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Posts from the ‘Europe’ Category

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.

Who Cares About Craft as Traditional Knowledge?

This fall has been a particularly busy season for research-based programs at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. An an outgrowth of our Indiana Folk Arts: 200 Years of Tradition and Innovation exhibition and our participation in classes and programs for Themester, we will have hosted, by semester’s end, a very large number craftspeople or groups of craftspeople representative of a broad swath of vernacular making in Indiana. Because of our Themester mandate to focus on questions of Beauty in our engagements with these artist-craftspeople, our discussions with them have always had an aesthetic component. We have asked, for instance, questions like: “What characteristics do you associate with a beautiful weaving [or chair, or drum, or pottery bowl, or…]?” or “When producing for the marketplace, how do you balance functional use and aesthetic impact?” Art and aesthetics are a crucial part of the human experience and of what makes cultures distinctive and meaningful.

But the objects that we curate and interpret, and the makers of things with whom we engage, are not only about art. Even while many have both aesthetic and functional purposes, many others of our museum’s objects are not reasonably framed as art and some of our interlocutors are talented, knowledgeable makers and users of things, without being artists. Our work is bigger than art, as important as art is. Aesthetic values are part of larger cultural systems and those larger wholes are our focus. Whether in China or in Indiana, our work is about local knowledge, including traditional cultural knowledge. A big part of our engagements with makers focuses on the knowledge that goes into making–craft expertise along with local environmental and contextual knowledge concerned with uses, meanings, significances.

A detailed story in last Saturday’s Independent by Amalia Illgner is a good evocation of the kinds of concern we (particularly Traditional Arts Indiana, led ably by my colleague Jon Kay) try to bring to our work with craft objects, craft knowledge, and craftspeople. (I appreciate Matthew Bradley for sharing it with me.) Read the story (“Raiders of the Lost Crafts”) here. (I note here that, despite the declensionist hook and playful title, the author is not so obsessed with authenticity discourses that she disregards fruitful rediscovery of older craft knowledge through the study of museum collections and documentary materials. The story is a rare and rather sophisticated treatment of its subject.)

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Who cares about craft as traditional knowledge? My colleagues and I do. We also like art and we also love seeing where contemporary craftspeople, including studio craft, DIY craft, and many others, are taking their passions–but documenting what people know and have long known is important and helping foster environments where those who have traditional cultural knowledge are supported and encouraged is key part of our mission. If you care about such things, you still have lots of chances to engage your interests at the museum this year. This week we will host a wonderful group of African American quilters and a talented maker of African drums. In following weeks, we offer chances to connect with Indiana limestone carvers, a hoop-net maker, a rosemaler, a pysanky artist, a Native American potter, a Zapotec weaver, and an Orthodox iconographer. Learning from such craftspeople is something we intend to keep doing as along as we can.

Exhibition Opening: Operation AB – Katyn–The Destruction of the Polish Elite at the Beginning of WWII

Thank you to all everyone who traveled, from near and far, to attend last night’s exhibition opening of “Operation AB – Katyn: The Destruction of the Polish Elite at the Beginning of WWII,” at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. The exhibition, organized by, and circulated to the MMWC by, the Institute of National Remembrance, Poland is an important effort to report on a tragic, important, and poorly understood phase in WWII-era European history, particularly the terrible Katyn massacre. It is an honor to host this important historical exhibition and it was an honor to welcome so many guests to the museum for the opening.

Among the special visitors attending the exhibition opening was Dr. Łukasz Andrzej Kamiński, the President of the Institute of National Remembrance. It was a great experience to welcome Dr. Kaminski and his colleagues to the museum and to Indiana University.

The IU Polish Studies Center, led by Padraic Kenney, was the leader of this local effort and the MMWC is thankful for the opportunity to pursue this partnership.

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