As Neal Ferris (1999) outlined using examples from Ontario, it is increasingly important for archaeological communications to be properly understood by varied audiences — from descendant communities to developers to lawyers to government officials — because the consequences of misunderstandings and partial understandings are real and potentially serious, for example in repatriation/reburial situations and in land claims4. Thus, as Ferris sensibly argues, potentially misleading archaeological terminology, particularly about ethnicity, should be used with caution in communications with nonarchaeologists (Kennewick Man, anyone?). I am sympathetic to the spirit of his conclusion, that 'effective communication may be achieved simply by recognizing and considering the audience being addressed', and it may well be true for the specific situations to which he refers (Ferris 1999, 121). Looking at the larger picture, however, I am not convinced that effective communication is always simple to achieve. More specifically, I believe that this consideration of and for the audience should go beyond an avoidance of opaque and exclusive terms: it should also include excellent information design.
It is not simple to learn or teach about human history in a way that transcends lists of dates, places, events, or objects, as Sam Wineburg points out in his book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (2001). Understanding the relationship of one piece of historical information to another is difficult and requires counterintuitive thinking patterns. There is, of course, a fascinating literature on what the disciplines of archaeology and history are or should be, but traditionally there has been rather less on how students can be taught to think historically5. This is a subject for another time, but for the moment, let us take it as given that to impart historical knowledge effectively, one must often also teach specific new ways of thinking. And in the special case that I am particularly interested in — public education efforts on the WWW — these challenges are surely amplified and complicated by the medium and by the comparative brevity of the encounter between archaeologist and audience. It would seem, therefore, that designing effective online public archaeology must involve some consideration of how historical reasoning is best taught, and the information structures this implies, regardless of medium.
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Last updated: Wed Jan 28 2004