The Center’s new online lecture series, Approaches to Culture Heritage Presentation, covers effective modes of cultural presentation, community engagement, language diversity, multigenerational education, and facilitating meaningful interaction with tradition bearers. The lectures are presented by five Folklife curators, drawing on their wide-ranging expertise and experience in the documentation, presentation, and preservation of cultural heritage.
Although the series is applicable to research and presentation around the world, it was originally conceived for cultural heritage professionals in China. With rapid cultural transformation currently taking place across the Tibetan Plateau, nomadic ways of life are at risk of being lost. But through documentation and representation, individuals can help ensure the survival of traditions, culture, and lifestyles within nomadic communities. By providing these resources—trilingually, in English, Mandarin, and Tibetan—we hope to provide an opportunity to strengthen skills focused on building cultural understanding with communities.
This project is rooted in earlier cultural sustainability projects, including the development of Methods and Techniques for Documenting and Preserving Tibetan Culture, a Tibetan-language Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) to offer instruction on teaching intangible cultural heritage documentation, and Lag Zo: Making on the Tibetan Plateau, a trilingual online exhibition highlighting contemporary artisan traditions. The original concept was to invite a cohort of cultural heritage professionals in China to Washington, D.C., for an in-person exchange program during the summer of 2020. Given the necessary travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, this exchange was made digital.
Beginning in May 2021, our curatorial and production team developed five presentations to showcase different approaches that participants can take when presenting their own cultural heritage. Our production team worked with each curator to create and tailor recorded presentations with greater accessibility through trilingual captions. We then distributed the videos to Tibetan cultural heritage professional in China through social media, with an invitation to join a live, virtual Q&A. On September 16, the participants met with the curators to discuss and reflect upon the concepts in the recorded lectures.
Among the eight Tibetan attendees were museum professionals, an oral historian, a middle-school teacher, and cultural tradition bearers such as a calligrapher and jeweler. The participants asked many questions, shared notable anecdotes, and provided feedback on applying strategies to real-world examples.
The questions ranged from broad inquiries—“how do you start a festival project?”—to examining specific case studies. The curators described the fieldwork process and explained how geographic or cultural regions and themes can be starting points. One participant shared his own experiences as a practitioner of calligraphy on the Tibetan Plateau. As a middle-school teacher, he sustains the tradition by passing on skills to younger generations. He helps make booklets for the students to sell, but the market is very small. The group discussed possible ways to improve sales.
The jeweler briefly shared her personal journey into craft as a single mother and expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity to share ideas with other professionals. The conversations instill confidence in the value of traditional arts, she said. Another Tibetan participant reflected on his experience working in the United States for two months and visiting Smithsonian museums while in D.C. Everyone appreciated meeting each other and expanding their professional networks.
Despite the initial challenge of not being able to conduct the exchange in person, the virtual experience allowed for a broader reach among Tibetan cultural heritage professionals in China. Since the videos were prerecorded with multilingual captions, people can continue to use these resources despite differences in time zone and language. As the translator and facilitator for this project, I saw the importance of this connection between Smithsonian and our Tibetan audience.
Overall, this exchange serves to empower community members to represent themselves in multiple contexts. The concepts outlined in the lectures and expanded upon in the discussion help to enhance awareness and inspire Tibetans to continue carrying out their own traditions. By developing the technical skills and frameworks needed to represent culture in museum and public contexts, we hope these resources can help guide cultural heritage professionals in their work moving forward.
Khamo is a cultural sustainability specialist and educator originally from the northeastern region of the Tibetan Plateau who currently works as a content writer at the Smithsonian. She received her PhD in religious studies (Tibetan Buddhism) from the University of Virginia.