Maryland Folklife Takes Center Stage
In an increasingly fast-paced globalized society, how does one preserve ancient traditions and cultural heritage?
Over the past year, a group of professors and students from Goucher’s Master of Arts in Cultural Sustainability (M.A.C.S.) program has been working on two projects addressing that question and exploring a range of innovative approaches to highlight the traditions, customs, practices, and art forms of Maryland communities.
When Amy Skillman, the M.A.C.S. academic director, heard about the opportunity to collaborate on a proposal to create a Maryland Folklife Center, she immediately pulled together Goucher faculty, alumnae/i, and students to envision what such a center would encompass for the National Council for Traditional Arts (NCTA), an organization dedicated to the documentation of folk and traditional arts in the United States.
“This was a unique opportunity for a hands-on learning experience in a professional team environment—not just a graded assignment, but practical experience creating something that would be used and put into practice,” says Skillman.
Students, including Brandon Jones M.A.C.S. ’18, Laura Williams ’17, M.A.C.S. ’18, and Jenna Winton M.A.C.S. ’18, researched other folklife center models around the country and created a survey to evaluate stakeholder interest in varied options and institution content.
Numerous Goucher faculty members volunteered to help with the proposal, including Sociology and Anthropology Professor Rory Turner, who originally helped launch the M.A.C.S. program. Frances Ramos-Fontån, director of Goucher’s Futuro Latino Learning Center and M.A.C.S. student, took part in the project, as well, by translating the survey into Spanish.
Managed by the NCTA, the Goucher group was tasked with creating proposals for three different versions of what a Maryland Folklife Center could include. In any form, the center would offer information and resources for teachers, artists, and community organizers, as well as include interactive materials and lesson plans to bring the folk arts to a larger audience.They held nine community forums throughout the state to solicit feedback from stakeholders on the three proposed models, which included an online-only center, a new stand-alone center, or connecting the web of existing cultural centers around the state through a centralized administration and marketing office.
“Every week that we’ve met with the students, they’re doing this really intense data analysis work then pulling their heads out of it and having these conversations that are more about ethics, responsibility, and community impact,” says Skillman.
The survey results and stakeholder feedback indicate that the network model, with a centralized administration hub, is the most popular. Next steps for the program will include developing funding models and conducting additional feasibility studies.
Michael Vlahovich M.A.C.S. ’17 and Heather Gerhart M.A.C.S. ’17 are another example of M.A.C.S. students and alumnae/i working together to preserve traditional arts. They set out to find a way to capture personal narratives about two communities’ culture through “Saving What Matters,” a cultural exchange service learning opportunity for students to document stories from Maryland and Bosnia.
The pair received a grant through the State Department’s World Learning Organization, which focuses on international student exchanges. The grant provided the opportunity for Vlahovich’s Coastal Heritage Foundation nonprofit to partner with the organization Cultural Heritage without Borders Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“Heritage is the tool we are using to build a better relationship with a foreign country,” says Vlahovich.
While Vlahovich’s organization focuses on preserving the cultural heritage of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay maritime communities, Gerhart’s experience with digital storytelling allowed the collaboration to teach Goucher students how to develop digital stories about what role women are playing in Chesapeake maritime life and share those virtually with Bosnian students who would be sharing stories about their ancient pottery heritage.
“I trained in digital storytelling as part of my graduate Capstone project. I had an interest in narrative and the power of story, and I was also grappling with the ethics of speaking on behalf of the communities we work with as cultural researchers—what privilege do we assume when we try to represent others and tell their stories?” says Gerhart. “A major goal of the work was for students to reflect on their reactions and assumptions and make these transparent to their audience.”
Working with Skillman, they created an exchange that included five Goucher graduate students and students from the University of Sarajevo. Goucher students and alumnae/i traveled to Bosnia-Herzegovina in May to visit artisans trained in an ancient pottery craft, while students from Bosnia traveled to the United States and went fishing on the Chesapeake Bay with watermen and women and experienced the traditional maritime lifestyle of the Eastern Shore.
“There was vast community support for this project,” says Vlahovich of the many watermen and women, museums, and hosts on Maryland’s Eastern shore to participate in the in-person cultural exchange.
“The M.A.C.S. program encourages its students to think deeply about ways to contribute to community vitality and social justice,” says Gerhart. “Cultural sustainability practice is about working in partnership with communities.”
This summer, members of the Goucher community joined with those from the University of Sarajevo at Goucher to collaboratively share and reflect on their experiences in the Saving What Matters project.
“Goucher gave me the foundation to be able to truly appreciate this program and all that it had to offer,” says Emily Abramson ’17, M.A.M. ’18, the project manager of Saving What Matters. “It was such a good opportunity for me to discover my latent passion for history and archaeology—something I hadn’t really had the chance to explore until this program.”
Vlahovich credits his M.A.C.S. education and his knowledge of the Chesapeake Bay maritime heritage for the success of the project and realizes that it may take time for the American and Bosnian exchange participants to fully realize the impact of their involvement in Saving What Matters.
“This project was not intended to affect thousands; but rather, deeply influence a few that can use this experience to positively impact life within their respective communities by identifying what matters, and how best to save it,” says Vlahovich.
To read the full Maryland Folklife Center feasibility study prepared by the Goucher team or view a selection of the Saving What Matters digital stories, please visit www.goucher.edu/macs.