a vital part of it. People connect with the past and present simultaneously through the artifacts we recover and public outreach is our vehicle allowing that connection to be made.