In addition to being a student at Tufts, I also work at an archaeology/anthropology museum working with school programs. One of our most popular programs for elementary school students begins with me telling them that we will all be anthropologists during the program, examining artifacts to discover how people live.
Last week, I was teaching this program when a student asked me during an aside if I was an anthropologist. I hesitated; my training is in education and history. I have not specifically studied anthropology, as other staff in the museum have (and still do). I was unsure how to answer her question, and ended up fumbling my way through an explanation of being a teacher first and a social scientist second. This exchange took probably thirty seconds, and I don’t think the student gave it a second thought. But it has been on my mind ever since it happened. I’ve had many discussions about the fact that kids often have trouble accepting the fact that anyone, including themselves, can be considered a scientist without the training that they associate with science. Originally, I pushed that argument to the side, recognizing its importance but also thinking the idea was obvious. But clearly, putting this idea that anyone can be a scientist into practice is much more complex.
Museums work hard to show visitors that they can be scientists (or historians, or mathematicians, or any other skills sets that museums help visitors practice in their everyday life). Yet I balked when answering that question about myself. I thought, “Well, sure, I can be considered an amateur social scientist, but at what point can I call myself an anthropologist? I haven’t had the in depth training that others in the museum have.”
How is being an anthropologist different than being a scientist, in the context of every day life? Yes, the training is vital to being a professional anthropologist, but if I am telling the students that we can all be anthropologists at an amateur level (both during and after the program), why can’t I also consider myself to be one? What message am I sending when I hesitate in confidently saying, “Yes, I am an anthropologist just like you!”?
After a lot of thought about this interaction, I realize that I have experienced what I assumed I already knew (but only theoretically): change has to first come from the museum itself. If we don’t treat ourselves the same way that we expect visitors to treat themselves, we are not being authentic – essentially, we are negating our own claim. If I, as the leader of the program and the public face of the museum in that moment, cannot see myself as an anthropologist, how can I expect the students to believe that they can be anthropologists?