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Posts from the ‘Estonia’ Category

At the Estonian National Museum

#fulbrightspecialist #fulbright #exchangeourworld

This is the third of three anticipated posts on my fall 2019 visit to Estonia (1st, 2nd).

A great resource for the University of Tartu’s departments of Estonian Native Craft, of Ethnology, and of Estonian and Comparative Folklore is the Estonian National Museum (ENM). The museum is curates vast collections of relevance to students and researchers in these fields and the museum is a research hub for all them. Founded in 1909, the ENM has a long and distinguished history as an ethnography museum centering on Estonia and, more broadly, all peoples speaking Finno-Ugric languages. It its contexts, the museum’s work centers on an Estonian instance of Northern European ethnology (with Soviet “ethnography” dominating during the period of Soviet hegemony). But not long ago (2016), the museum moved into a dramatic and vast new facility and unveiled a pair of large new permanent exhibitions.

These exhibitions move beyond (but fully include) the ethnography of 19th and early 20th century peasant lifeways. In this mode, the new exhibitions show an additive expansion of the museum’s concerns to include the archaeology of the distant past, historical and contemporary linguistics, social history, and the ethnology of everyday life in the recent period and the present. Especially in its exhibition work, the new museum is working at the cutting edge of museum technology and communication research is a part of the museum’s practice and research agenda.

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The entry to the Estonian National Museum at night. By Klarqa. CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

I will not offer a review of the two permanent exhibitions here, but I want to stress how much I learned about museum practice (and about Estonia and Finno-Urgric peoples) from my multiple visits to the museum’s galleries. I was very fortunate to be given introductory tours of both exhibitions by curators who were central to the work of developing them. Encounters tells the story of people in Estonia from the earliest moments of human activity in the territory of the present nation up to the present. Encounters is actually an interconnected suite of topical and chronological sub-exhibitions and I benefited greatly from seeing it first with Kristel Rattus and Liisi Jaats, two ENM researchers/curators who were part of the exhibition development team. Similarly, I saw the Echo of the Urals exhibition with Art Leete, Professor of Ethnology at the University of Tartu and specialist on Finno-Ugric groups in present-day Russia. Art led the curatorial team for the Finno-Ugric exhibition. The two exhibitions use a wide range of sophisticated exhibition techniques and these techniques are markedly different between the two shows, making the ENM an ideal teaching and learning laboratory for museum ethnology.

While I was more learner than teacher in this context, my work at the University of Tartu teaching the short “Material Culture and the Museum” course intersected with the ENM in a couple of ways. Because the ENM is such an attraction and hub for folklore studies and ethnology, (all or almost all) students and auditors in the course were familiar with the museum and it thus could be used as a valuable point of reference in and out of class sessions. More directly, the ENM hosted the 2018 International Committee for Museums and Collections of Ethnography (ICME) conference. I will touch on that below, but I note here that students participating in the course were obligated to attend parts of the ICME meeting, an activity that I feel certain greatly enhanced the overall experience of the course. The conference and my remarks on museum ethnology could have been completely askew, but in actuality there was, I think, an unusually good fit, with the topics that I raised in the initial sessions showing up in richer context in the presentations of ICME keynote speakers and presenters. The new exhibitions and new museum provided a great context for the course and the conference.

ICME is a group within the larger International Committee of Museums (ICOM). ICOM is the UNESCO-affiliated international organization promoting and supporting museums and museum work. ICME is one of the 30 International Committees active within ICOM. As the name suggests, its focus are museums of ethnography a conception that includes museums whose ethnographic collections and work are very local (such as community-specific museums), national and regional (such as the ENM) and those whose concerns are global in scope (such as the Mathers Museum of World Cultures). The meeting in Tartu at the ENM was the 51st ICME meeting and it was organized under the theme “Re-imaging the Museum in the Global Contemporary.” (Find information on the conference, including specific presentations here and here).

The ICME conference was presided over gracefully by ICME President Viv Golding (University of Leicester) and the hard working local organizational team was led by Agnes Aljas (Research Secretary at the ENM). Agnes in particular went to great lengths to facilitate my participation in the conference and I thank her for her kind efforts.

There were many excellent presentations throughout the conference and a range of meaningful special activities, Each day began with a keynote, all of which were rich and inspiring. The keynote speakers were Andrea Witcomb (Professor, Deakin University, Australia), Pille Runnel (Research Director, Estonian National Museum), Philipp Schorch (State Ethnographic Collection of Saxony, Germany) and Wayne Modest (Research Center for Material Culture, Netherlands).

ICME Group Photograph (ICME 2018)

Participants in the 2018 ICME meeting. From http://network.icom.museum/icme/, accessed November 1, 2018.

One contrast that I would highlight concerns the way that many of core conference presenters–as one might expect in Estonia as a Northern European host country–work in contemporary contexts shaped by volkskunde– or folklife-centered disciplinary histories (European ethnology, etc.). Their ethnographic concerns remained issues of commonality and difference inside (usually small) nation states. Nationalism is their main specter. With the exception of Pille Runnel from the ENM, whose valuable keynote took us behind the scenes at the host museum, the primary concerns of the other keynote speakers were more inflected towards volkerkunde (social anthropology, etc.) disciplinary histories or contexts. Whether overseas colonial projects or the dynamics of settler colonialism (in Australia), colonialism was the specter that haunted their remarks, even when focused on the problems of contemporary national cultures. This distinction was never complete and it is less so in places like modern Europe, but it remains present but not always acknowledged in our discussions. Discussions of projects with source communities, for instance, mean very different things in Berlin or Tartu. One could often feel audience members straining to connect the compelling suggestions made by keynote speakers to their own very different working contexts. I am always hyper sensitive to these dynamics working as a folklorist, ethnologist, and cultural anthropologist in a settler society that has vexing colonial (overseas and internal) circumstances as well as a difficult history of nation building in multicultural-but-unequal circumstances. This is a hard problem to solve because working knowledge of different disciplinary traditions and circumstances are so unevenly spread and widely-read and discussed work in English language museum anthropology has often overwhelmingly favored work in colonial situations over work arising from provincial and national ones.

These remarks are not in any way a criticism. A problem that I have long felt as a museum folklorist who is also a museum anthropologist (and as a teacher of folklore studies and of anthropology) were made still clearer for me in the ICME context. I hope that I can find new ways to help bridge the gap that I am evoking. International meetings where different perspectives and different national and global circumstances converge certainly help. I know that I am not alone in having learned much at the ICME meetings. I would not normally have been able to travel to an international meeting of this sort, thus my visit to Tartu was an extra-ordinary opportunity.

One last ENM note. The ENM stewards another museum site that I visited. As noted in my first post, I visited the Heimtali Museum of Domestic Life near Viljandi. My visit was excellent thanks to the work of my guides Kristi Jõeste and Ave Matsin of the Department of Estonian Native Craft and the kindness of our hostess And Raud. A textile artist, arts professor, and student of Estonian craft, costume and textiles, Ms. Raud founded the museum around her extensive collection. While it is now a branch of the ENM, the Ms. Raud remains the Heimtali Museum of Domestic Life’s greatest guide and interpreter. I thank her and Ave and Kristi for my visit.

My museum engagements in Estonia were inspirational and they will inform my teaching, research, and curatorial work for many years. I am fortunate to have had these opportunities and I thank all those who made them possible, including the Fulbright Specialist Program, the University of Tartu, and the Estonian National Museum.

Two Short Courses in Tartu

#fulbrightspecialist #fulbright #exchangeourworld

In an earlier post, I expressed my appreciation for the opportunity to visit the University of Tartu as a Fulbright Specialist. Among my tasks while there was to teach two short courses. Here I want share the story of those courses and reflect upon how they fit into my visit and into my fall of sabbatical leave.

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The Departments of Ethnology and of Estonian and Comparative Folklore are not only headquartered in the beautiful building on the left, but they are located across from the wonderful, legendary cafe Werner on the right. The cafe itself justifies a trip to Tartu.

As I noted earlier, the University of Tartu has well-established and distinguished degree programs in (1) folklore studies, (2) ethnology, and (3) Estonian craft. My visit was in part prompted by the addition of an English-language MA program in folkloristics and applied heritage studies. This new program is being offered by the three departments in partnership. Given the focus of the new program and the interests of its students, there was a desire in the core faculty to offer an enhanced opportunity related to museums and material culture. That is where I fit it, as I regularly teach graduate courses in museum curatorship and in material culture studies for students of both folkloristics and in ethnology (≈ cultural anthropology). I suspect that my experience working in both museums and academe is also relevant here.

For my Fulbright visit, I was asked to contribute to a course called “Material Culture and the Museum.” Wonderful Tartu colleagues Kirsti Jõesalu, Elo-Hanna Seljamaa, and Ene Kõresaar organized and kicked off the course prior to my arrival and carefully managed its mechanics during and after my visit. I offered four course lectures and then participated with the students in the International Committee for Museums and Collections of Ethnography Conference held during my final week in Estonia at the Estonian National Museum (more on the conference later). The descriptions for my course talks were:

Museum Ethnology and Material Culture Studies: An Introduction

In the first of four sessions, the core concerns of museum-based folkloristics, cultural anthropology, and ethnology (= museum ethnology, hereafter) will be introduced. Material culture studies within these fields is an intertwined but independent endeavor. Concerned especially with the areas in which museum ethnology and the study of objects and built environments intersect, material culture studies as an research area in ethnology will also be introduced.

Theories of Material Culture

In the second of four sessions, the focus will be a survey of theoretical perspectives relevant to the study of material culture within the ethnographically-oriented disciplines. As a prelude to later investigations by course participants, a wide range of perspectives will be introduced briefly. The session will conclude with a somewhat more elaborated account of the primary approach to material culture studies now active in North American folkloristics. This dormant perspective reflects the communication or performance focus characteristic of North American folkloristics more generally.

Practices in Museum Ethnology

The third of the four sessions will characterize the practice of museum ethnology by scholars who are both based in museums and those who, while employed in other kinds of institutions, take museums and their collections as a special focus. What does a museum anthropologist, a museum-minded folklorist, or a museum ethnologist do? Why do they do what they do? What are the broader implications of this kind of work? How do such museum scholars contribute to the larger work of their field(s)? These questions will animate this session.

Contemporary Developments in Museum Ethnology and Material Culture Studies

In the final of the four sessions, the focus will be on emergent trends at the intersection of museum ethnology and material culture studies. These trends will be situated within a broader revitalization of work within these endeavors. Among the developments to be discussed are: (1) the changing role of museums in society, (2) reconfigured relationships with originating or source communities, (3) the impact of new digital technologies, and (4) the rise of new or reconfigured heritage and property regimes. We will also reflect on the relationship between museum/collections-based material culture studies and the now much larger and more diverse realm of material culture studies as a whole.

I was honored and a bit surprised that so many colleagues from around Estonia came to sit in on these four course meetings. There was a large and talented group of students participating in the course from the English-language MA and from other degree programs, but there were also faculty, researchers, and museum curators from around Estonia attending as well. It was exciting to engage with this diverse and interested audience. I am sorry that the size of the group prevented me from connecting personally with everyone.

I am on sabbatical leave this fall. Did I really have any business teaching? Yes. I will not be the first to observe how valuable teaching can be for the advancement of one’s own thinking and research. My Material Culture course at IU has been taught several times already, as has my Curatorship course. They need fresh thinking. Together, these two courses occupy 30 weeks of graduate seminar (75 contact hours). While in a small group, American-style seminar, I might have conversed my way across the topics outlined above, the large audience and tight time window necessitated coming at the material in a new way. Thinking about how to present the big picture in these two intersecting domains in a brief series of lectures was extremely productive for my own thinking. As I re-engage with my own museum-related material culture research, this fresh look is really valuable. One other thing that I can say about it was that–in the doing–I really drew inspiration from the recent work of younger scholars, including the IU graduate students with whom I get to work. The whole undertaking was generative and I appreciate the opportunity to pursue it. Special thanks to my colleagues for organizing it and for all who attended the course meetings.

My other short course was titled “Getting the Most Out of Peer-Review.” One of the advantages of a university with smaller course modules is that there is room for focused courses like this. This is the course that previously mentioned was partially supported by the European Union. It drew students from beyond folkloristics and ethnology and the participants were mostly PhD rather than MA students. It was at a high level from the first moment because a majority of the students came to the course with publishing experience. Most had already published one or more peer-reviewed articles, which meant that our discussions did not focus on the mechanics of submission and publication but focused specifically on peer-review. In this, we explored two phases. How to (1) engage with peer-reviews as an author receiving them and (2) how to be a good citizen and effective as a peer-reviewer. My kind hosts Kirsti Jõesalu and Elo-Hanna Seljamaa handled the kick-off and follow-up and mechanics of this course also and I hosted and led two seminars (one short, one long-but-with excellent snacks!) in which we discussed the broad domain. Unlike the lecture-hall material culture course, the peer-review course could be handled in seminar style and I thus had an increased chance to learn from the participants. I note here my thanks to all of the participants and to my hosts.

I won’t elaborate the peer-review course content further here, but I will note one related issue of particular interest to me.

The students in this course are advanced in their research and advanced in their publishing careers. This is normal for their institutional and disciplinary contexts in Europe and it also articulates with how most of them will meet their dissertation requirement for the PhD. As is true in the hard sciences in the United States but rare in cultural anthropology or folklore studies (or history, art history, etc.) here, these students dissertations will be assembled around a suite of peer-reviewed articles rather than a long-form, book-like manuscript. I hope to write more about this difference in the future, but if you are curious about what such a dissertation looks like, consider the case of Anastasiya Astapova’s dissertation titled Negotiating Belarusianness: Political Folklore Betwixt and Between. I choose this example because it is highly regarded and connects to my own home department.

As you will see if you consult the dissertation online here: https://dspace.ut.ee/handle/10062/49509, this dissertation combines a 69 page contextualizing and framing essay with presentation of five peer-reviewed articles and chapters. The first of these appeared in the journal Humor, the second appeared in the Journal of Folklore Research (published the IU Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology and IU Press), the third appeared in Ethnologia Europaea, the fourth appeared in the Journal of American Folklore, and the fifth appeared in an edited book titled Contesting Authority: Vernacular Knowledge and Alternative Beliefs. This is a stellar set of high profile publications in leading venues.

If you look at the dissertation online, you will find all of the framing and wrapper material, but not the five articles/chapters themselves. Professor Ülo Valk kindly gave me a paperback edition of the dissertation and it includes reproductions of the five published or then-forthcoming contributions. (All of the current Tartu dissertations are beautifully produced as book-like objects.) I suspect that the University of Tartu withholds these in the open access version for copyright reasons.

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While I mention Anastasiya Astapova’s dissertation in my post, there are plenty to attract our attention. Here is the cover of Jinseok Seo’s dissertation on Korean shamanism.

I hope to reflect more on this model of the dissertation in the future. Here, I mention it to provide context for the peer-review course. This structure definitely gives the peer-review article genre a key place in doctoral training.

In closing, here I want to thank the Fulbright Specialist program again as well as my staff and faculty hosts at the University of Tartu. In connection with the two courses, special thanks go to the students and colleagues who engaged with the efforts described here. (And thanks to the European Union for supporting the peer-review course.)

The University of Tartu, Appreciated

#fulbrightspecialist #fulbright #exchangeourworld

I recently spent an extended time in Tartu, Estonia. I had the wonderful opportunity to be a Fulbright Specialist visiting the Departments of: (1) Estonian and Comparative Folklore, (2) Ethnology, and (3) Estonian Native Craft at the University of Tartu. My visit also provided rich opportunities to learn about the work of the Estonian National Museum, with which these departments collaborate closely. Visiting Estonia was a transformational experience for me and I am very grateful for my generous hosts in Estonia and for the continued work of the [U.S. Department of State’s] Fulbright Program. Here I reflect briefly on the work of my fields at the University of Tartu. In a later post, I will evoke the courses that I taught and the students I met while in Tartu. In a final post, I will touch on the Estonian National Museum and the rich International Committee for Museums and Collections of Ethnography (ICME) conference that it recently hosted.

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On the left, with the mural on its end, is Ülikooli 16 in Tartu on the University of Tartu campus. It is today home to the Institute for Cultural Research, which includes the Departments of Ethnology and of Estonian and Comparative Folklore.

The twinned disciplines in which I work–folkloristics (folklore studies) and ethnology–have a deep and important history in Estonia. So too do the practice of, and the study of, the nation’s rich craft traditions. For my interests, it would really be difficult to think of a richer and more rewarding place to make an in-depth, scholarly visit. The University of Tartu is almost two centuries older than Indiana University where I work. It was founded in 1632 under the auspices of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Through Swedish, Russian, and Soviet rule as well as in independent Estonia, the University of Tartu has been a major world academic center. This is reflected in the fame and impact of its academic programs and in the scholars and students who continue to gather there from around the world. (For those interested in Indiana University connections, the university is strong not only in folklore studies and ethnology, but in the neighboring field of semiotics, another field of special interest to Indiana University scholars. Semiotician and IU Distinguished Professor Thomas Sebeok’s library can be found there (See: Thomas A. Sebeok Memorial Library. As noted here, Sebeok was a Fellow of the IU Folklore Institute and a Professor of Anthropology among his many IU roles.)

The Departments that hosted me have longstanding and strong undergraduate and graduate programs, but a new joint MA program was one catalyst for my visit. Having just welcomed its second cohort of students, the Folkloristics and Applied Heritage Studies program is an English-language masters degree program attracting strong students from around the world (including the United States). It is taught and managed in partnership between these units.

I taught two short-term courses while visiting campus (see later post) and met with colleagues and students both in Tartu and in the city of Viljandi, where the Department of Estonian Native Craft is based. It and other arts programs are located in the Viljandi Culture Academy. Viljandi–about an hour east of Tartu–is a strong hub for the arts in general and for Estonian vernacular and folk arts in particular. For example, near Viljandi is a great satellite museum of the Estonian National Museum that is focused on handicraft and rural life (Heimtali Museum of Domestic Life) and Viljandi is home to the major Viljandi Folk Music Festival.

Both in Viljandi and in Tartu, UT faculty were very generous and taught me much about their work and its contexts. As someone who teaches the history (and present status) of folklore studies, anthropology, and ethnology, it was extremely valuable to have a close encounter with the past and present of these fields in a national context that is inflected in both Northern European ways and in the Russian, Soviet, Post-Soviet ways. As throughout the region, issues of nationalism and national identity are a central theme, but colonialisms and their afterlives are also woven throughout the disciplinary histories. Estonia offers much to think about.

This is not just a historical matter, as changes and innovations in Estonia society also offer many lessons. For instance, life at the University of Tartu is now heavily impacted by programs and initiatives of the European Union and technological mediation is a constantly present dynamic in the university’s educational work. While I am quite accustomed now with online and distance education, I was struck by the extensive role that these techniques play not only word-heavy curriculums such as in ethnology and folklore studies, but in the university’s native craft curriculum. Most students in this later department are older students (older, that is, than recent high school graduates) and they are learning advanced textile, metalwork, and building techniques as well as heritage studies methods and theories through a combination of intense-but-brief in-person work on campus and online education activities.

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My course on “Getting the Most Out of Peer-Review” was generously supported by the European Union, thus this sign was posted during class sessions.

From colleagues in these departments, I also gained a deeper understanding of their impressive publishing work. Highlights include the Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics (which I have long admired) and Studia Vernacula and a great diversity of monographs and edited volumes. Publication work in my fields is very advanced in the UT departments. The well-researched and beautiful books being produced related to Estonian craft techniques and histories are a marvel–little work of this quality is found in the United States.

I could continue at near endless length, but this is enough for now. I close for the moment with warm appreciation for all of the staff, faculty, and students who worked hard to make my visit possible and who shared so much of their work and passion with me. Thanks also go to the Fulbright Specialist Program and to the European Union, the University of Tartu, and other funding agencies that supported my activities.

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In downtown Tartu.

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