Friday, February 10, 2017

Book Review - Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions

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As some of you may already know, I have a strong appreciation for the study of Folklore and, as a result, I am passionate about telling the stories of people, places, and things through the presentation of artifacts in museum collections. One of my personal goals this year is to share ways that you can highlight these stories in your museums and, for our partnering sites, on NovaMuse. You may be asking yourself, "What is Folklore?" In Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions, Sims and Stephens provides a great working definition of folklore in the first Chapter:

Folklore is informally learned, unofficial knowledge about the world, ourselves, our communities, our beliefs, our cultures and our traditions, that is expressed creatively through words, music, customs, actions, behaviors, and materials. It is also the interactive, dynamic process of creating, communicating, and performing as we share that knowledge with other people.  (8)

The study of Folklore will inspire you to identify objects that are telling of things like, tradition and performance in your collections. Everyday objects are often the best objects to start with because they help tell the stories of people, places, and events in your community. Think about how an object would have been used, who would have used it, and what it meant to that person. Ask yourself, the five W’s-who, what, where, when, and why?

Brass Band of the 112th Battalion Windsor 92.19.4
Do you have a trumpet in your collection? Was it used by a member of the Brass band of the 112th Battalion Windsor? Was it used in a parade? If there is a personal narrative for that object, be sure to fill in your narrative field in CollectiveAccess. It is those stories that speak to your audience at a museum. Did you know you can also link related objects on CA under Relationships? Neat stuff! Now all we need is a trumpet to link to this photograph. Any takers?

Another great example provided by Sims and Stephens is quilting:

Quilts are a type of material culture you may already identify as folklore. Folklorists have studied the artistry of quilts, examining the designs and colors used by different individual quilters and groups of quilters. In addition to examining the material objects themselves, folklorists have studied the informal learning process by which quilters have taught each other techniques of quilting and elements of design. Extending the community's interactions further shows how the practice of quilting can be an opportunity for social interaction, the women who are quilting sharing values and cultural knowledge while they stuff and stitch. (13-16).

I encourage you to ask yourselves how items in your collections have helped shape your community, are used within folk groups, and are telling of practices and beliefs. Sims and Stephens explore the term "folk group," a folk group "requires special knowledge of its language, behavior, and rules-spoken or unspoken. These types of communication convey and express the group's attitudes, beliefs, values, and worldview to other members of the group and often to outsiders" (31). Consider folk groups in your collections, such as the Brass Band of the 112th Battalion Windsor and link them to other artifacts in your collection to help expand the narrative. More often than not, there are already experts in your community that want to share what they know with you. I encourage you to make these connections and ask them to help you fill in the gaps in your records. Here at the office we call them our SMEs (Subject Matter Experts). Working with SMEs will not only help beef up your records, it will also build stronger ties between your institution and community.

Living Folklore also covers the following topics: Tradition (Chapter 3), Ritual (Chapter 4), and Performance (Chapter 5). I have pulled definitions for each term. I encourage you to explore your collections and ask yourself, "do artifacts in my museum speak to traditions, rituals, and/or performance?"

"What is Tradition? Both the lore we share and the process by which we share it. Something that creates and confirms identity. Something that the group identifies as a tradition" (65).

"What is Ritual? Rituals are repeated, habitual actions, but they are more purposeful than custom; rituals are frequently highly organized and controlled, often meant to indicate or announce membership in a group. Most rituals bring together many types of folklore: verbal, such as chants, recitations, poems or songs; customary, such as gestures, dance or movements; and material, such as food, books, awards, clothing and costumes" (95). 

"What is Performance? So far, we've been talking about people, texts, behavior and the many ways that folklore communicates, and now we want to consider in depth the moments in which all these pieces come together, enacted through performance ... Most often, though, performances of folklore happen naturally within daily conversations and situations. ... Performance is an expressive activity that requires participation, heightens our enjoyment of experience, and invites response" (128). 

In chapter 6, Sims and Stephens explore the different approaches to interpreting folklore: Functionalism, Structuralism, Psychoanalytic Interpretation, and Post-Structuralist Approaches. If these approaches peak your curiosity, I encourage you to explore this section of the text further. If you are interested in learning how to conduct fieldwork, Sims and Stephens do a wonderful job outlining the importance of collecting data in Chapter 7. There are great examples of general questions you can ask SMEs that will help you learn more about the history of artifacts in your collections (209):

Opening Questions:
"What do you remember ..."
"Can you describe what happens ..."
"How did you learn this process? Who did you learn it from?"

Follow-up Questions:
"You mentioned earlier ..."
"Other people have told me about their memories of the flood. What do you remember about it?"
"What does it mean to you to participate in this? [talking to a crafts person, participant of an event, etc.]
"How old were you when you learned about this?"

Feel free to experiment with these kinds of questions to fit the needs of your conversation. It is important to provide open-ended questions and leave room for casual conversation. Another important thing to do when working with your SMEs is to take fieldnotes. Sims and Stephens state that "the primary purpose of field notes is to provide the folklorist with an in-the-moment record of what happened during fieldwork" (211). It is much easier to reflect on what you have learned from your informants when you document your findings.

Sims and Stephens leave us with suggestions for activities and projects in the final chapter. A great way to grasp what folklore is and how it shapes your community is to analyse the role it plays throughout your own day-to-day routine. I challenge you to complete at least one suggested activity for personal reflection. I will leave you with one of my personal favourites:

Image result for question markWrite about a folk group of which you are/have been a member. Focus on who's in the group, how one becomes a member, group hierarchy, why members are members, etc. What characteristics do the members of each group share? How did the group form? Is it an interest-based group? Proximity? Occupation? What special traditions, customs or verbal expressions do the group members share that let them and others know they are members of the group? (275)

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