Kentucky Folklife Program spotlights cultural traditions through experiential exhibits

As a folklorist, Brent Björkman approaches peoples and their cultures as an opportunity to develop long-lasting relationships.

“Folklore is knowledge of the people as it is learned in community. We learn what is important to them,” said Björkman, the director of the Kentucky Folklife Program and the Kentucky Museum at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

The KFP’s mission is to document, conserve and present the cultural heritage of Kentucky.

“My fieldwork starts informally as I talk with and learn about people of a certain culture. Then the research goes from the actual working with people—conducting oral interviews—to presenting our discoveries in an intimate way over time,” Björkman said. “This creates a deeper context for those experiencing the program or exhibit.”

Björkman began his relationship with WKU as a graduate student in the Master’s Program in Folk Studies in 1996. He knew from the beginning that he wanted to be a folklorist.

“I knew of the Smithsonian Folk Festival and their presentations of cultural art and crafts on the Mall in D.C. That’s what I wanted to do,” he said. I learned that WKU’s program in Folk Studies for public folklorist was the best in the country.”

Following his master’s, Björkman worked for the KFP when it was still part of the state government, Kentucky Arts Council and Kentucky Historical Society. Later, he became the first associate director of the American Folklore Society, which is the professional organization of folklorists in the U.S.

After working in folklore in both Ohio and Vermont, Björkman returned to the WKU campus in 2012 when the KFP became part of WKU’s Folk Studies and Anthropology Department. This move also led to his position as director of the Kentucky Museum.

The KFP collaborates with the Kentucky Museum as one way that cultural knowledge is conserved. It is archived in a special collection, including a vast number of oral interviews conducted the last 40 to 50 years. Presenting this material can take on many forms.

“During my time working for the KFP after graduate school, my colleagues and I learned about the white oak basket making tradition of south-central Kentucky,” said Björkman. “The first grant I received, an NEA ArtWorks grant, was for displaying this tradition through a traveling exhibit.”

White Oak Basket tradition

Leona Waddell, a white oak basket maker, was honored with the 2016 NEA National Heritage Fellowship.

The traveling exhibit, known as the white oak basket tradition, made its way across Kentucky,  sharing about the tradition, the process and the families involved. Recently, Björkman and his colleagues took this presentation to the next level. They created an opportunity for people to not only see a full basket exhibit, but also learn these basket techniques through workshops.

The KFP’s exhibit in the Kentucky Museum was ‘Standing the Test of Time: Kentucky’s White Oak Basket Tradition,’ which was featured for the majority of the 2016-2017 academic year at WKU.

“We drew on 20 years of documentation and the relationships we had built with basket makers. We had 147 baskets to display that helped tell the stories and the process of this wonderful tradition,” said Björkman. “Along with that, we also did basket workshops. People could come and spend a Saturday learning basket-making techniques.”

Björkman desires for those who participate in the Kentucky Folklife Program to further share these traditions, which is why the white oak basket tradition has been presented through various settings: Kentucky Folklife festivals, school settings, radio programs and even through documentary-style videos.

“One of the ways we’ve validated this tradition is to get them visibility,” said Björkman. “Over the last 12 years, we have had two of our white oak basket makers get the Kentucky Governor’s Award in the Arts. Also, Leona Waddell, a white oak basket maker, received the highest honor as a 2016 recipient of the NEA National Heritage Fellowship.”

Waddell, who just turned 89 years old, has been working with the KFP for more than 20 years, which made this a wonderful celebration for all.

“The basket makers meet thousands of people over time, who watch them make their baskets and hear their stories,” said Björkman. “We desire for our audience to get up close and personal with the exhibits we create.”

Bosnians in Bowling Green

The Bosnian Project Working group meets to record stories from the Bosnian community living in Bowling Green.

While conserving, documenting and presenting Kentucky’s heritage is a priority for the KFP, the cultural landscape of Bowling Green has changed the last 25 years. With a population of approximately 60,000, nearly 10 percent of those are originally from Bosnia-Herzegovina and relocated to the U.S. during the time of the Bosnian War in the 1990s.

Along with Björkman, Dr. Ann Ferrell (associate professor of folk studies), Dr. Kate Horigan (assistant professor of folk studies) and Virginia Siegel (folklife specialist) have been working with a handful of Bosnians in their 20s and 30s, many who have graduated from WKU.

“In the summer of 2015, I began gathering these folks together to learn their stories. Through getting to know them and building a trust and friendship with them, they started to take us into their community,” said Björkman.

With WKU’s tagline being, “A leading American university with international reach,” this is the fourth year the Office of International Programs will initiate their annual program to concentrate on a particular country, which for 2017-2018 academic year will be the “International Year of Bosnia.” Previous countries included Ecuador, South Africa and South Korea.

In collaboration with this program, the KFP and the Kentucky Museum will take these oral histories about the Bosnians lives and bring them into the context of an exhibit: “A Culture Carried: Bosnians in Bowling Green,” opening September 29.

“The idea of a culture carried is because Bosnians left their country, many of them only bringing two suitcases. One usually contained clothing and the other full of photographs,” said Björkman. “We want to tell their stories by pulling from these audio interviews, sharing their traditions and even create a living room setting to show how they create community.”

Björkman sees how his position in shining light on various cultural communities and traditions could create greater visibility for the research and education happening at WKU.

As he looks to the future, Björkman hopes to create a broader online presence to connect and network with more folklorists and the amazing work happening not only across the state, but even beyond the Kentucky borders.

“Continuing, I hope to get a grant in the next year to host town meetings across Kentucky and gather other folklorists around the state,” said Björkman. “I’d like to discover how we can share folklore as a collective and have the KFP be the engine for this expanding opportunity.”