“. . . to foster understanding. . .”
I like this phrase because it is at once both purposeful and aspirational. The words are found towards the bottom of a poster hanging on a wall in my studio apt. The image in the poster is a rendering of world-renowned artist Christo’s massive art installation, “Wrapped Reichstag”. In the context of the poster, the phrase refers to a renewed effort to nurture communication and understanding between the young people of North America and Germany in the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Lately, during the last four months specifically, a broadened interpretation of this phrase has become a source of inspiration for me during the many hours of monotonous and repetitive data entry. And that has been the order of the day for months now: data entry. More specifically, the digitization of artifact inventories on paper, many of them handwritten 35, 50 or more years ago. Line after line, site number, catalog number, northings and eastings, depth, artifact description, quantity and so on. Why is this important to do? Ah yes, look to the poster!
The purpose of this inventory digitization is twofold. The first is digitization as a means of preservation. Paper yellows and becomes brittle, ink and pencil fade over time, and information would eventually be lost were it not transferred to another medium. The second purpose is accessibility. One cannot know if information is applicable or relevant to their lives if they do not have access to it. Digitization is a first step toward facilitating greater availability of this information to everyone. Fewer gates, and fewer gatekeepers. A democratization of data, perhaps which, with a healthy dose of optimism has the potential (you guessed it) - to foster understanding.
And therein lies another aspect of this quote – as it is a call to action. This call to action has only been partially realized by the opening up of stored information that was once restricted to those of a certain socio-economic pedigree (read education). In other words, the careful control of information flowing in a top down fashion as many institutions tend to do, oftentimes protects a prevailing narrative/interpretation that reinforces their own legitimacy within the larger societal structure, for better or worse.
To fulfill this call, the equally necessary flip side of this imperative is to engage in the act of listening to multiple interpretations. Listening is often viewed as a passive behavior, but if we are truly striving “to foster understanding”, participants must engage in active listening. Active listening is not always easy. It requires patience and empathy and a willingness to be exposed to experiences and ideas that are divergent, or even outright antithetical to one’s own worldview, which understandably can be uncomfortable. It is a skill set like any other, that must be developed and maintained in order to be effective. The reward for this effort is the possibility of creating not only a more inclusive and thereby more accurate narrative, but also a more meaningful one.
Archaeologists are concerned about the preservation of sites and have strived to serve as stewards of archaeological sites and the associated data. Why shouldn’t this data (excepting sensitive location information) be freely shared with others? How are site security concerns of archaeologists balanced with the curiosity of the general public? Preservation of sites and data are at the core of the Historic Preservation movement enacted by law in 1966 and a key component to our training. If we protect these resources from destruction either through development or looting- we preserve them for the future. We don’t know what our immediate future will look like, but as in all measures of preservation, we are protecting resources for hundreds or thousands of years to come. Evaluating human behavior through the scientific analysis of the archaeological record is critical for our ability to prepare and predict adaptation and culture change in an ever-changing world. Sharing data regarding these sites and resources requires an open communication process that understands the desire to learn and in exchange, garners the respect and understanding of the scientific analysis produced.
Both personally and professionally, this phrase, just three words long, has served as a strong foundation for me these past several months of uncertainty and upheaval, and it is my pleasure to share it with you. I hope it inspires you “to foster understanding” in your endeavors as it has me in mine.
For more information, visit PAarchaeology.state.pa.us or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .