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Voices Spring-Summer 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Voices of Others: Personal Narratives in the Folklife Festival” by Barbara Cohen-Stratyner here.
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Voices SS07


Volume 33

Voices of Others: Personal Narratives in the Folklife Festival by Barbara Cohen-Stratyner

Personal narratives have long been promoted as a way to connect exhibiting institutions and audiences. As the Oral History Society’s Michelle Crow-Duffy wrote in the May/June 1995 issue of Local History Notebook, “People feel connected to history when it is told in the context of a personal history or story. Augmenting an exhibit with oral history also brings supplementary viewpoints to each visitor’s experience.” The interest in personal narratives— oral tradition and existing personal documents, such as diaries and inventories, as well as elicited personal narratives—sustained by professionals in public history, folklore, and museums has been matched by curriculum planners and teachers involved in multicultural education looking for ways to help students understand that their own histories and those of “others” have equal importance.

In 2000, I received a Smithsonian Institution Fellowship in Museum Practice, cosponsored by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, to observe the use of personal narratives in the Smithsonian Institution Folklife Festival and analyze models for museum exhibits, museum web sites, and related projects. This article concentrates on the 2000 and 2001 festivals. The remainder of my fellowship research looked at exhibitions and online projects with African American topics. A full report and information on the fellowship program can be found online at museumstudies.si.edu.

I went into the fellowship in January 2000 thinking that the organizational key would be collection methods for personal narratives— formative or existing narratives, as opposed to those elicited from visitors—but I soon realized that materials gathered through both methods were used together. I focused my observation, discussions, and research during the two years of the fellowship on four models of integrating personal narratives into exhibits and other interpretive projects. The Smithsonian Institution Folklife Festival is a prime example of the folklore model, but its projects demonstrate all of the following models:
  • The folklore model uses and trains fieldworkers to document extant communities and individual culture bearers, and then presents the process and results to the general public. This method is most often used in folklore, anthropology, and performance studies projects.

  • The public history model locates or elicits personal narratives to add personal content and emotional context to historical projects. It is associated with history museums and institutions documenting specific cultures or communities.

  • The selector model elicits personal narratives from artists, culture bearers, or audience members as part of a process of developing artifact exhibits in which those individuals curate the exhibits.

  • The caption model elicits short personal narratives from artists and subjects, pairing them with images. This model comes from catalogs and other publications, but is often used in online, traveling, and panel exhibits.

Folklife Festival 2000: Observations

My two-year, intermittent schedule with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage allowed me to observe how the folklife festivals develop and use personal narratives. I had planned to observe the development and realization of the 2000 festival’s Washington, D.C., area only, but since I had already agreed to be on the advisory group for the New York City area of the 2001 festival, the center sponsor suggested that I extend the fellowship to observe the ways that narratives were elicited by the New York City researchers. We decided that I would first observe how narratives were presented in the 2000 festival, and then in the following year observe the ways that narratives were gathered for the 2001 festival. This reverses normal observational procedures and may have impacted my understanding of the experience.

Visitors pay street games in New York City 2001
Visitors play street games in the New York City area of the 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Photo: Nancy Groce. Courtesy of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution.

My observations of how personal narratives were used occurred at the 2000 Folklife Festival, which was held June 23–7 and June 30–July 4. The festival had three areas of geographic focus: El Río, Tibetan Culture: Beyond the Land of Snows, and Washington, D.C.: It’s Our Home. In the six months before, I had many meetings with folklife center staff, including the focus curators and educators, and attended festival progress meetings at monthly intervals. My aim was to identify and observe the locations chosen for narrative presentations in each focus area. Although every festival is different, there are consistent opportunities to present information to visitors. In a Teachers’ Seminar handout titled “Bringing Folklore into Your Classroom,” these opportunities are identified as formal performance on the large stage; narrative stage discussion; foodways; craft demonstrations or informal presentations; and signs, photos, and other props. They parallel the standard methods of museum interpretation: public programs, artist demonstrations, docent tours, and learning with objects.

The curators for each geographic area took the time for substantive conversations with me about their goals. Olivia Cadaval and Cynthia Vidaurri talked about the Río Grande/Río Bravo border area, how they and their fieldworkers had identified topics and participants, and their expectations that participants and presenters would make the most pressing concerns clear to visitors. These concerns were culture and environment, culture and identity, sustainable development, and the intersections of tradition, knowledge, and land management. They had been working with a core group of community-based researchers in the Río Grande area since a related presentation at the 1998 festival. The El Río project would also include online presentations and a traveling exhibition. Richard Kennedy wanted the Tibet participants to focus on cultural survival and to detail the establishment of institutions that have strengthened the traditional cultures. His preliminary months were filled with logistical difficulties in assembling visas for the participants and translators, with added worries about a scheduled appearance by the Dalai Lama.

The D.C. project, developed in collaboration with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, focused on neighborhoods and faith communities, social justice, occupations, and community gardens. The February 2000 meeting with D.C. curator John W. Franklin detailed how the themes being investigated by the local fieldworkers were translated into leading questions for the fieldworkers’ use. My March and April conversations with Franklin focused on the spatial assignment of subject matter and audience orientation. He gave examples of the decision-making process from past festivals and reviewed a videotape of the Bahamas focus. Other conversations covered his plans to decentralize activities around the city to spaces on and off the Mall.

Franklin explained the differences between the two primary sites for personal narratives: the oral history tent, which was a joint project with the Washington Historical Society, and the front porch narrative stage. WHS volunteers in the oral history tent, decorated with enlarged time lines and photographs of neighborhoods, would elicit memories from the audience and passersby as part of the historical society’s “Growing Up in Washington” project. The front porch narrative stage appears in some form at almost every festival. Participants present their own personal narratives in hip-hop rhyme in slam events. Additional performances of gospel, blues, jazz, and hip-hop were decentralized through the city.

My time in residence at the 2000 festival was divided among four days as a participant in the Teachers’ Seminar, two days as a volunteer audio logger, and time as a visitor—all roles allowing opportunities for observation. When I did a directed observation of the D.C. focus area during the Teachers’ Seminar, I looked for evidence outside the folklore model. I recognized that the spaces in which practitioners faced an audience tended to be more performative, and the prepared narrative statements were given whole. In outside spaces and tents without seating, the narrative statements are integrated into conversations. In most projects using the selector model, institutional authority in the artifact selection and identification process is ceded to the culture bearers. At the festival, however, I was struck by the adherence of the participants and their presenters to the primary areas of curatorial concern. All Río participants mentioned water and water rights within the first few sentences, whether talking about brick making, horse cultures, food, or popular music. In Tibetan Culture: Beyond the Land of Snows, even the youngest Tibetan participants prefaced almost every answer with “before the Exile” or “since the Exile.”

Audio or video loggers are assigned to most scheduled concerts, demonstrations, and talks. Every presentation on the performance and talk stages are taped, with detailed logs created noting the participants, presenters, and themes of each event. In this way, the narratives presented at the festival can be preserved for future research. All are cataloged and housed in the center’s archive as part of the documentation collection, established in 1967. I logged two narrative areas in the D.C. part of the festival—the café and front porch. I checked the oral history tent, but on my days, it was not attracting visitors, so I could not observe the memory-eliciting process. The most successful gathering places seemed to be the always-crowded basketball court and the high school reunions in the music tents, but unfortunately, the oral history tent was not on a direct route to these locations. The design of the tent may also have worked against it. The interviewers’ table was set back from the tent sides, so their warm, welcoming smiles could not be seen by passersby.

As part of my residency at the 2000 festival, I attended the Teachers’ Seminar. Led by Betty Belanus and Marjorie Hunt, staff educators and curators, the seminar was attended by grades 3–10 teachers from Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland schools, as well as three observers from Bermuda who were preparing for the 2001 festival. The program included instruction in folklore methodology, observation at the festival, and an opportunity for the teachers to develop folklore-based projects for their classes. Belanus and Hunt had provided me during our earlier conversations with most of the excellent readings and oral history guides used in the seminars. I was especially taken with the suggestions for observation that were distributed and have since used them for formative critiques of my developing exhibitions. For the narrative stage, for example, one guide suggests: “If you catch an introduction or reintroduction of the participants, what information does the presenter give to the audience? How do the participants interact? What type of information can be provided in this setting that cannot be presented elsewhere?” Other guided observation methods were based on classroom practice, including asking for answers to specific questions (info searches) and descriptions (five-sense searches).

Folklife Festival 2001: Process

Before the 2000 Folklife Festival, I had many conversations with Nancy Groce, an ethnomusicologist who had proposed and would curate the New York City focus in 2001. She had begun the planning and fundraising process and was already compiling suggestions for content and documenters. Soon after the close of the 2000 festival, she called the first New York City group meeting for the three intersecting groups of New Yorkers who would develop the content and participant lists. Working directly under Groce were area curators—assigned to music, fashion, foodways, media, Wall Street, and neighborhoods—and researchers, working on smaller slices of those fields, New York City industries, and special themes. A group of programmers for the performances and an advisory committee of representatives from New York City institutions would also contribute. There was a great deal of overlap, and in the end, members of all of these groups served as documenters and presenters at the 2001 festival.

The first large meetings, held in New York, consisted of presentations by festival staff and discussions of content. There were many “it absolutely has to haves” and excitement about every example of retained traditions, whether food, music, or trade. The general approach was occupational folklore, although the group was evenly drawn from the disciplines of folklore, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and performance studies, reflecting the different strengths of the city’s universities. Cities participating in a folklife festival enjoy a number of benefits, including “preserving Cultural Heritage . . . stimulation of research and documentation . . . [and] enhanced self-representation capability,” according to a 1993 promotional pamphlet for the festival, “Culture of, by, and for the People.” But the New York City region was not typical, since it included such a large preexisting community of trained folklorists.

Groce made a preliminary list of research interests from those meetings. Fieldworkers investigated New York City’s industries and neighborhoods to locate practitioners who could demonstrate and discuss what they did. They documented their searches with photographs and audiotape. Group meetings were also held for teams of researchers in specific fields. My assignments were in the backstage crafts of performance, especially the culture of costume shops. Researchers documented many more practitioners than would eventually appear at the festival, in part because many culture bearers are small business owners who cannot commit two stories and memories to the audience. In order to emphasize the separate traditions of sacred and secular music, the D.C. focus area included tents for gospel and a “café” stage designed for blues and jazz, but also offering a space to teen poets, who presented their own weeks of their summer schedules to travel to the festival. Researchers also documented people for information and background. The winnowing down process added to the volume of collected documentation.

Children jump rope at the 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Children jump rope at the 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Photo: Richard Strauss. Courtesy of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Smithsonian Institution.

At this formative point, the distinctions among the four models for using personal narratives were blurred, since any interview could produce a culture bearer or a voice that added context to history. Groce’s job required her to balance the interests of the fieldworkers, the needs of the general interest audience, and the physical realities of days on the Mall, while aiming to bring to life her theme, “Local Culture in the Global City.” Striking a balance was difficult since researchers in folklife, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and performance studies tend to be highly enthusiastic and sure that their visions of New York are universal. The process of taking the festival from fieldwork to realization is made as transparent as possible to visitors. There is a large published program for each festival, which includes daily schedules and lists of participants, presenters, advisers, and fieldworkers, as well as essays describing the themes of each focus and the documentation process. An e-mail Listserv was established for Groce and the researchers to broadcast questions, needs, and discoveries. A typical communication from the field, sent by Henry Sapoznik, requested call letters, schedules, and languages for everybody’s favorite community radio stations. The center staff also used the list to request ideas and artifacts, such as a late May call for non–English language newspapers from neighborhood newsstands. The 2001 festival working group lives on as a Listserv, with announcements of concerts, conferences, projects, and—always—questions. In the hours, days, and months following the destruction of the World Trade Center, the working group refocused its collective energy on documentation of the tragedy.

Folklife Festival 2001: Observations

Since the demands of my day job kept me from a two-week residency at the festival, I could not serve as a presenter. While this was disappointing, it let me repeat my observer roles. I again served as an audio logger and observed the many opportunities to present Groce’s concept of New York City neighborhoods as geographic and ethnic centers. There were demonstration areas for Foodways, Backstage Broadway, Wall Street, the Garment District, and Community Radio. The performance stages presented lecturedemonstrations of regional ethnic arts, with personal narratives about how and when the presenters, their families, or their mentors emigrated to New York.

The New York City oral history tent was perpendicular to the road in the neighborhood area, close to the storytelling stage and street games. The storytelling stage had three speakers in rotation—one on childhood in New York City, one on the needle trade and fashion industries, and the third on the story of a Brooklyn neighborhood’s fight to organize a celebration of a Revolutionary War battle victory. Performance artist Annie Lanzilotto, who served as a presenter and introducer for the adjacent areas and a storyteller on alternate days, focused on her work at the Arthur Avenue Italian street market. The presentations and range of subjects straddled the folklore and public history models. I also observed, but did not log, the street game mavens demonstrating and teaching stickball and stoop games. The game area integrated instruction with constant narration and neighborhood stories. Lanzilotto and the street game demonstrators were excellent barkers, so people were attracted to the area and to the oral history tent.

The neighborhood area was located next to Mapping Memories (adapted by City Lore and Place Matters as a tent activity), so that its huge maps could be used to locate neighborhoods and prolong conversations. An ongoing project for eliciting site-specific personal narratives, Mapping Memories was developed by Liz Sevcenko as “Mapping Your Lower East Side” (1996), an installation and video project created with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Sevcenko then expanded the public history project to cover the five boroughs of New York City as “Mapping Memories Family Workshops: Exploring the City’s Diverse Neighborhoods,” a 1998 exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.

At the festival, a huge black-and-white map of each borough was laid out on trestle tables in a hall gallery, along with colored markers. Asking “questions that help contributors reminisce about specific times and places,” Sevcenko invited visitors to write memories directly on map sites. There were two predicted responses written into the project. The first focused on specific locations, whether homes, stores, or public places. The other invited visitors “to mark the map with the path they’ve taken through the city over the course of their lives or a single day and to describe how they used each place along the way—for work, celebration, social action, or family connections.” During the first festival week, when I was in residence, the installation was hosted by the executive director of Place Matters, Laura Hansen; Sevcenko was at the festival for the second week.

Folklife Festival: Products and Results

The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage enlarges its audience for fieldwork and documentation by issuing books, recordings, and educational kits based on material elicited for use at the folklife festivals. These projects rely on the caption model, a standard museum strategy for integrating personal narratives. A typical example is “Workers at the White House,” an exhibition, video, and twenty-four–page catalog by Marjorie Hunt, developed with the White House Historical Association and National Archives for the two-hundredth anniversary of the White House (1792–1992) and the 1992 festival. The catalog uses occupational folklife methodologies to emphasize the community of workers, rather than treating the employees as witnesses to political history. The primary theme is pride of employment and cooperation; secondary themes are institutional identity and work during the era of segregation. Hunt’s essay in the catalog, titled “Making the White House Work,” is prose interlaced with sentence- to paragraph-long quotations. The photo essay by Roland Freeman, which reproduces the 1992 exhibit, presents a substantial quotation with each portrait of the elderly retirees, who are photographed with tools or at the White House.

Borders and Identity/Fronteras, a focus of the 1993 Folklife Festival, was transformed into a set of educational materials, composed of a teacher’s guide, videotapes, and a poster-sized, bilingual culture map. It deals specifically with United States–Mexico border communities and more generally with the concept of borders, helping teachers to introduce students to “ethnographic investigatory methods (close observation and documentation of living persons) used by folklorists and anthropologists to explore living culture,” so that they can create their own caption models. The first section, provided free online as a sampler for teachers, recommends classroom projects that mimic community scholar programs, resulting in photo essays with quotations from interviews. The culture map includes a mini version of such a photo essay, presenting lengthy quotations about four examples of border traditions (La Virgen de Guadalupe, murals, language, and recycling), with speakers identified only by location. Such publications, online resources, and products extend the festival into the classroom and teach visitors the value of personal narratives—both their own and those of others.

The retrospections of festival attendees can contribute to everyone’s understanding of artifacts and communal history. By recognizing personal and group memories, we assign power and value to audience members. There are many admirable examples of such models at exhibiting institutions, including folklore centers, historical societies, and communitybased documentation projects. Museums are beginning to follow similar models for use of personal narratives in their exhibit development, auxiliary texts, and products, such as education kits and web sites, and to a lesser extent in gallery-based interpretation. Over the months following the 2001 Folklife Festival, I watched the construction of shrines at firehouses adjacent to my workplaces in New York City, including one that honored a fire fighter who—before his death on September 11—was a stickball demonstrator at the festival. In New York City and, I suspect, around the country, the spontaneous creation of memorials after September 11 caused a greater recognition of the public’s right to create and interpret artifacts than any event in recent history.


Barbara Cohen-Stratyner is the curator of exhibitions at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. She holds a Ph.D. in performance studies from New York University. She would like to thank Nancy Fuller, Bruce Craig, and their colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution Center for Education and Museum Studies, as well as Richard Kurin, Richard Kennedy, Olivia Cadaval, Cynthia Vidaurri, John W. Franklin, Betty Belanus and Marjorie Hunt, Nancy Groce, the staff and volunteers of the 2000 and 2001 festivals, and the entire New York City Smithsonian Institution Folklife Festival working group.

The retrospections of festival attendees can contribute to everyone’s understanding of artifacts and communal history. By recognizing personal and group memories, we assign power and value to audience members.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Spring-Summer 2007. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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