With an ongoing pandemic and constantly changing restrictions delaying his plans for a 2021 field school in Papua New Guinea, ECDI Research Fellow Ben Shaw turned to options for a domestic field experience. After six months of organising, he has pulled together a two-week field trip to the Mornington Peninsula, scheduled for September 2021. If it goes ahead, the field school will be one of the first on-country opportunities for Australian National University students since the pandemic hit Australia.
Interested in giving students a practical knowledge in heritage and cultural competency, Ben began by reaching out to colleagues at Heritage Insight, an archaeological consultancy firm based in Victoria. Bunurong Land Council Aboriginal Corporation, Parks Victoria and Heritage Victoria subsequently joined the field school. By bringing together these collaborators — representing traditional owners, government and private industry — Ben has ensured that the Mornington field school captures the same breadth of perspectives he intended to include in the PNG field school.
“In developing these partnerships, we wanted to ensure students get an opportunity to engage directly with the cultural heritage industry,” explains Ben, “and to instil in them the importance of working side by side with Indigenous communities so they are well placed to enter the professional workplace as highly skilled and ethical practitioners with real word experience.”
The field school will take students to the peninsula for two weeks, working across two field sites. One site is a triangular block of land significant to local Indigenous people; the second is at a more contemporary setting — Cape Schanck lighthouse, where students will track down records of people who lived and worked there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Students will split into two groups, each group working for one week at each site. In the evenings, both groups will come together for roundtable discussions and ‘fireside talks’ — informal lectures with leaders of the field school, members of the collaborating organisations and other visiting experts.
Originally open to 15 students, capacity was increased to 20 after the field school received 32 enrolment applications. Ben notes that while the majority of students study archaeology, some come from other backgrounds, such as linguistics or chemistry. Again, in the spirit of ECDI’s transdisciplinary ethos, he welcomes this diversity.
“The human past, like the present, is hugely complex and the only hope we have of telling a nuanced narrative of the past is by breaking down the boundaries between disciplines and working together. This is true for any industry that works with people so the skills the students learn are highly transferable.”
Ben is also eager to deconstruct the dynamic perceived in many learning relationships that the teacher holds all the knowledge. Instead, he wants to learn with the students and involve them in the planning and logic of working through the field sites.
“I have enough knowledge and skills to do it, but I don’t have all the answers.”
Considering the level of interest and investment from collaborators and students, Ben hopes to run the field school again next year, alongside (if the pandemic allows) the PNG field school. He notes that its domestic nature and the generous in-kind support from collaborating institutions make the Mornington field school more affordable and accessible for many students. He has also received inquiries from other institutions who are eager to join the field school for future runs.
“The interest and support the field school has received, both from our partners and from the students, has been overwhelming,” Ben reflects. “The timing was right to bridge the gap between academia and industry, and we are all excited about helping to train the next generation of cultural heritage professionals.”