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VCU Archaeology

Crowdsourcing, Cocreation, and Collaboration in Austin, Texas

by Bernard K. Means, Director

Austin at night.

Austin at night. Photograph by Laura Galke.

Last Wednesday, April 23, along with thousands of other archaeologists, I arrived in Austin, self-proclaimed “Weird” capital of Texas, for the 2014 Society for American Archaeology (SAA) annual meeting. I knew I had a busy time ahead of me, with three presentations of my own, a fourth I provided materials for, and several meetings with colleagues working in virtual curation that I would meet in the flesh for the first time.  My first presentation on Thursday afternoon was as a discussant for the Biennial Gordon R. Willey Symposium on the History of Archaeology, chaired by Pat Trader, and which had nothing to do with virtual curation, but was interesting nonetheless.

Colin and Kristina with some of the printed replicas I brought with me.

Colin and Kristina with some of the printed replicas I brought with me.

Earlier on Thursday morning, I met separately with Lance Greene of Georgia Southern University and Kristina Killgrove and Colin Bean of the University of West Florida. We are all using the NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner for creating digital topological models of artifacts and ecofacts that are of interest to our research or that of our students.  Each of us has encountered our own challenges with virtual creation, but we also see the great potential of enhancing not only our own fields of study, but also the ability for others to engage with the past–and by others I do not simply mean other scholars and researchers. Because we each come from different parts of the country, and have access to collections that provide access to other parts of the world, we realize that we can “crowdsource” our curation efforts, and create broader digital type collections, particularly of skeletal elements from various animals native to our respective regions–or present in our archaeological collections.

Waiting to present in the co-creation session.

Waiting to present in the co-creation session.

The next morning, I was part of a session on Co-Creation organized by Robert Connolly, Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, and Elizabeth Bollwerk, Archives Specialist at The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.  The abstract for the session Co-creation, the Public, and the Archaeological Record follows:

Co-creation in public archaeology is a means to engage and empower citizens to become stakeholders of the archaeological record.  In museum contexts Simon (2010:278) writes that the purpose of co-creative community projects is “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 papers in this session discuss a variety of recent archaeological projects that implement the co-creative model.  The contributions demonstrate how co-creation moves beyond “hands-on” educational experiences or typical volunteer programs because participants are invited to play an active role in designing and constructing the final products to address their needs and interests.  Co-creation aligns with current emphases on informal, life-long, and free-choice learning models that foster public engagement in the preservation of cultural heritage resources. The papers in this session also explore the benefits and challenges of using this method and provide examples of best practices for implementation.  Finally, these papers speak to the impact of co-creation on the discipline and how the process increases the ability of archaeology to contribute to debates on contemporary issues.

My own paper, Promoting a More Interactive Public Archaeology: Archaeological Visualization and Reflexivity through Virtual Artifact Curation, focused on an extension of my efforts in the Virtual Curation Laboratory that move beyond simple digital preservation of cultural heritage items.  My abstract was:

The Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University was established in August 2011 with funding from the Department of Defense’s Legacy Program. Since its establishment, the Virtual Curation Laboratory has created hundreds of 3D digital artifact models from a wide range of archaeological sites located in the eastern United States, as well as printed plastic replicas of many 3D digital models. Some have questioned whether our efforts and those of similar projects are curiosities or novelties with little to contribute meaningfully to scholarly research or public engagement. In this paper, I will argue that 3D digital models and printed replicas allow for new ways of visualizing the past, while preserving the actual artifacts themselves. These forms of archaeological visualization enable the broader public and not just a narrow band of researchers to dynamically and meaningfully interact with rare and fragile objects in ways that would otherwise not be possible, empowering their own contributions to interpreting and understanding the past.

My paper seemed to engender positive responses, especially when I displayed the digital model of the opossum mummy (see below). I am particularly pleased with the critical and introspective analysis of the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s work in the digital heritage realm by Paul Mullins at his Archaeology and Material Culture blog in his post entitled “More Real than Real: Re-Visualizing the Digital Artifact.” My participation in the co-creation session, and Paul’s analysis of the many dimensions of the digital artifact, challenges me to think of where I will go forward in the coming months with virtual curation and how I interact with others interested in the past or material culture. Some of this I address in my chapter in the Blogging Archaeology e-book edited by Doug Rocks-Macqueen and Chris Webster that came out during the SAA meeting.

My "lightning" talk. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Bollwerk.

My “lightning” talk. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Bollwerk.

Another challenge was the three minute presentation I gave Friday afternoon as part of the Digital Archaeology Project Lightning Talks session, sponsored by the SAA’s Digital Data Interest Group.  I managed to complete my overview of the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s role in promoting undergraduate research and public outreach in the first of three slides, and our development of digital projectile point type collections (slide 2) and zooarchaeological type collections (type 3) as part of our current Department of Defense Legacy Program project. The slides follow and many of the animated models can be found at the Virtual Curation Museum blog site, or will soon be present there.




On Saturday morning, the Virtual Curation Laboratory provided printed plastic replicas and animated digital models for one of our partners in virtual curation of the past. Laura Galke of the George Washington Foundation presented a research poster entitled Mother Washington: Persistence of a False Narrative. 

Laura speaks to Jonathan Burns while plastic replicas are examined.

Laura speaks to Jonathan Burns while plastic replicas are examined.

A number of individuals noticed the 3D printed wig curlers (see Paul Mullins’s blog, above, for his comments on wig curler replicas) and came up to speak with me.

Virtual avatars and artifictions from George Washington's Ferry Farm.

Virtual avatars and artifictions from George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

I had a particularly interesting exchange with Jeb Card, a visiting assistant professor at Miami University, and look forward to further collaborative efforts with Jeb, who also created digital models using a NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner.

Jeb and I compare printed artifact replicas.

Jeb and I compare printed artifact replicas.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the universal response to the question I asked fellow archaeologists I saw in the SAA exhibit hall, “Would you like to see a digital model of an opossum mummy?” was “Do you have to ask?”

Mummified juvenile opossum.

Mummified juvenile opossum.



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