- Folklife and Museums: Twenty-First Century Perspectives ed. by C. Kurt Dewhurst, Patricia Hall, and Charlie Seemann
If this book were a culinary confection, it would be a rich and tasty stew. As is often the case with stews, some of the individual ingredients are fresher and more piquant than others, and the presentation in the bowl is not altogether elegant. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, it is a hearty and sustaining dish. [End Page 85]
According to the brief introduction, this volume updates the 1987 publication Folklife and Museums: Selected Readings (American Association for State and Local History), edited by Patricia Hall and Charlie Seemann. C. Kurt Dewhurst joins Hall and Seemann to edit this new compilation. The 1987 collection, which is, sadly, now out of print, was “widely used as a textbook in both folklore and museums studies” (p. xv), and presumably these fields are the primary audiences for the update as well. Unlike some more substantial introductions to compilations of this kind, the editors do not offer much of a clue as to how the articles might fit together, nor are the articles arranged in thematic groupings within the book, so the reader must embark upon a deeper exploration to discover common threads and themes.
There is indeed much to explore. Along with a version of Dewhurst’s masterful presidential address to the American Folklore Society in 2011, “Folklife and Museum Practice: An Intertwined History and Emerging Convergences,” the collection includes a few original articles reprinted from the 1987 volume, either updated by the authors themselves or presented with a new companion piece. For instance, John Michael Vlach’s classic “Folklore and Museum Artifacts” is paired with a new article by John Moe, “Paradigm Shifts in the Study and Presentation of Material Culture,” which references Vlach’s statement that “social history requires that the unsung be sung.” Another pairing groups Howard Wight Marshall’s article “Folklife and the Rise of American Folk Museums” with a “redux” by Simon Bronner that examines ways this class of museum has responded to new historical, theoretical, and social issues in the past 30 years. Robert Baron and Patricia Hall both update their own earlier articles, Baron with a preface that addresses many of the things that have changed since 1987, and Hall by referencing her earlier writings and adding new insights.
The bulk of the book is comprised of new articles (or “newer,” as some of these are also versions of articles that are more than 10 years old and were previously published elsewhere), which cover a wide range of topics in folklore and museum studies. The topics, tones, and approaches vary widely, from the more theoretical voices of Hall and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, to the practical case studies by Carrie Hertz and Diana Baird N’Diaye, to the broad overviews by Dewhurst and Candace Tangorra Matelic. Beyond the bricks-and-mortar museum, we glimpse views of alternative museum-like folklife enterprises such as the Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.
As I ranged around the articles, I embarked on a journey through those referencing “folk” or outdoor museums, which illustrate the wide variety of viewpoints and insights offered in the volume. These include not only the Vlach-Moe and Marshall-Bronner paired articles but also in Susan Asbury’s article on the use of “play” in museums (referencing the experience of her own children at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts); Paddy Bowman’s description of her educational efforts with teachers and students at Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park in Louisiana; and several other articles. Read together, the essays referencing the strengths and weaknesses of folklife interpretation and visitor engagement at these types of museums—as well as their history (at least in America, Great Britain, and Scandinavia), development, and future possibilities—cover much territory. What I found missing was a more international perspective on the topic. Are there not some iterations of outdoor “folk” museums in other parts of Europe...