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Posts from the ‘Folklore Studies’ Category

Fieldwork: Introduction (12/13-18)

Skip ahead six paragraphs (bypass those marked with an hash mark #) if you want to go straight to the start of the fieldwork stories. If you would like to know why my colleagues and I were in China doing fieldwork, start here at the beginning. (After this post, I will do one or two more with some fieldwork highlights.)

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Manjiang village, a community within the Nandan Baiku Yao Ecomuseum. December 14, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

# The China-US Folklore and Intangible Cultural Heritage Project is a binational collaboration linking the China Folklore Society and the American Folklore Society. It has been underway formally since 2007 and has included multiple project phases and, in these phases, various sub-projects. A wide range of funders have supported the project and its work and a great number of Chinese and American scholars and practitioners have participated in its activities. Among U.S. participants, special attention is often given to the Henry Luce Foundation, which has been particularly generous in supporting several phases of the project (Lloyd 2017).

# Two sub-projects occurring in two different phases of the project have a specific museum focus. Between 2013 and 2016, a sub-project titled “Intangible Cultural Heritage and Ethnographic Museum Practice” brought together six museums of ethnography—three from the United States and three from Southwest China. These museum partners organized two “Forum on China-US Folklore and Intangible Cultural Heritage” events, pursued professional exchanges of staff members, traveled together to visit local communities in the home regions of each museum, and undertook a joint exhibition and catalogue project. The resulting exhibition—Quilts of Southwest China has been touring the United States. The bilingual catalogue is distributed in the United States by Indiana University Press. These are just the formal highlights of the project. A wide range of spin-off projects and collaborative relationships also arose from this joint work (Dewhurst 2017; Du 2017; Indiana University 2013; Lloyd 2017; MacDowell 2017; MacDowell and Zhang 2016; Zhang 2017).

# A new phase of the larger project began in 2017 and it also includes a museum-focused sub-project. The new project builds on relationships and experiences arising in the preceding effort. Between 2017 and 2019, the “Collaborative Work in Museum Folklore and Heritage Studies” sub-project is bringing together researchers from the three U.S. museums (Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Michigan State University Museum, Museum of International Folk Art) with colleagues affiliated with the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi (AMGX), as well as that museum’s partners in two local ecomuseums: the Nandan Baiku (White Trousers) Yao Ecomuseum and the Sanjiang Dong Ecomuseum.

# The workshop (discussed in posts 6 and 7) was another formal part of the project, but the most crucial activity is ethnographic fieldwork in two communities—those associated with the two ecomuseums in Nandan and Sanjiang counties in Northern Guangxi. The December 2017 trip was for the first of four fieldwork efforts. On this trip, our local hosts and partners were the staff at the Nandan Baiku Yao Ecomuseum.

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A pet bird in a basketry cage in Huaili village. December 14, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

# In a Chinese context, an ecomuseum is a local museum framework that encompasses a community or group of communities, often associated with a single ethnic group or “nationality.” In Nandan County, the Nandan Baiku Yao Ecomuseum is embraces three contiguous villages near the town of Lihu. These three villages are situated within a wider area where “White Trouser Yao” people reside. White Trouser Yao is a designation for a particular group of Yao people distinguished by the white knicker-style pants worn as part of local men’s dress. Ecomuseums are somewhat hard to explain in a North American context because they are not limited to a fixed museum building (although they often include gallery spaces and other buildings used for museum functions). In formal terms at least, an ecomuseum is a way of characterizing an entire community or group of communities. The ecomuseum framework then becomes a organizational strategy for cultural heritage activities, including documentary work, cultural preservation activities, and perhaps also cultural tourism. The closest analog in the U.S. would be the situation found in some Native American communities where a “tribal museum” may have a museum building but may also facilitate a range of cultural preservation activities throughout the community. Wikipedia characterizes ecomuseums as follows:

An ecomuseum is a museum focused on the identity of a place, largely based on local participation and aiming to enhance the welfare and development of local communities. Ecomuseums originated in France, the concept being developed by Georges Henri Rivière and Hugues de Varine, who coined the term ‘ecomusée’ in 1971.[1] The term “éco” is a shortened form for “écologie”, but it refers especially to a new idea of holistic interpretation of cultural heritage, in opposition to the focus on specific items and objects, performed by traditional museums.

The nature and potential of ecomuseums is a key research concern of our partners at the Anthropological Museum of Guangxi (more on that later).

In a few final post or two, I will offer some highlights of our fieldwork experience. Here I explain our topic and circumstances.

While in Nandan County, the project participants stayed in rooms connected to the offices of the Nandan Baiku Yao Ecomuseum. This offered our group the opportunity to reside in the village cluster where the museum is centered without necessitating staying spread among various host families. The simple guest rooms at the museum were created with this sort of visiting research use in mind. The arrangement meant that visitors and locals could interact meaningfully from early in the morning to late in the evening without being a burden to local families nor introducing the disruption and social separation that would have accompanied staying in a hotel distant from the communities at the center of the research. He Jinxiu, a Baiku Yao woman who is active in the work of the museum, a civic leader in the community, and a noted textile artist, was engaged to cook for the visitors with the help of a younger woman in her family and another younger woman Li Xiuying who is also a noted local textile artist. This arrangement was very appropriate to local norms and was generously arranged for by the local museum staff and supported by the AMGX. I know that the other American participants join me in expressing deep appreciation for the generous hospitality extended to us by all of our partners in the project and by the members of the contiguous villages of Huatu, Manjiang, and Huaili in which the ethnographic investigations were undertaken.

Over the course of the research visit, the participants broke into three teams. Two of these teams focused on the nexus of textile arts and cultural heritage practices that are at the center of the project. These two research teams were made up of researchers from the American museums, from the AMGX, and from the Baiku Yao ecomuseum. Work by these teams was pursued in a mixture of English, provincial Mandarin, and the local Baiku Yao language.

One of these two teams focused on fabric arts; the other focused on bamboo basketry and the related practice of incorporating woven bamboo into architectural structures such as wall screens, fences, and basketry-walled granaries. The fabric arts group documented weaving practices, indigo dying, embroidery, the making and use of clothing, and silk production. The basketry group was able to document the making of an elaborate basket from start to finish (in photographs, video, notes, interviews), inventory baskets found in two households, and document over fifty basketry types in active use. This group also interviewed a basket trader, recording the full range of types in his inventory with names, prices, uses, and other data.

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Bamboo harvested and stored for use in basket making at the home of Li Guicai in Huaili village. December 14, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

The third project team, comprised of members of the AMGX staff with assistance from the Baiku Yao ecomuseum staff focused on documenting the work of the project as a whole, with the goal of being in a position to produce articles and documentary video chronicling the work of the international partnership. The three American museums also each made collections during the course of this work.

Much was learned and many questions for future research have been identified. The research concluded with travel to Nanning and, for the Americans, home to the US beginning on the 18th. In final post(s) I will share a richer glimpse of Baiku Yao cultural life and the people whom we we met.

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Jon Kay (R) and Li Guicai (L) at Mr. Li’s home in Huaili village. December 14, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

References Cited

Dewhurst, C. Kurt. 2017. “Building Connectivity: China-US Folklife Collaborations.” In Metafolklore: Stories of Sino-US Folkloristic Communication, edited by Juwen Zhang and Junhua Song, 189-98. Guangzhou: Sun Yat-sen University Press.

Du, Yunhong. 2017. “Ten Years: China-US Museum Collaborations in Retrospect.” In Metafolklore: Stories of Sino-US Folkloristic Communication, edited by Juwen Zhang and Junhua Song, 214-18. Guangzhou: Sun Yat-sen University Press.

Indiana University. 2013. “IU’s Mathers Museum One of Three U.S. Institutions to Collaborate with Chinese Museums.” Accessed January 16. 2018. http://archive.news.indiana.edu/releases/iu/2013/11/mathers-museum-collaboration.shtml

Lloyd, Tim. 2017. “The Inside Story of the AFS China-US Project.” AFS News. June 12, 2017. http://www.afsnet.org/news/349609/The-Inside-Story-of-the-AFS-China-US-Project.htm

MacDowell, Marsha. 2017. “Reflections on Collaborations: The Quilts of Southwest China Project.” In Metafolklore: Stories of Sino-US Folkloristic Communication, edited by Juwen Zhang and Junhua Song, 199-207. Guangzhou: Sun Yat-sen University Press.

——— and Lijun Zhang, eds.The Quilts of Southwest China. Nanning: Guangxi Museum of Nationalities and Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Xie, Mohua. 2017. “My Two Stories.” In Metafolklore: Stories of Sino-US Folkloristic Communication, edited by Juwen Zhang and Junhua Song, 208-13. Guangzhou: Sun Yat-sen University Press.

Zhang, Lijun. 2017. “My Involvement in the Museum Exchange Projects.” In Metafolklore: Stories of Sino-US Folkloristic Communication, edited by Juwen Zhang and Junhua Song, 221-27. Guangzhou: Sun Yat-sen University Press.

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.

The Ethnic Costume Museum at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology (12/9)

In the previous post in this series, I described how my traveling companions and I visited Beijing’s 798 Art Zone. (For the series in order, see 1, 2, 3, and 4.) After that stop on December the 9th, we visited one more Beijing museum. This one was a new one for everyone. Carrie researched it and put it on our agenda—The Ethnic Costume Museum at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology (BIFT). We were uncertain what to expect, but we speculated that it would be a small university museum.

It won’t take many words to tell the story. We were extremely impressed. The museum is not richly contextualizing and interpretive in approach (as more and more university museums work to be) but its collections are outstanding and they are beautifully presented in large, comfortable galleries. For scholars interested in dress, adornment, and textile history in China, it is a definite must-see.

The museum is located on an upper floor of a multi-use academic building in the midst of the BIFT campus. Discovering this, one presumes further that the space will be small, as many similar university galleries in the United States often are. But on arrival up the stairs, this speculation is dispelled. The galleries go on and on. You can check out an English language web page for the museum here: http://english.bift.edu.cn/department/ethniccostumemuseum/index.htm It begins:

The Costume Museum at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology (BIFT), founded with the approval of Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, is the first museum specializing in ethnic costumes in China. The Museum is also a cultural research institute integrating collection, display, research, and teaching.

BIFT Costume Museum covers a floor space of 2,000 square meters, with several major exhibition halls: Han Nationality Costume Hall, Ethnic Minority Costume Hall, Miao Nationality Costume Hall, Metalworking Jewelry Hall, Brocade Embroidery and Wax-printing Hall, Olympic Uniform and Ceremony Costume Hall, Picture Hall, and Hands-on Workshop (for teaching and academic exchange).

As the top specialized costume museum in China, it has a fine collection of over 10,000 pieces of costume, accessories, fabric, wax printing, and embroidery. The collection is displayed in different categories, such as costumes of Miao nationality, metalworking jewelry, folk wax printing, and fabric. The museum also has a collection of nearly 1000 precious photographs taken during the 1920s and 1930s featuring the ethnic costumes of Yi, Zang, and Qiang nationalities.

That is all true. Here I share some of our photographs from the visit, which was the high point of our day and great preparation for the work we would begin in Guangxi the next day.

When we arrived, we noticed a sign that indicated that no photography was allowed. This left us crestfallen. We started taking in the exhibitions and noticed that all the other visitors were taking pictures and that the staff was completely aware of this. On investigation, it was flash photography that was prohibited. As a result of these factors, as well as the appropriately dark galleries (appropriate because textiles are being put on display for extended periods, raising the problem of light damage) our photographs are dark and rushed.

In honor of our generous hosts in Nandan County, I present the Baiku Yao men’s outfit on display at the museum before posting a sample of other images from the museum.

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The “Men’s attire of the white-pants Yao branch of the Yaozu people” at the Museum of Ethnic Costumes. December 9, 2017. Photograph by Jason Baird Jackson.

Beijing’s 798 Art Zone, Revisited, Again (12/9)

After visiting The Museum of Women and Children (See part 3 here), our group checked in with the Beijing arts neighborhood known as 798. (For background on 798, see wikipedia here, but know that the essay needs a refresh.) This area was the focus on an exhibition (just deinstalled last week) that I did last year at the MMWC with help from Luo Wenhong of the Yunnan Nationalities Museum. For Jon Kay, it was his first visit, but for Carrie Hertz, Marsha MacDowell, Kurt Dewhurst, and I it was a revisit. Jon already had a good sense of the place from our discussions (and from the exhibition photographs that he walked by almost every day at the MMWC since April). For the rest of us, it was our reaction that was new.

We know well—from Wenhong’s historical and ethnographic work there and from our own brief visits—that the neighborhood is an always changing place. But this visit caused us to believe that 798 has really now turned another corner. Of the group, I had visited 798 most recently. In May 2016, I captured over 700 images of the neighborhood trying to document its sidewalk visual culture for the exhibition. (“Beijing’s 798 Art Zone” was presented at the MMWC from April 6 to December 17, 2017.) Discussing such things as the gentrification and new high-rise construction that presses in on the neighborhood, the increased presence there of major corporations and their promotional imagery, and a transition from confrontational street art to fun, selfie-friendly graffiti and amusing sculpture, I tried to suggest the ways that 798 is changing. I also tried to evoke some of the factors that were making the neighborhood a different kind of destination, while also noting the slipping away of the artistic cutting edge that other observers have noted. As my efforts were in the spirit of visual and urban anthropology rather than an effort in contemporary art criticism, I did not take a particular stance on these changes, just tried to convey a sense of them.

All that to say that a contemporary arts district is not the kind of place that any of us would visit expecting to find cultural continuity. At the same time, our visit in 2017 did surprise us with how rapidly things can change. It is hard to sort out day-to-day, and season-to-season variations, but the contemporary-art-first version of 798 seemed defeated as judged by its street-level visual culture, as we experienced it last month. Some iconic graffiti and fiberglass sculpture remains. Some of the more robust galleries and retail shops are still there, but in the course of about nineteen months, a lot had disappeared or been degraded. Through its various earlier phases as an arts zone, a kind of playful-but-edgy aesthetics dominated the neighborhood’s visual culture. That aesthetic was haphazard in the sense that it was not centrally coordinated, but it was coherent in the sense that there was the kind of coherence that is the hallmark of many successful art colonies and artistic “schools.” The aesthetic last month had tipped over into the haphazardness of the flea market. (As folklorists, we love flea markets, but the change is noteworthy.) Unlike on recent visits, there was also a lot of empty real retail space.

In the 2017 MMWC exhibition, I showed the store front of the +86 Design Store’s 798 branch, using it as a way of talking about how a commercial culture of cute and of design had been progressively overtaking the oppositional style of the neighborhood. On the latest revisit, +86 had partitioned off the back of the store and seemed to be renting it out as office space, thus reducing significantly the amount of goods available for sale and giving the place an aura of decline. Similarly, suggesting how an exhibition such as the MMWC 798 show is almost immediately obsolete is the case of the Sony display space that I pictured in the exhibition. I used the Sony exhibition space (bright and fresh in 2017) to evoke the ways that corporations were colonizing the neighborhood as a way of connecting with the many visitors that stroll its streets but also as a way of capturing something of the neighborhood’s residual cool factor. On our revisit, the Sony exhibition space was gone and it appeared that a failed spa had already come and gone in its place. The space was not in use. (It is not clear if Sony’s space had always been intended to be short-lived. For an occasional visitor, it is sometimes hard to track the differences between temporary commercial/corporate/foreign government exposition/exhibition spaces and longer-term endeavors.)

Different parts of the neighborhood are faring differently and, despite it being winter, there were plenty of visitors out walking and exploring the neighborhood. It is still, as described in the exhibition, a destination for making selfies and for more professional photo shoots. But emblematic of the newest incarnation of 798 for us was the store called in English “Iran”. As the name suggests, the store offers Persian art and objects. There are familiar kinds of objects such as woven rugs, but then there are (many) less familiar (to me, at least) paintings (?) on black velvet. Iran was crowded with people and crowded with what cultural critics in the west would call  (perhaps misperceiving what they see) orientalist kitsch mixed with textiles, metalwork and other genres with less ambiguous roots in Iran. To see something what Iran in 798 looks like, check out this short YouTube video published soon after our visit. Iran seems to be part of a changing culture of exhibition in 798. As the edgy aura wears off, but as people continue to visit (but, it seems to me, to not spend very much money), the neighborhood becomes useful for quirky soft-power projects. Iran’s place in 798 casts a new light on the Israeli chamber of commerce’s presence in 798 (noted on my last visit) and its activities hosting expo-like events in the neighborhood. (Iran is almost across the street from the Israelis.) Along the same lines, 798 is similarly home to a branch of the Beijing Goethe Institut.

The shift to a more random retail footing can also be seen in other new businesses getting going in 798. An example is the “Custom Barrrl [yes, three Rs, no E] Scotch Whisky Exchange”. The most dramatic new architectural presence is a building marked in English “798 Art Auction Center.” I have not found information online about what is going on with it.

Unlike the rest of the neighborhood, UCCA (Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art) seemed to basically be as it had been on past visits. But a quick Google search shows that it too has been changing recently. For those interested in the state and fate of UCCA, check out this story in the South China Morning Post. The 2017-10-9 story begins with these headlines:

Beijing contemporary art space UCCA sold to Chinese investment group, securing future of 798 Art District landmark

Deal for Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art ends year of uncertainty, and director is hopeful its new status as a foundation will help it raise funds, improve its exhibitions and attract more visitors.

It actually isn’t true that UCCA seemed unchanged at street level. Reviewing our photographs, I recall the shock I felt in seeing that the museum was hosting a bamboo basketry class. Those who know my own enthusiasms can imagine that I see this as a change for the better. Probably so, and in my book this is a rather cutting-edge thing for them to be doing, but still it would have seemed preposterous that UCCA would have had such classes at the time of our first visits there.

Things seemed less promising for us at at the Enjoy Museum of Art, which appeared to us to have closed. (Let me know if you know otherwise.)

Other new developments: a decorate-your-own-ceramics place, more kid-oriented retail and amusements, lots of boutiques with sophisticated women’s wear, many street vendors selling the kind of foods one can get in Chinese city parks (candy glazed strawberries on a stick, for instance), and lots of card-tables-on-the-sidewalk retail of used and simple domestic goods (these in particular contribute to the flea-market vibe) and tchotchkes. As is true everywhere in Beijing now, rental bicycles are ubiquitous in 798 and they crowd at the entrances to the district.

Of course, a series of quick visits and walkabouts are not the same thing as sustained attention, historical, ethnographic, or otherwise. It is not possible to fully understand the state and fate of 798 without deep knowledge of the political economy and culture of Beijing, China, and the international worlds of art, culture, and discourse in which these intersect and entwine. I am glad that there are in-the-know scholars working on these larger contexts in which 798 has a place.

As we entered 798 on this visit and approached the visitor center, we noticed that the sculpture on the left had been replaced by the less unnerving one on the right…

 

Framing Sukkot: Tradition and Transformation in Jewish Vernacular Architecture

Just in time for the holiday that is at its center, I am happy to trumpet the publication of Framing Sukkot: Tradition and Transformation in Jewish Vernacular Architecture by Gabrielle Berlinger. Framing Sukkot is the third title in the Material Vernaculars series and it is appearing in the world just as the Jewish holiday of Sukkot is about to begin for 2017/5778!

Here is how Indiana University Press introduces Professor Berlinger’s new book:

The sukkah, the symbolic ritual home built during the annual Jewish holiday of Sukkot, commemorates the temporary structures that sheltered the Israelites as they journeyed across the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Despite the simple Biblical prescription for its design, the remarkable variety of creative expression in the construction, decoration, and use of the sukkah, in both times of peace and national upheaval, reveals the cultural traditions, political convictions, philosophical ideals, and individual aspirations that the sukkah communicates for its builders and users today.

In this ethnography of contemporary Sukkot observance, Gabrielle Anna Berlinger examines the powerful role of ritual and vernacular architecture in the formation of self and society in three sharply contrasting Jewish communities: Bloomington, Indiana; South Tel Aviv, Israel; and Brooklyn, New York. Through vivid description and in-depth interviews, she demonstrates how constructing and decorating sukkah and performing the weeklong holiday’s rituals of hospitality provide unique circumstances for creative expression, social interaction, and political struggle. Through an exploration of the intersections between the rituals of Sukkot and contemporary issues, such as the global Occupy movement, Berlinger finds that the sukkah becomes a tangible expression of the need for housing and economic justice, as well as a symbol of the longing for home.

As I noted in discussing the edited collection Material Vernaculars: Objects, Images, and Their Social Worlds last fall, it is my hope that many readers will purchase a beautiful paper or hardback edition of Framing Sukkot, thereby helping support the work of a great university press. One of the things that makes IU Press great is its commitment to building strategies for free and open access to scholarly writings. The Material Vernaculars series, co-published with the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, is part of that commitment. So, first let me note that you can buy copies of the book from a range of online booksellers, including Amazon and the IU Press itself. Secondly, let me show you where the free digital edition of the book lives. Hopefully by the time Sukkot ends, people around the world will be reading this great new book.

To access the free PDF version, click on the image below or go to this URL https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/handle/2022/21232

Once you are there, click on the “View/Open” link as shown in the image. Clicking should enable you to download a copy of the book.

Dr. Berlinger is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is also the Babette S. and Bernard J. Tanenbaum Fellow in Jewish History and Culture within the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies. In addition to the new book, you can find a moving Sukkot-oriented post by Dr. Berlinger on the IU Press blog.

Check out Framing Sukkot!

Early Career Jobs for IU Folklore and Ethnomusicology Ph.D.s in 2014

In order to answer a question that was posed during the recent Future of American Folkloristics conference, I took a few moments recently to crunch some placement data for Ph.D. graduates in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. The data was collected for the department’s most recent external review. More could be done with it, but here is some simple and quick analysis.

At the time of the external review, the department gathered then-current employment circumstances for Ph.D. graduates for the period 2008 to 2014. That list of alumni comprises fifty-five colleagues in the fields of folklore studies and ethnomusicology.* I have not checked to see if there are Ph.D. graduates from 2008-2014 missing from this list (but I doubt there are). In the following discussion, I do not separate folklorists from ethnomusicologists. I acknowledge that this could be done with a bit more effort, but I was trying to do what I could do quickly.

PhD Placement

What came out in the work that I did do? I do not privilege academic jobs over those pursued away from university or college campuses, but I will begin here with those in academic roles. (My own biases would probably have me emphasize the museum workers…) The admirable diversity of roles filled by scholars in our fields means that different approaches to coding the same data are probably inevitable. While I do not describe my approach, it should be relatively transparent from the categories that I use below.

I do not support the regrettable professor-centrism of most research university faculties and deans, but I do worry a lot about precarity and contingency in the U.S. professoriate. I start then with those in the 2008-2014 cohort who were in tenure-track (TT) positions in 2014. Nineteen of fifty-five Ph.D. graduates were in such roles at the time of the snapshot (19/55 or 34%). I will comment more on skewing in this number below.

At the time of the snapshot, eight of fifty-five cohort members were in non-tenure track (NTT) roles (8/55 or 15%). As anyone in academe knows, this NTT category is itself heterogeneous, containing colleagues teaching by the course under very difficult conditions as well as those teaching relatively comfortably with full-time, multiyear contracts. I do not parse the list in a granular way to address this distinction. A more careful analysis would.

By my calculation, two more cohort members were in post-doctoral fellowships at the time of the snapshot. To the best of my knowledge, these were university-based and included teaching, thus I will gather them together with other university teaching roles (2/55 or 4%). Together, we can speculate that the NTT and Post-docs may have then aspired to be TT faculty. While I will do the math for this, I do not want to believe it categorically. A person could be in a NTT teaching role while busily seeking a research curatorship, an archivist role, or some other appropriate position. But, lumping the the TT, NTT, and post-docs together, we find 53% of the 2008-2014 cohort working in greater professordom as of 2014.

Twenty-six out of the fifty-five (26/55 or 47%) were then in some other academic support role, university-based researcher role, or public sector or applied job. Others would code the list differently, but my break down is as follows.

  • Academic support (not including librarians, but including academic advisors): N=7
  • Business roles: N=1
  • Librarians and archivists: N=2
  • Public folklorists and public ethnomusicologists (not including museum work): N=3
  • Museum roles: N=6
  • Independent research organization staff: N=1
  • Soft money (grant-funded) research posts: N=2
  • NGO work (outside the conventional public folklore/ethnomusicology sector): N=1
  • Scholarly publishing roles: N=2
  • K-12 education roles: N=1

If I slice this 47% (/non-faculty) group differently, sixteen work in college/university contexts and ten do not. Thus 82% (45/55) (including the citizens of professordom) of the Ph.D. cohort for 2008-2014 are working on campus and 18% of this particular group work off campus. This sort of surprises me, but as I think of it, it makes more sense. Our department trains a greater percentage of public and applied workers for off-campus roles but the analysis would have to add in M.A. graduates to more meaningfully capture this fact.

There are other complexities not addressed here, such as when public folklore jobs are based on university campuses or in museums or when an academic advisor role is based in a relevant academic department and includes an instructional component. The real world is more complex than any simple quantitative analysis can capture. With such caveats in mind, it is noteworthy to me that a significant number of Ph.D. graduates at the time of this snapshot were working as academic advisors. I do not think that this is a bad thing. More and more anecdotal evidence suggests to me that our training makes for excellent advising because we know academic structures, the diverse worlds from which students come, and the complex informal cultures of the university. I would also note that academic advising has proved, in at least one case that I know, to have provided a reasonable home base from which to mount a successful push for a TT professorship. In my observations at IU, an academic advisor role (in contrast to a vexing adjunct situation) would provide more of the much-needed spare time and job stability required to maintain or establish a publication program on the side and to pursue the hard work of applying to a range of professor positions.

While I have not parsed the data or done the math, it seems evident from the listing that the international scholars who secured tenure track jobs in their homelands skew the data for TT appointments in a more positive direction. For Americans seeking TT professorships in the United States, the task is simply harder than the aggregate 34% TT versus 15% NTT numbers would suggest.

Since I am the teacher of our graduate Curatorship class and the director of our campus museum of ethnography, I have a special interest in museum placements and I feel pretty good about the 11% represented here. This cohort, graduating between 2008 and 2014 was the first to benefit from expanded museum training opportunities. I expect our placements in this area to continue gaining strength.

I do not feel overwhelmingly good or bad about these numbers, even as I worry about the state of social science and humanities doctoral training overall. I think that they are a reasonable snapshot of the early career career paths of an impressive group of Ph.D.s in folklore studies and ethnomusicology. Reviewing 2014 data in 2017, I know that many of those represented here have moved on to even better (for them) roles. Post-docs, NTT professors, and academic support staff now hold TT posts, press editors have been promoted, museum people have migrated to jobs that they like even better…. But not everyone is employed as they aspire to be. As the higher education press makes clear every day, the career worlds inhabited by those holding the Ph.D. are not easy and excellent people can struggle under the weight of significant structural challenges. I believe that those challenges require us—especially those of us working in graduate degree granting programs—to try to study current realities and to communicate clearly with those who want to gather data on the graduate programs that they might join or that they are already a part of.

I hope that these notes are useful to someone.

*The set of lists that I am discussing here also include a separate listing of full-time placements among those then-still the Ph.D. program and a list of M.A. graduates for 2007-2014. I do not touch on either of these groups here.

 

The Free-to-Readers Edition of Material Vernaculars: Objects, Images, and Their Social Worlds

As I discussed in a previous post, works in the Material Vernaculars series are being made available in a free-to-readers PDF edition via IUScholarWorks. The eponymous edited collection Material Vernaculars: Objects, Images, and Their Social Worlds was posted today and you can find it here: http://hdl.handle.net/2022/20925

If you think that high quality open and/or free access editions of scholarly monographs are a good thing, and if you have the means to do so, I urge you to purchase copies of the companion print or ebook editions as a way of supporting the cause and subsidizing the access of others, including those who cannot otherwise afford to obtain the book. If you really want to make a difference, consider donating to the not-for-profit publishers and libraries behind such efforts. In our case, you can contribute to the Indiana University Press (co-publisher of the Material Vernaculars series with the Mathers Museum of World Cultures) here: http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/pages.php?CDpath=12

Here is a screen shot showing you where to click to download Material Vernaculars. The image should link to the page in IUScholarWorks where the book is found. (The link is given above as well.)

slide1Happy reading!

Material Vernaculars: Objects, Images, and Their Social Worlds (is out now)

I am happy to share this note to report that the edited collection Material Vernaculars: Objects, Images, and Their Social Worlds has now been published. I am the editor of this volume, which includes contributions to material culture studies from Dan Swan and Jim Cooley, Jon Kay, Michael Paul Jordan, Danille Elise Christensen, and Gabrielle Berlinger. I love the work that my colleagues contributed to the book. In addition to sharing their scholarship, the volume serves to launch the Material Vernaculars book series of which it is a part. Also appearing in the new series, is Jon Kay’s Folk Art and Aging: Life-Story Objects and Their Makers (it was published last month).

The new series is published by the Indiana University Press in cooperation with the Mathers Museum of World Cultures. IU Press is to be commended for its hard work bringing Material Vernaculars to press. Most of the papers in the volume were presented last fall at the 2015 Annual Meetings of the American Folklore Society. The papers were presented, revised, peer-reviewed, revised again, copy edited, typeset, proof-read, corrected and processed for final publication (etc.) in less than a year, a scenario that is simply unprecedented in the world of academic book publishing. And the results are great–a well-designed, well-edited book that is rich with color images. Its all first rate.

IU Press has a big sale going through tomorrow (October 30). Its a perfect time to check out their list and perhaps purchase this new title. Paperback and Hardback editions are now available. Electronic editions are on their way. (More on that asap.)

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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.)

raiders-of-the-lost-crafts

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.

Get Oriented to Themester 2016: Beauty

Reviewing the Mathers Museum of World Cultures events and exhibitions pages is probably the only way to get a full sense of all that we are doing for 2016 Themester, but for an overview of Themester as a whole and its focus on Beauty, I recommend checking out yesterday’s kickoff press release (Figure 1). In addition to the MMWC pages, it would also be great to see the Themester website. For MMWC, Themester boils down to three great classes [A400, E460, F360] taught at the museum, three great beauty-focused exhibitions [Costume, Hózhó, Siyazama], plus a lot of programming, including folk artists residencies throughout the semester, as well as films, lectures, and hands-on activities. Check out the full list here. Thanks go to the College of Arts and Sciences for including the museum in an impressive roster of Themester activities. Thanks too go to the students who are helping us organize our Themester activities and to the artists and tradition bearers whose work we are highlighting. Please join it this remarkable exploration of beauty around the world.

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Figure 1: The Themester 2016 press release, which leads off with a photography b MMWC Consulting Curator Pravina Shukla, from her exhibition Costume.

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