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Workshop on Ethnographic Methods in Museum Folklore and Ethnology

This post is the next in my series of reports on the trip to China that American museum colleagues and I took in December 2017. The Beijing posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) were about the time that we spent in transit to Nanning, where the core of our work on the trip would begin. This is the first post to share a bit of what the trip was about, explaining what we were up to in Guangxi.

Central to the story of our time in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is our friend and colleague Zhang Lijun. Lijun is researcher on the staff of the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi (广西民族博物馆) and she is also a research associate of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. She is essential to the museum ethnography sub-project within the China-US Folklore and Intangible Cultural Heritage Project that has linked the China Folklore Society and the American Folklore Society for over ten years of exchanges and joint projects. As she notes in her recent contribution to Metafolklore: Stories of Sino-US Folkloristic Cooperation | 文化对话:中美非物质文化遗产论坛. (Guangzhou: Sun Yat-sen University Press, 2017), she served as a translator for the founding discussions between AFS and CFS while a masters student at Beijing Normal University. A decade later, and with a Ph.D. from Indiana behind her, she is now helping lead a key project in this flourishing partnership. (For an overview of these broader efforts, see this essay by AFS Executive Director Tim Lloyd.)

Our work in Guangxi is the reason for the trip and Lijun was crucial to the planning and the doing of both parts of that work. As called for in our proposal to the Henry Luce Foundation and planned for in our partnership discussions with the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi, this trip (the first of four during the current phase of our work) had two parts–a training workshop at the museum in Nanning and then a period of jointly pursued fieldwork in Nandan County among the Baiku (White Trouser) Yao people. This post is about the training workshop, an event for which Lijun’s bilingual skills and bi-national scholarly background were essential ingredients.

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Zhang Lijun facilitating discussion during the first day of the Workshop on Ethnographic Methods in Museum Folklore and Ethnology held at the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi, Nanning. December 11, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

Wang Wei, the Director of the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi, is an leading scholar in paleoarchaeology with a deep history of participating in high-level international research collaborations and a strong record of publishing in international science journals. This experience has shaped his goals for the museum’s research staff. He is eager for them to also have international research experiences and opportunities to work jointly on publication as well as exhibition projects. Those goals are part of what we are up to in the current phase of cooperative research. They also motivate his providing generous support for our joint work. Those of us connected to the American museums share these aspirations.

Because the entire research and collections staff of the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi is too large to participate in the fieldwork phase of the project, the December 2017 workshop was developed as a means of broadening the professional development opportunities that the larger project offers. The workshop was held on December 11-12 and its focus was “Ethnographic Methods in Museum Folklore and Ethnology.”

During this event, American and Chinese participants, drawn from the partner museums, gave bilingual presentations on fieldwork methods as these pertain to work of museums of ethnography. About sixty attendees attended the workshop. Some were students affiliated with universities in the city of Nanning and, as initially anticipated, quite a few were members of the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi’s research and collections staff. There were also working ethnographers from various agencies in the city. A fourth group of attendees were staff members drawn from the ten local eco-museums with which the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi partners in its 1+10 eco-museum collaboration. These eco-museum representatives are members of the local minority groups that their institutions serve and they are active with impressive cultural documentation work in their home communities. The workshop sessions, which all took place at the museum, were well-attended and well-received.

The workshop program was comprised of seven presentations interspersed with questions and discussion. All were illustrated with bilingual slides and all were translated into the language (English or Mandarin) not spoken by the presenter. I presented an overview of ethnographic methods in the contexts of research design and the goals of museum work. My presentation introduced and connected the topics to be addressed by the other presentations. I was followed by Marsha MacDowell (Michigan State University Museum), whose presentation focused on interview methods. Jon Kay (Mathers Museum of World Cultures) focused on survey methods as well as on video documentation techniques. Carrie Hertz (Museum of International Folk Art) explored the uses of still photography in research, exhibitions, publication, and other museum activities. Kurt Dewhurst (Michigan State University Museum) presented on the use of existing collections in new field research and on the role that new ethnographic work can play in re-contextualizing such collections. Gong Shiyang (Anthropological Museum of Guangxi) presented on the role of eco-museums as research centers and on the partnership linking AMGX and its 10 partners in Guangxi. Fan Miao Miao (Anthropological Museum of Guangxi) presented on strategies for ethnographic research on dress and adornment practices.

At the conclusion of the workshop on December 12, research participants from the three U.S. partner museums, from the AMGX and from the Baiku Yao Eco-Museum in Nandan met to discuss the research plan for the joint fieldwork that would follow.

Here are some pictures from the first day of the workshop.

Here are some images from the second day of the workshop.

One of the temporary exhibitions on display at the museum is an exhibition produced in partnership with the Museum of Women and Children in Beijing (the museum we visited earlier in our trip). This exhibition is interesting because it deals with a classic ethnographic topic (“Brocade Made by Minority Nationalities in China”) in a kid-friendly way. Here are some pictures.

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