Lara Fields '17 wants to change how we view the relationship between archaeology and community: as an anthropology and archaeology double major, Lara is well aware that the myth of the aloof, bookish archaeologist poking around in a pile of dirt should have died long ago.
“It's starting to become more and more recognized by archaeologists that they have a responsibility to people beyond their colleagues,” Lara says. “They really have to address the needs of community and public actors and stakeholders, who find archaeology and history as important to them as archaeologists and heritage professionals do.”
This spring, Lara received Dean’s Office funding to help conduct research at Valley Forge National Historic Park, as part of her senior thesis exploring public participation in the archaeological and historical past. Her focus? A more dynamic way of interpreting the past, based on public engagement.
Lara describes this process as “democratizing archaeology”; she wanted to understand how the archaeological and historical past is represented for visitors in the Muhlenberg Brigade Huts of Valley Forge National Monument. For her research, Lara conducted participant observation, informal interviews with park employees and volunteers, and open-ended questionnaires with park guests, all centered around these huts that have been recreated for the public to use and explore.
“What I learned is that interpretation and significance is dynamic, and very particular to the individual,” Lara says. “Learning about the ways that representations of the past have changed throughout time, and how they are very dependent on the trends in social sciences in general, made me very interested in how the public views it. And the support of my department, and their respect for my own interests, as well as their trust in me as a student to explore what I'm interested in, was really fantastic.”