I am not communicating well lately, which is painful since the majority of my job hinges on my ability to communicate. Another stumbling block seems to be my passion for my job. Where passion generally helps move a cause along, sometimes it comes at you like a bulldozer – making people feel more attacked than engaged. Couple this with a few subjectively defined terms and you have a real mess, a complete disconnect.
Such a disconnect lies in the relationship between the built environment and its archaeological record. Some of which can be attributed to subjective definitions –that “archaeologists” are only interested in things under the ground and that “historic preservation” focuses solely on saving old buildings. This disconnect became clear to me at a recent meeting involving the state’s preservation plan.
Admittedly, I am a back-of-the-class kind of person and I dragged all my co-workers down with me by sitting in the back row during this meeting. This physical separation somehow translated into an idealistic separation from the topic at hand. We were constantly referred to as the “archaeologists” or “scientists” in the room (even though other professionals were in attendance) as if those titles prevented us from understanding the importance of preserving Florida’s history – specifically the built environment.
We heard stories of passionate people saving their local history by moving and refurbishing old buildings. I can completely understand wanting to save such visual representations of a time period or a person important to that community – especially structures that bring in heritage tourism interest for the community. However by moving the structure without any archaeological investigations, much of the personal story of that building can be lost. Items can tell stories and elicit responses historic documentation and salvage alone cannot.
For example, I constantly drag my kids to museums to the point that they cringe every time they see a brown road sign. Since they were reading about the Holocaust in school, I decided to take them to the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg. I was prepared for the stories to be difficult to hear and somewhat prepared to see a lot of personal items. The last room of the museum had a railway car on display and encouraged people to touch it. While I was considering whether I wanted to actually do that, I saw a child’s gold ring on an interpretive panel that was found while cleaning the car for display. That one item struck such a cord in me, I cried. I wept for that mom that couldn’t protect her child, because as a mom I would want to protect mine. And from that mindset, I understood the importance of the Holocaust Museum as a vehicle to educate people in hopes of saving future generations from such tragedy.
Archaeology can help unearth these personal connections to the past by telling the stories of everyday life, stories that everyone can identify with as a reflection of their own. Historic preservation places that story within a context, a literal stepping back into the past. While the railway car and the child’s ring were both moving items separately, it was seeing the two together that made me understand a small child had experienced being in that car.
Together archaeology and historic preservation can impassion people to act on behalf of Florida’s cultural resources, saving them for future generations. We just have to communicate a bit more clearly to understand we share common goals.
Who knows, we might even start our own social movement…