Southwest Florida might be best known through the theming of paradise – the timeless beauty of its beaches to attract retirees and tourists. The place out of time fits neoliberal consumerism but does little to sustain efforts for historic preservation. Few notice the impressive, if hidden, material heritage.
When the New College Public Archaeology Lab (NCPAL) opened in October 2010, as founding director I envisioned the facility as expanding research in public archaeology for the region around the New College of Florida as well as offering opportunities for propelling community support for historic preservation in southwest Florida. My positive experiences with Looking for Angola, an interdisciplinary public anthropology program seeking material remains of an early 19th-century maroon community in southern Tampa Bay, became both the central project for the facility and the impetus for exploring the edges of the current discussions in public archaeology on collaborative partnerships. Looking for Angola began with public presentations around Sarasota and Manatee counties and welcomed input from descendant and local communities as its research process.
Beyond beaches, Sarasota-Manatee has more than 700,000 people (2010 census) and a complicated history including the cities of North Port, Sarasota, and Bradenton. Historic sites were lost as the cities developed; the many active historical organizations have preserved buildings and celebrated many historic achievements but there are silences for the past. The region is haunted by Race, with segregation having ended within the living memories of older residents.
NCPAL programs (www.facebook.com/NewCollegePublicArchaeologyLab and www.ncf.edu/pal) partner with local grassroots and other nonprofit organizations to reveal hidden histories, and provide information on the archaeological past. The program in preserving regional heritage seeks to contribute to local communities and to the academic discussions in public archaeology while facilitating undergraduate opportunities for experiential learning and civic engagement. My goals for public archaeology have been idealistic regarding the potential of anthropology to contribute to the present, centered on heritage offering a means to contribute to a sense of place and a more vibrant community.
The facility opened a pathway to experiment with expanding public access and community partnerships. While I had read bell hooks throughout my academic career, it was while she was a Visiting Distinguished Scholar on campus that I connected the public engagement to radical openness, as presented in a 1989 essay “Choosing the Margins as a Space of Radical Openness.” As bell hooks reminds us, “…the effort to speak about issues of `space and location’ evoke pain” and those margins are sites for radical openness and possibilities. I opted to situate the NCPAL research program on the margins; the public outreach would not replicate the existing structures of inequalities but create alternatives. Scarcity of resources as well as competing undergraduate, research, and community concerns involved in projects encouraged the openness, to expose the limitations as well as the possibilities for the public anthropology. Being open, though, was not the same as being outgoing; exploring from the margins includes the willingness to let others step forward, to encourage student initiatives and community leadership on projects that range from educational outreach to historic preservation documentation to archaeological excavations and interpretations.
A main purpose of the undergraduate component is engagement with local communities in productive manner, and to employ their ethnographic observations to understand the region better. In choosing public archaeology for the name of the facility, I wanted the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) principle number four – Public Education and Outreach – to be at the core of its mission and activities. To highlight ethics, I posted the Codes of Ethics from SAA, the Florida Anthropological Society, and the World Archaeological Congress on one of the NCPAL walls.
The heritage projects, with its student volunteers, sought to meet the needs of community partners and also to revitalize the past toward cosmopolitan goals. Two projects illustrate the work from the margins. The Galilee Cemetery opened in 1935 as a segregated cemetery for the Newtown neighborhood in Sarasota, deeded to “the trustees of the colored community;” in the 1990s a group of community activists formed as a clean-up campaign that became the Woodlawn-Galilee Cemetery Restoration Task Force. The partnership established between NCPAL and the Task Force created a survey to document each and every grave marker in the cemetery to create a full inventory, predicated on the ideal that every burial is important to remember. Surmounting a series of obstacles the survey succeeded in documenting 1544 grave markers and commemorating a history of struggles and achievements. The enthusiasm of the students led to an exhibit at the Newtown library, a local cable channel video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6iNNUlJmiE), and media reports that raised the profile of the cemetery. The survey is being included in the community’s centennial celebration of Newtown.
Higher community recognition plays a role for excavations near a historic spring in Bradenton as well. Deeded to Reflections of Manatee, a historic preservation organization, the property became threatened as development expanded into its neighborhood. Reflections of Manatee focused on the 1840s Anglo-American settlement and the Civil War era in the Manatee River region. The organization took on archaeological research to explore the history of early Bradenton; underneath that layer was part of Angola, destroyed when Florida became part of the US. A maroon community coming before a slave-holding era was unexpected and drew media interest to the search. The investigations attracted positive attention and the associated public outreach programs amplified the message about the many histories around the Manatee Mineral Spring.
Involving undergraduates in the planning process for the projects offers opportunities for exposing the nuances of professional ethics and sharing in the experiment in studying from the margins. The collaborative partnerships of public archaeology offer the intersection of heritage with its emotive and political aspects as well as ethnographic observations for historic places and archaeological fieldwork and analysis, and insights into even painful histories.The openness means all parties involved in the partnerships understand the process, offering avenues for further heritage collaborations. Being open makes for vulnerability and working from the margins is challenging to sustain but creates increasing community engagement and opportunities for public education on Race and other challenging social issues.
Uzi Baram is professor of anthropology and Director of New College Public Archaeology Lab, New College of Florida. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Morag Kersel is contributing editor of Ethical Currents, the AN column of the AAA Committee on Ethics. She may be contacted at email@example.com.