Co-Creation as an Archaeological Practice

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 2

Dr. Robert Connolly
Director, C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa

Last week, while finishing up the draft of an article for the Society for American Archaeology’s (SAA) Archaeological Record I noticed that four out of five of my most recent publications contain the word “co-creation” in the title. Just this past August Beth Bollwerk and I edited a thematic issue of the SAA’s Advances in Archaeological Practice (AAP) titled Co-Creation and Public Archaeology.  That all certainly suggests that the concept of co-creation is something reasonably important to my current research.

In my AAP volume chapter, “Co-Creation as a Twenty-First Century Archaeology Museum Practice,” I define the concept as partnering with the public in designing and implementing projects based on their expressed needs and interests.  I view this process as different from collaboration or partnering.  In co-creative projects, the starting point is simply determining the interests of the public who the archaeologist or museum professional serves.

African-American in Southwest Memphis exhibit at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.

The African American Cultural Heritage in Southwest Memphis exhibit at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.

A good example of how a co-creative process works is included in my AAP article that discusses the African American Cultural Heritage exhibit at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa.  The exhibit has been a multi-year process and continues to evolve today.  The process began in 2008 when Chucalissa sought ways to be more relevant to the surrounding community that is 95% African-American.  A community nonprofit we worked with noted the importance of cultural identity as an issue.  We proposed using the cultural materials excavated at a 1920s-era farmstead on the Chucalissa site as a resource to address the cultural identity issue.  The nonprofit thought that was a good idea.  We obtained grant funding and in 2010 recruited nine area high school students to create the exhibit based on the farmstead excavation.

The result of the project far exceeded my expectations.  Initially, I thought we could call the project a success if we simply installed cultural materials and interpretive panels in the exhibit from the excavations.  However, because the high school students were charged with determining the content and design, the exhibit resulted in a product that aligned more with their interests.  In addition to the exhibit of cultural materials from the excavation, the students produced:

  • 30 hours of oral history interviews with community members that served as the basis for a 20-minute documentary.
  • Six timeline banners tracing the community history from the 1800s to the present day.
  • A resource center for further research.
  • “Did you know” placards and a memory board.
Student participants in 2010 exhibit project.

Student participants in 2010 exhibit project.

In this project, I learned a few things about co-creation:

  • The process can be messy, non-linear, and takes a good bit of time. But in this instance, an exhibit was created that was not just about the community but also by the community.
  • The process resulted in a deepening relationship with the community represented by the exhibit. At the 2010 exhibit opening, the president of a nearby neighborhood association noted that “We need to let more people know about our exhibit at the Museum.”
  • The process empowered other members of the community to become more integrally involved in the Museum. Every year since 2010 the exhibit has expanded.  In 2015 the C.H. Nash Museum hosted five summer camps of high school students from the Freedom Prep Charter School to upgrade and update the 2010 exhibit.
  • Co-creation does not mean that the archaeologist or museum professional is not involved in the project. In fact, co-creation forces us to be even more engaged in assessing and implementing the additional voices into the exhibit while maintaining best practices throughout the process.

When I reflect over the past five years, I am amazed at how three boxes of artifacts and a small stack of field notes led to so many different projects beyond the original exhibit.  Co-creation is an approach that can be applied in public archaeology that addresses John Cotton Dana’s 1917 mandate to “Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs.”

Robert Connolly is the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa and an associate professor in the Departments of Earth Sciences and Anthropology at the University of Memphis. He is also the chairperson of the Public Education Committee of the Society for American Archaeology. He blogs at