The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Stepping Outside the Classroom

Cultural heritage field research sends CHESS students abroad
  • Five UMass Anthropology students on-site in Barcelona, Spain

“Even if you don’t become a professional anthropologist, the opportunity to travel abroad and gain field work experience sets you apart. It’s stellar preparation for your career.” — Dana Johnson, CHESS

Five graduate anthropology students in the Cultural Heritage in European Societies and Spaces (CHESS) program recently traded in their library cards for passports and traveled overseas to research European cultural heritage issues in the field.

Seung ho Chung, Mackenzie Jackson, Grace Cleary, Dana Johnson, and Jill Bierly were the first to take part in the 3-semester guided research experience, where students learn field research methods and develop their research project, travel to field sites abroad, and prepare their results for publication.

Each CHESS cohort chooses a topic within a research “stream,” which in 2010-2011 was“Memory, Monuments, and Commemoration.” Chung perused Seville’s flamenco tablaos and peñas, examining perceptions of flamenco as both a symbol of cultural identity and as a lucrative tourist attraction. In Turkey, Jackson analyzed people’s various responses to the traumatic 1999 earthquake.

Dana Johnson’s research took her to the Balkans, where she interned with the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe (CDRSEE) and worked with the European Association of History Educators (EUROCLIO). The two non-governmental organizations (NGOs) work with historians, teachers, and other professionals to develop educational materials that promote understanding of controversial issues in the region’s history and mutual respect between members of different ethnicities and religions. Johnson researched how the NGOs promote their goals in the context of power shifts between the state, civil society, and supranational institutions. She attended project meetings and a teacher training workshop, interviewed teachers and others involved in history education, and analyzed EU Policy documents related to education.

Johnson intends to work as a professional anthropologist in the Balkans. Prior to CHESS, she had spent time in Serbia as an activist and is fluent in the language, but she says that CHESS prepared her to assume the dual roles of activist and researcher. This practice, known as “engaged anthropology,” focuses on using anthropological research to actively support social change in a community. Johnson emphasizes that there are many ways to accomplish that goal, saying “I interned and wrote grant proposals for CDRSEE and EUROCLIO, which helped them in a very practical way.” Johnson is writing her master’s thesis based on her research with the NGOs, which she will send to the organizations for input when it is complete.

Although international field research was completely unfamiliar to the students, they all agree that they couldn’t have learned what they learned without stepping outside the classroom. Jill Bierly, who traveled to Cyprus to research how Cypriots perceive their identity in light of the island’s politically divided past and present, is primarily interested in archaeology and plans to be a professor, museum educator or curator, and/or an excavation director. She says that “At home, research is more focused on library/source-based research and data analysis, but overseas, the focus is on information-gathering interviews and visits. CHESS afforded me the opportunity to become more familiar with the sites and museums in Cyprus and their role in the preservation of heritage on the island.”

Field supervisor Elizabeth Krause, Anthroplogy, closely mentored the students throughout all phases of their research projects. Johnson says that this level of mentorship was one of the best aspects of the program, one that “…helped us avoid the isolationist tendencies of anthropological fieldwork.” Grace Cleary, who studied Córdoba’s citywide European Union cultural initiative, agrees. “I think that all of the graduate students were relieved to be going through the process with the support of each other and the mentorship of Professor Krause.”

The program is open to undergraduates, graduates, and those outside the department of anthropology who want to learn about anthropological research methods. Johnson encourages all who are interested to apply, saying, “Even if you don’t become a professional anthropologist, the opportunity to travel abroad and gain field work experience sets you apart. It’s stellar preparation for your career.”

Amanda Rizun '13

Photo credit: Elizabeth Krause