Artifacts of Outlander: Connecting the Public to History and Archaeology Using Popular Culture

Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum
St. Leonard, MD

This exhibit interprets local colonial history and archaeology through the lens of an enormously popular book and television series, showcasing the similarities and differences between eighteenth-century Maryland and Scotland, as well as between real history and historical drama. All Maryland residents whose tax dollars pay for archaeological work deserve to feel a sense of ownership and connection to collections held in the public trust, but “Maryland archaeology” as a theme is not always enough to draw the public’s interest. A major goal of this exhibit is therefore to tap the enthusiastic fan culture surrounding the Outlander book and television series in order to introduce Maryland artifacts to new and larger audiences.

Initially, two groups were targeted that would likely already be familiar with the Outlander novels – patrons of local libraries and people attending the Southern Maryland Celtic Festival, one of the largest events held at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum (JPPM). Both of these proved to be natural pairings. The Artifacts of Outlander exhibit opened at the Celtic Festival on April 25, 2015, and drew in more than 200 people in one day. Since its debut, the exhibit has been displayed at four libraries, the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology Conference, and Historic London Town and Gardens. Figures provided by library staff show that more than 100,000 people have had access to the exhibit since it opened.

Public lectures about the exhibit have been given at six venues to date, reaching approximately 200 people. The MAC Lab’s Facebook post about the initial exhibit opening reached almost 11,000 people within a week of its posting. Additionally, an interested member of the public tweeted about the exhibit to the producer of the television series and to the show’s costumer who expressed an interest in featuring the exhibit on her blog. Feedback has been so overwhelmingly positive that JPPM built online version of the exhibit, which debuted in conjunction with the second season of the series in April 2016.

Although the initial target audience was limited, word has spread and enthusiasm remains high. New libraries and venues continue to express interest in hosting the exhibit, which is currently booked through the end of 2017. The Artifacts of Outlander exhibit clearly tapped into an enthusiastic fan culture, allowing JPPM to successfully reach new audiences with the artifacts and stories of their own state.