Professor of Anthropology, New College of Florida
Themes and Theming
Vacation spots have themes. Restaurants have themes. Malls have themes. Theme parks are, by definition, themed. Sociologist Mark Gottdiener in a 1996 book The Theming of America: Dreams, Visions and Commercial Spaces brought a term for consideration of social experiences: theming. Professor Gottdiener noticed the use of symbols and signs to integrate experience at a place. The most famous and successful example of theming is the Disney World theme park, with the mouse ears recognizable seemingly across all generations and social groups. Driving on I-4, the transmission tower is easily recognizable and connected to Disney World. That is successful theming.
Archaeology is a source for theming. Archaeological artifacts invoke history and adventure. So Busch Gardens, which is a theme park using Africa for inspiration, has a subsection for its Ancient Egypt area as seen in the Egyptology restaurant, gift shop, playground, and exhibit. Egyptology is just the most popular of archaeo-themes for theme parks.
Theming is not just for American theme parks. For the tourists to the famous archaeological site of Troy in Turkey, there is a replica of a horse. There has been a horse at Troy for decades; in 2004 after the Warner Brothers film, a new replica for tourists to photograph and climb was donated to stress the Homeric theme for the location.
Archaeology is a source for themes but archaeology is also themed. In the Middle East archaeological expeditions have been named after benefactors for decades, and many have logos that go nicely on tee-shirts. In the USA, the excavations are focused to highlight particular issues although most present the titles as informative for the research focused on the place or time period. In a 2005 essay in the SAA Archaeological Bulletin, I raised concerns over the competing demands of heritage tourism, with its want for themes, and academic research. But even then I realized themes do help with communication, clarifying the intent and goals for a research project in a concise manner.
Themes for Heritage Interpretation
I learned to appreciate theming as a member of the interdisciplinary public anthropology program Looking for Angola , the search for material remains of an early 19th century maroon community. At first when I presented on the project, I would start with a long discussion of the time period and then the meaning of the term maroon. The questions from the audience focused on techniques and the challenges of excavations. But when I heard historian Canter Brown Jr. in Vickie Oldham’s 2006 video Looking for Angola invoke the project in terms of freedom, I realized the clunkiness dissolved. An archaeology of freedom allowed concise, productive presentations. At public presentations where I explained the goal of freedom in early 19th century, the questions raised by audiences brought out the details of the larger historical context and a concern for the descendant communities – a more satisfying dynamic, more in line with the anthropology of the program and the social justice goals of the project.
So as I plan my next public anthropology program in partnership with Sarasota County, at Phillippi Estate Park, there are multiple steps before engaging the public but I am thinking about themes as well. What is the archaeology of trust at Phillippi Creek?