This year’s American Folklore Society (AFS) conference was held in Santa Fe, New Mexico, during the first week of November. The annual meeting is a place to connect or reconnect with colleagues, get new ideas and discuss ongoing concerns, and meet with old and new friends. I have only missed four meetings since 1976 and always come away exhausted but reinvigorated.
Folklorists are an eclectic group, as the field covers a broad range of genres (folk narrative, music, crafts, architecture, etc.) and settings (museums, festivals, arts agencies, universities, etc.). Since much of my work at CFCH centers around education, this year I largely followed the path of education workshops, panel sessions, and special events. Folklorists working in education often joke that we are great at stealing each other’s ideas, and we don’t mind a bit. “If you have a good idea, share it” is our guiding motto, and the AFS meetings are a great place to gather purloined ideas for one’s own use.
My week began with a workshop entitled “Experiments in Exhibition” at the Museum of International Folk Art. The session was led by Kathleen McLean, a museum consultant who specializes in leading professional development workshops during which museum professionals “hack the museum”—i.e., brainstorm innovative interpretation ideas for existing or planned exhibitions. The Girard Wing of the museum, a staggeringly huge conglomeration of one man’s collection of folk arts and toys from around the world, was our playground during the workshop. After examining the exhibition, we discussed ways of enhancing existing interpretation or creating new interpretations. Groups formed over issues such as stereotyping ethnic groups via choice of artifacts, inappropriate juxtapositions of artifacts, and lack of information about the provenance of some artifacts.
Other groups, like ours, formed around ways to encourage visitors to make connections between artifacts across cultures. Our group explored examples of “hands” in the exhibition, as many pieces—including dolls, figurines, quilts, amulets, and others from all over the world—depict hands. And, of course, the pieces were made by the hands of many craftspeople and artists. We challenged visitors to write short personal interpretations of how the hands illustrate “connecting, creating, or protecting.” I came away with many new ways of looking at the material, as well as several ideas of using this method to test interpretation in our own work at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and within our Center. Why not, for instance, bring a group of interns together to look at our crafts collections around the office in new ways? Or invite a group of teachers to look at the Folklife Festival to find innovative and improved ways of making the event more educational?
Even the more static paper panels and forums caused me to think about our work in new ways and in new settings. AFS’s “Folklore and Education” has for many years emphasized K-12 education in formal schools, although other educational settings were acknowledged, including after-school programs, ethnic or religious organization programs, summer camps, and museums. Projects such as the excellent initiative of colleague Diana N’Diaye, The Will to Adorn, cut across a number of educational settings. One session highlighted The Will to Adorn and several other folklore and education projects centering on dress and identity, also the theme of the inaugural issue of Folklore and Education Journal.
During another session on service learning and community engagement, professors at colleges in Pennsylvania, Utah, and Ohio reported on service learning projects connecting children and community members to college students to work on mutually beneficial projects in the regions surrounding their universities and in Central America. In another, a colleague told how she used folklife interviewing and writing skills to connect teens at schools in urban Massachusetts and rural Iowa not only to discuss their communities and their likes and dislikes, but to study math at the same time. Using their own experience and landscapes, the students pie-graphed their school days, isolated geometric principles of grain silos (round) and oil tanks (square), and other math activities while getting to know one another and satisfying requirements of STEM education and the Common Core. Colleagues from Citylore in New York City discussed their work with teenaged skateboarders in the same session. Exciting stuff!
The forum I organized with colleague Paddy Bowman of Local Learning: The National Network of Folk Arts and Education was entitled “At the Crossroads of Folklore and Education and Museum Education.” Each of the panel members—including former CFCH intern and Folklife Festival staffer Mike Knoll, now at the Miami History Museum, and former Festival advisor Peg Koetsch—spoke briefly about their work within museums. We rounded out the session with an exercise, asking participants to arrange a set of art postcards according to color, subject, or whatever else moved them. This exercise, which can also be done with photographs or three-dimensional objects, has been used by several of us at the Center. It always creates a lively discussion of how different combinations of images, objects, live performances, and written and multimedia information can come together through different viewpoints into something coherent, whether in an exhibition, a festival, or a website.
Sometimes a session or lecture may not even mention education in the title, but ideas for educational content still turn up. My roommate during the conference was teacher Natasha Agrawal, who participated in a session on attempts to help refugee and recent immigrant groups connect with their traditional crafts. Agrawal works in her “spare time” with Karenni weavers in New Jersey who are refugees from Myanmar, via Thailand.
She and others leading similar groups in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Mexico, and Florida are attempting to connect with one another to form a national network. Their individual educational efforts include school residencies, apprenticeships, and interactive websites.
During this session I thought about the connections between effective craft product marketing and education, something that the Folklife Festival Marketplace has also been exploring. If potential buyers are provided with information about the craftspeople, their learning process, and their struggles to keep their traditional crafts active and thriving, are they more likely to value a handmade craft? If children come into contact with traditional craftspeople through residencies in schools, will they carry that experience into adulthood and make buying decisions based on their knowledge?
The final lecture was perhaps the most inspiring example of the power of folklore and education many of us had ever encountered. Simon Lichman from the Centre for Creativity and Cultural Heritage in Israel gave a talk entitled “Prayer Carpets and Apricot Stones: How Folklore Is Used in ‘Coexistence’ Education between Israeli and Palestinian Communities and Its Potential Application to Other Multi-Cultural Settings and Conflict Situations.” Lichman has been doing this important work for over twenty years, connecting school children and their parents and grandparents across the cultural and religious divide of one of the most contentious areas of the globe through school programs, using traditional games and toys, food, and ritual to show common humanity and inspire empathy. He received a standing ovation, and one folklorist who later admitted he was brought to tears more than once was definitely not alone.
Those of us in folklore and education were excited to see our colleagues, many of whom had not considered work with students under university age very seriously, finally understanding the ways young children (maybe even better than adults) are fully capable of grasping and grappling with thorny questions of similarity and difference, commonality and distinctiveness, through the type of work that folklore and education programs have been doing for years, and how important it is to support and continue this work.
All in all, the AFS meetings in Santa Fe were inspiring for me, from start to finish. I plan to take many of the ideas and, in true folklore and education fashion, steal them for my own use at CFCH in the months and years to come.
Betty Belanus is an education specialist, folklorist, and curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She invites anyone interested to "steal" folklore and education ideas posted regularly on the Smithsonian Folklife Education Facebook page.