Vanishing are the days when scientists and artists pursued their dichotomous avenues of expression through either empirically derived text, or aesthetic façades of beauty. More and more the silos of thought and expression are merging and the boundaries between traditional academic disciplines are blurring. Take for instance the coalescence between Art and Archaeology. True these two areas of study are no strangers to each other, indeed antiquarians have been studying ancient rock art even before archaeology became a formal discipline in the late 19th Century. Nevertheless, like many arenas of science, scientific rigor takes a firm grip, which often results in the production of banal prose stocked with data tables, appendixes and often enigmatic statistical equations. While all of this data mining is crucial to establishing sound theories about past behaviors, its perpetuation can also lead to alienation of a public eager to learn about our past.
In order to mitigate this sense of alienation, those engaged in the scientific pursuit of knowledge production ought to consider the use of public art as a way to bridge the gap between the ivory towers of academia and the concrete benches of civil society. Too often are these public spaces marred by superficial commercial interests trying to sell us something; instead, why not produce substantive public art that combines sound research without any commercial interest whatsoever?
Fortunately a vivid example of this altruistic pursuit involves a public art installation on Milwaukee’s lakefront, at the corner of Lincoln Memorial Dr. and Harbor Dr.. Standing nearly 20 feet tall, four high school students are depicted along with family photos, historic and modern maps, personal artifacts and thought provoking captions. These posters along with several others attached to lampposts along Harbor Drive are the culminating visual-arts projects completed this past Spring by 25 students from Bay View High School here in Milwaukee.
This project called “The Art and Archaeology of Me” was made possible by a Milwaukee Public School and Discovery World arts partnerships grant. Each Friday for nine weeks, students from Bay View High School worked with professional staff members at Discovery World in a project-based experience to motivate academic achievement through exploration of personal and urban archaeology, with the goal of developing a visual archaeological history of their own lives.
The resulting public art display certainly enacts a sense of pride and motivation for the students who are depicted along with their personal artifacts for thousands of passer-bys to wonder what it means, thus provoking deeper conversations about the impact of the our own pasts on the present.
Therefore, this example of personal and public archaeology is an effort to increase our awareness of how our past better informs us of the present and how the present affects the future. This subtext helps to promote a deeper understanding of how to access the past, which in turn brings it to the forefront of our collective consciousness so that future generations can retain a link to their histories and a connection to an otherwise ever-changing ephemeral landscape. Perhaps then, when we begin to acknowledge and respect our individual histories, will we become more tolerant of each others unique forms of cultural expression. Clearly this is a vital lesson humanity has yet to learn.