Public Folklore

Dorothy Sara Lee interviewing emcee Clifford Wolfe, Sr. at the 1983 Omaha Powwow in Macy, Nebraska. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Omaha Powwow Project collection. Photo credit: Carl Fleischhauer.

Public folklorists collaborate with communities to enable them to sustain their traditions on their own terms. They engage in activities designed to both safeguard traditions locally and present them to new audiences. Like public historians, public folklorists facilitate self-representation by communities of their own history and culture, engage in collaborative documentation projects, and produce interpretive programming. For history museums and other historical organizations, embracing public folklore opens up remarkable opportunities to combine documentation of living traditions with presentations by traditional practitioners and collection of the material culture of groups underrepresented in the historical record.

All folklorists today take an expansive approach to the social base of folklore. It is practiced by groups that share a common identity such as ethnicity, occupation, region, and gender. They acquire folklore informally, typically through oral tradition and by example. Practitioners of folklore create innovations within the conventions of their traditions. Folklorists learn their academic discipline of folklore studies in masters and doctoral programs in a number of North American universities. During the late twentieth century, folklore studies shifted focus from concentration upon recorded texts to a view of folklore as contextually shaped and emergent. Public folklore embodies this more dynamic approach through programming that represents the customary contexts of performance and emphasizes folklore as living tradition.

Dialogism and Shared Authority

Public folklore is dialogical in character. Like public history that champions “shared authority,” public folklore embodies ideas that have been closely associated with the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. He contended that meaning is constructed through a multiplicity of voices. Dialogism is an open, ongoing practice, in sharp contrast to the fixed meanings of monologism.[i] Public folklorists engage in “cultural conversations,” which Nick Spitzer defines as the negotiation of mutual representations between folklorists and the communities represented “in the media, on the festival stage or in the text.”[ii]

In public folklore as in oral history, narratives provide distinctive perspectives about historical experiences and events. They contest, corroborate, or provide alternative evidence about history. The Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston project, for example, countered media representations of survivors of the 2005 hurricanes as victims and criminals. Hurricane survivors relocated to Houston were trained by folklorists to collect each other’s narratives in a field school. The project was presented to the public through an exhibition and website featuring compelling narratives. While folklorists Pat Jasper and Carl Lindahl framed the overall organizational and programmatic structure of the project and provided technical direction for the use of equipment, they took a hands-off approach to interpretation of the experience of the survivors, who were told that they were the experts. Lindahl emphasizes the importance of yielding interpretive authority to community members: “sovereignty over one’s story is a guiding precept.” Folklorists like Lindahl accept the narrative truth of legends that might not have a factual basis for historians but are believed to be true by the narrators. Lindahl contends that Katrina and Rita disaster narratives serve as an “essential vernacular tool for expressing how the tellers feel about the prevailing social order and for helping their communities seek explanations that square with their convictions.”[iii]

Like Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston, the Place Matters project of City Lore provides alternatives to dominant representations of history. On its website, Place Matters documents, advocates for, and presents places in New York City of local vernacular significance, especially those at risk of destruction. Community members nominate places rich in personal and local collective memory for inclusion. They include a beloved luncheonette, Chinese general store, storefront mosque, and neon sign company. City Lore documents some of the sites and curates the Place Matters website. It instructs community members about documentation practices, advocacy, and protection through an online toolkit.

Public folklore projects vary in the extent of curation and interpretive direction by the folklorist. Place Matters includes both user-generated content and curation by City Lore, in contrast to Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston, which put interpretation and program content in the hands of community members. However, both projects were conceived by folklorists, who provided overall framing for project activities.

Public folklorists carry out programs designed to train community members to document and present folklore. The Kentucky Arts Council’s Community Scholars Program, for example, operates a field school that teaches participants the use of documentary equipment, fieldwork ethics, project design, grant writing, and archival methods. Its training has resulted in programs that include Funeral Traditions of the South, a regional traveling exhibition, and the Mountain Mushroom Festival, featuring traditions associated with morel mushrooms.

Geraldine Johnson interviews Ruth Newman while she cooks in her aunt’s home in Galax, Virginia. American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project Collection. Photo credit: Lynn Scott Eiler.

Field Research

As living tradition, folklore is both rooted in the past and re-created each time it is practiced and performed. It maintains collective memories, local knowledge, and traditional aesthetics but often encounters sustainability challenges in the contemporary world. Field research serves as a foundation for programming that includes exhibitions, websites, folklore and education programs, demonstrations of material culture, presentations of narrative, apprenticeships, and festivals incorporating multiple types of presentations.

Folklore field research creates enduring historical records of cultural practices in context. Field researchers observe and participate in the traditions they document in addition to conducting interviews. As they document, folklorists build rapport with community members, paving the way for sharing traditions beyond customary contexts of family, friends, and neighbors. Audio recordings, still photographs, and video footage produced in field research are selectively used in exhibitions, online publications, websites, audio productions, and videos. The American Folklife Center’s (AFC) Folklife and Fieldwork: An Introduction to Cultural Documentation is a guide for community based folklore fieldwork that can also be used for related areas of cultural documentation. The AFC also provides links for additional resources on fieldwork practices, ethics, and intellectual property.


Folklore archives make folklore documentation publicly available, both online and through their physical archival facility. They are valuable historical resources, containing substantial information about practitioners of traditions and the contexts of cultural practices accompanying audio and video recordings, photographs, and transcribed texts. Folklore archives include materials collected decades ago along with recently collected field research. They contain metadata about the context and circumstances of collection and information about the background of the traditional practitioner as well as images and recordings of performances. Release forms completed at the time of research indicate any restrictions for use of materials deposited in archives. The Folklore Collections Database of the American Folklore Society provides searchable information about folklore archives throughout the United States.

Exhibitions and Public Programs

The South Florida Folklife Center of HistoryMiami, a history museum, engages in documentation of material culture as well as oral traditions. It carries out ongoing documentation of traditions practiced locally that have included Afro-Cuban orisha religious practices, prosforo bread used in Greek Orthodox services, and cigar rolling. Its folklife gallery exhibits objects collected in its ongoing research. HistoryMiami’s Artist-in-Residence series features artists documented by its folklife center. The Flipside Kings, a B-Boy dance crew founded in 1994, have been among HistoryMiami’s artists in residence.

Viewing its entire event as a cultural conversation, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival consists of modes of presentation designed for dialogical engagement among traditional practitioners, audience members, and the “presenter,” a folklorist or knowledgeable community member who frames and facilitates interactions. Workshop participants present their tradition and speak about the place of it in their community, the characteristics of the cultural practices they are presenting, and the sustainability of their traditions, among other topics. Audience members join in the discussion and share their own experiences and cultural knowledge. Narrative stages involve the sharing of stories among participants and the exchange of points of view about issues like environmental threats and language revitalization. Crafts demonstrations and performances of music and dance are presented in close proximity to audience members, facilitating dialogue. They are participatory in character, with audience members trying their hand at crafts and responding to music with dance steps demonstrated by performers.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival generates much critical discussion, both from outside scholars and by folklorists working on the festival. Reflections on the Folklife Festival: An Ethnography of Participant Experience critically considers the concerns of participants at the 1987 Festival and “Michigan on the Mall” contains responses by folklorists involved in the festival that year. Curatorial Conversations: Cultural Representation and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival includes essays by festival curators that illustrate the dialogical negotiation occurring throughout the development of the festival. Olivia Cadaval, one of the editors of the volume, discusses how she deferred to participants as part of the “reordering of curatorial authority” and “reimagining [of] power relationships.” She describes participants appropriating interpretive frameworks and taking over spaces for impromptu performances.[iv] Other critical discussions of the festival published previously noted unsuccessful presentations due to presentational frames inhibiting interaction and ineffective mediation by Smithsonian presenters. Presenting live human beings in such a self-styled “living museum” is challenging. When successful, it provides dynamic and frank intercultural dialogue. But it can also negatively objectify participants in the eyes of audience members and fail to facilitate intercultural communication.

Through folklore and education programs, children document traditions of their own families and communities, including children’s folklore. Their exploration of local heritage elevates the status of aspects of history and culture overlooked in curricula. Folklore and education programs relate to many different subjects, even including math through relating quilts to geometry. Louisiana Voices is a comprehensive folklore curriculum that touches multiple subjects. Its Oral Traditions: Swapping Stories unit has particular resonance for public historians. It includes both legends and other narratives recorded generations ago as well as stories that children can discover in their own community. Local Learning: The National Network for Folk Arts in Education provides folklore and education resources of particular value to educators.

Apprenticeships strengthen chains of transmission for traditions no longer widely practiced. Many statewide folk arts programs provide support for the pairing of a master folk artist with another member of their own community with appropriate skills as an apprentice. Apprenticeships are carried out in a series of lessons through time-tested ways centered on side-by-side learning to make a craft or perform music or dance through example and oral tradition. The apprentice may be provided with opportunities to perform publicly with the master artist. On its website, the folk arts program of the Massachusetts Cultural Council includes highly detailed information about the apprenticeships it has supported and its master folk artists.

Support at the State, Federal, and International Levels

State folk arts programs are pillars of a national infrastructure of programs devoted to ongoing documentation, presentation, and services to individual artists. Over 40 of these programs are supported by the Folk and Traditional Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). They are mainly situated in state arts councils. Others are in state humanities councils or universities, and a few state programs are operated by non-profit folklore organizations. The programs in Mississippi, New York, Virginia, California, and Missouri represent the institutional and programmatic variety of state programs. The state programs work closely with local non-profit organizations involved with folklore, providing support through funding and carrying out collaborative programming in multiple venues. In addition to the NEA’s program, national folklore programs and organizations include the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA). The American Folklore Society (AFS), founded in 1888, serves public folklore as well as academic folklore, with an abundance of information about the field of folklore and other resources on its website.

Globally, an upsurge in folklore inventorying, recognition of significant traditions, and sustainability initiatives have resulted from UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. The convention has been signed by over 175 nations, but not by the United States. Activities set in motion by the convention and resources provided by UNESCO eschew the terms “folklore,” “folklife,” and “folk arts,” which have negative resonances for some countries associated with their experience of extremist, nationalist, and totalitarian regimes that utilized folklore to further their political agendas. The principal Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) activities undertaken in association with UNESCO include the inventorying of traditions, at times undertaken through substantive field research, and two global lists: the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Urgent Need of Safeguarding. ICH safeguarding measures are now being developed and disseminated, utilizing approaches like those that American public folklore has employed for the past four decades.

Conclusion – Public Folklore, Public History, and New Horizons for Heritage Collaborations

In many nations the heritage field now encompasses multiple disciplines working together within academic and government programs. In contrast, heritage disciplines in the United States are compartmentalized, limiting the advancement of shared interests and the development of more comprehensive approaches to heritage preservation and sustainability. Public folklorists and public historians can point the way to fruitful collaboration among heritage disciplines. They share common goals of enabling community cultural self-determination. Both have developed a variety of methods for collaborative documentation and programming. Public historians and public folklorists engage in critical reflection about their practice and relationships to the communities they serve. While there have been all too few joint projects or dialogue about their approaches, greater mutual engagement could be readily accomplished and bring rich rewards. Public folklorists are adept at producing presentations of material culture and performance traditions that provide compelling expressions of community heritage for public history programming. The performance of legends, narratives of historical experience, and traditional folk songs about historical events can add vivid dimensions in the voices of community members expressing their historical legacies. For their part, public folklore programs can benefit from deeper historical perspectives provided by public historians. And, both fields can benefit from the exchange of ideas about methods for presenting history and culture, sharing authority with communities, and equipping communities to represent their histories and cultures on their own terms.


[i] See Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogical Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981); and, Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

[ii] Nick Spitzer, “Cultural Conversations: Metaphors and Methods in Public Folklore,” in Public Folklore, eds. Robert Baron and Nick Spitzer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi Press, 2007), 77-103, quotation on 99. Originally published by Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

[iii] Carl Lindahl, “Legends of Hurricane Katrina: The Right to be Wrong, Survivor-to-Survivor Storytelling, and Healing,” Journal of American Folklore 125, No. 496 (Spring 2012): 139-176, quotations on 153, 143.

[iv] Olivia Cadaval, “Imagining a Collaborative Curatorial Relationship: A Reordering of Authority over Representation,” in Curatorial Conversations: Cultural Representation and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, eds. Olivia Cadaval, Sojin Kim, and Diana Baird N’Diaye (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016), 155-175, quotation on 174.

Suggested Readings

Baron, Robert. “Public Folklore Dialogism and Critical Heritage Studies.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 22 (2016): 588-606.

______.  “Sins of Objectification? – Agency, Mediation and Community Cultural Self-Determination in Public Folklore and Cultural Tourism Programming.” Journal of American Folklore 123 (2010): 63-91.

Baron, Robert, and Nick Spitzer, eds. Public Folklore. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi Press, 2007. Originally published by Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Bauman, Richard, Patricia Sawin, and Inta Gale Carpenter. Reflections on the Folklife Festival: An Ethnography of Participant Experience. Special Publications of the Folklore Institute no. 2. Blooming­ton: Indiana University Folklore Institute, 1992.

Cadaval, Olivia, Sojin Kim and Diana Baird N’Diaye, eds. Curatorial Conversations: Cultural Representation and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016.

Cantwell, Robert S. Ethnomimesis: Folklife and the Representation of Culture. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.  

Cooley, Timothy J., editor. Cultural Sustainabilities: Music, Media, Language, Advocacy. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2019.

Dewhurst, Kurt, Patricia Hall and Charlie Seemann, eds. Folklife and Museums: Twenty-First Century Perspectives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield/AASLH, 2017   

Feintuch, Burt, editor. The Conservation of Culture: Folklorists and the Public Sector. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988.

Graves, James Bau. Cultural Democracy: The Arts, Community and the Public Purpose. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Hufford, Mary, ed. Conserving Culture: A New Discourse on Heritage. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Sommers, Laurie Kay, ed.  “Michigan on the Mall.” Special issue, Folklore in Use 2 (2): 1994.

Titon, Jeff Todd. “Sustainability, Resilience and Adaptive Management.” In The Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, Svanibor Petton and Jeff Todd Titon, eds., 157-198. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Toelken, Barre. The Dynamics of Folklore. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1996.


~ Robert Baron directs the Folk Arts Program of the New York State Council on the Arts and teaches in the Master of Arts Program in Cultural Sustainability at Goucher College. He has been a Fulbright Senior Specialist in Finland, the Philippines and Slovenia, a Smithsonian Museum Practice Fellow, and Non-Resident Fellow of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African-American Research at Harvard University. Baron is a Fellow of the American Folklore Society and received its Benjamin A. Botkin award for significant lifetime achievement in public folklore. His research interests include public folklore, cultural policy, heritage studies, creolization and museum studies. His publications include Public Folklore, edited with Nick Spitzer; Creolization as Cultural Creativity, edited with Ana Cara; and articles in Curator, International Journal of Heritage Studies, Journal of American Folklore, Western Folklore and the Journal of Folklore Research. Baron holds a Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania.