Monday, October 7, 2013

Idaho History and Historic Preservation Conference

From mid-day September 25 through mid-day September 27, I attended Idaho’s Heritage Conference in Boise. (They invited me to take part in a book fair on the 25th.) It took me awhile to write about the event because I was finishing the newsletter I co-Edit for the Idaho Academy of Science.
Old Idaho Penitentiary.

The Conference was keyed off the Sesquicentennial of the creation of Idaho Territory, with sponsorship by the Idaho State Historical Society, Preservation Idaho, the Idaho Archaeological Society, and several other institutions interested in Idaho history and historic preservation. Many other organizations – public and private – made financial contributions. The book fair and opening took place at the Old Idaho Penitentiary while most of the later sessions were held in the capitol building.

Most of the time, the Conference had three topical tracks running concurrently. Thus, I could not attend all the sessions, nor can I do justice to the overall breadth covered. In fact, I cannot really expound on every session I did attend … so this will be very selective. (As of right now, the Conference program is still posted on the web, if you’re curious.)

A recurring theme in many sessions had to do with reaching out from the traditional museum or classroom environments. My “take-away,” reinforced by my own experience, is that videos – movies or big-screen TV – that visitors watch passively are not often winners.
Idaho Capitol Building

A common thread among most of the successful approaches was some variation of “interactivity.” Unfortunately, this idea flies in the face of the usual “look but don’t touch” philosophy and/or requirement of most normal museum settings. But that is changing as organizations find innovative ways to use interactive maps, artifacts that are in abundant supply, and even “faithful” reproductions.

The issue of reaching younger audiences received considerable attention. As part of her talk, one speaker called up a YouTube presentation entitled “Social Media Video 2013” from the web. It runs just under four minutes, and contains some very interesting information. Two of the key conclusions were:
    “Social media has become the #1 activity on the web.”
    “Generation Y and Z consider e-mail passé.”

Referring to e-mail, another speaker from academia claimed, “Students only use it to contact their grandparents, and their profs.” Turns out, they consider e-mail clunky and much too slow -- they prefer texting and tweeting. The need to finds ways to harness digital media and social networks was heavily discussed, but no one offered any good answers on how to do that.

The Heritage Conference essentially ran in parallel with a meeting of the Idaho Archaeological Society. One of the speakers during the Conference wrap-up offered some useful, and important, information in that area. Unlike many states, Idaho law takes a “landowner friendly” approach to artifacts – prehistoric and historic – found on private property: With one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment, artifacts found on private property belong to the property owner.

Some landowners keep such discoveries a secret because they fear that “the authorities” will seize the artifacts and essentially take over the find site. This reportedly does happen in some states, but Idaho law does not allow that. In fact, as I understand it, outsiders who removes artifacts from private land in Idaho – which happens far too often – are subject to the same penalties as if they stole tools or other property.

The one exception involves human remains (bones, usually), and artifacts closely associated with them. These fall in a special category and require expert evaluation. As you might expect, most landowners call local law enforcement, and that is the correct action. However, according to State Archaeologist Dr. Kenneth Reid, “Law enforcement officers sometimes do not realize that they should contact my office … if it is determined not to be a crime scene.”

So, to reduce later complications, landowners need to know what to do about human remains after they call the police or sheriff. That is, someone, either law enforcement or the landowner, needs to involve the State Archaeologist [208-334-3861 ext. 110].

Beyond that, what do you do if you find “ordinary” artifacts? I would contact the nearest college or university and ask for someone in the archaeology or anthropology department. (Many Federal facilities also have access to archaeological expertise, if there’s an office nearby.) They are generally delighted to hear about archaeological sites in their back yard, and will be eager to help.
Professional "Dig."
Idaho Archaeological Society

It is important to keep in mind that professional study is necessary to glean the most knowledge from a find. That includes the site itself, which holds clues as to when certain artifacts were used, what items were used together, and much more. That does take time, so – if at all possible – give researchers enough access, for a long enough period, to make a reasonable study.

Finally: As the artifact owner, you can “have your cake and eat it too.” You can, if you choose, loan the items to the researchers, for return after a specified period of study. You can then formally present them to a museum of your choice, assemble your own display, or pass them along to your kids. Or, you can try to sell them … but do not expect to make a lot of money. Despite the rare “killing,” most such objects do not sell at premium prices.

In the long run, however, I believe such objects should end up in the collection of a museum or other public institution. Far too often, private collections end up in the trash when the holder needs the room (or, to be blunt, dies, and the heirs pitch them).

Overall, the Heritage Conference was very informative, and I hope the organizers decide to make it a regular event. It need not be held annually, but I would think every two or three years would be useful.

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