Kentucky Museum, Folklife Program help students appreciate, understand their communities

How can elements of culture, history and art be conserved to foster exploration and learning? At Western Kentucky University, look no further than Brent Björkman, public folklorist and director of WKU’s Kentucky Folklife Program and Kentucky Museum. Björkman spends his days immersed in folklore studies; essentially, how people live.

“The traditions that are shared in a community don’t stay the same,” he says. “They’re not static, they’re dynamic. Every person who learns something in the community — wood-carving, storytelling, an occupational skill — each individual puts their own imprint on it and adds their own talent to what they’re doing. Being able to embrace that and share that knowledge with the public is what a public folklorist does.”

Greg Knight demonstrates decorative blacksmithing techniques for an audience at the fourth annual Hammer In. The Hammer In is a collaboration between KFP and the Kentucky Museum to celebrate metalsmithing arts of Kentucky. The event includes forge demonstrations, aluminum metal pours by WKU-based Kentucky League of Sculptors, workshops, and narrative stages with blacksmithing artists. (Photo by Sam Kendrick, 2019)

Take a closer look at both the Kentucky Folklife Program and the Kentucky Museum to see how both entities are facilitating and deepening research opportunities, regional appreciation and communal understanding.

‘All roads pointed to WKU’

Björkman’s path led him to WKU long before he stepped into the role as director of the Kentucky Folklife Program in 2012.

“WKU’s Folk Studies program is well-known — for decades it’s minted some of the finest public folklorists in the U.S.,” he says. “That’s what first drew me as a graduate student in 1996. Prior to that, I was a high school teacher and ready to make a change. All roads pointed to WKU’s Folk Studies program.”

Thus began Björkman’s immersion into folklore studies, an environment in which he thrived. Not only did he complete his coursework; he also quickly assumed an active role in the state and national folklore community that included working as a Folklife Specialist at the Kentucky Folklife Program in Frankfort, and as Associate Director of the American Folklore Society, then based at Ohio State University. In 2007 he became the Executive Director of the Vermont Folklife Center before returning to Kentucky in 2012 when the KFP joined WKU’s Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology.

KFP Folklife Specialist Joel Chapman instructs WKU Folk Studies MA students on how to operate various stations at the Horse Cave Heritage Festival narrative stage. The Kentucky Folklife Program partners with WKU graduate Folk Studies students to produce 4-5 narrative stages for the Heritage Festival every year on topics ranging from food traditions and material culture to storytelling and music. Narrative stages are led by KFP staff and/or WKU graduate students. (Photo by Brent Björkman, 2019)

Community and connections are among the cornerstones of folk studies, and Björkman’s own life is a prime example. While pursuing his graduate degree at WKU, Bjorkman met his wife, Ann Ferrell, Folk Studies Professor and Graduate Program Director. They’re now part of the same department in which they were students, an opportunity that Björkman calls, “a full-circle moment.” They now share their knowledge of folklore scholarship and its practical application with the next generation of graduate students they are sending out into the world.

During Björkman’s tenure with the Kentucky Folklife Program, he’s helped lead a significant transition. Previously under the umbrella of Kentucky’s state government, the program is now part of WKU’s Department of Folk Studies & Anthropology.

One of the first projects led by Björkman after returning to WKU was a National Endowment for the Arts grant to create a traveling exhibit about the White Oak Basket community of South-Central Kentucky.  This technique of basketmaking flourished in the region, dating back to the 1800s. Baskets were made for both home and farm use and, as the name implies, are made of white oak, a plentiful material in the region. The shape of the baskets, in addition to other construction techniques, is unique to South-Central Kentucky

“We enlisted the help of a folk studies museum’s class to create the exhibit panels from design materials, photographs of the baskets and verbiage about the technique, people, culture and legacy,” Björkman says. “This gave students practical, hands-on experience in creating the panels.”

The exhibit began traveling to local libraries, before he brought the KFP and Kentucky Museum teams together to create a physical White Oak Basket exhibit, giving museum visitors a place to further explore this fascinating and meaningful part of daily Kentucky life on the WKU campus.

“There are so many people who can take pride in their basketmaking work,” Björkman says. “A lot of people in these small, rural communities didn’t realize that these internationally known techniques are from their particular area. Exhibits like this, created through long-term relationships, foster better understanding not just of our communities, but of ourselves.

‘Break down barriers and create a common humanity’

Björkman is fortunate to have multiple outlets for learning, discovery and exploration, including the Kentucky Museum. As museum director, Björkman’s priorities are clear.

“Our strategic plan is to share Kentucky with the students of Kentucky,” he says. “We’re a regional university and I want people to have pride in where they are and the importance of their region from a community standpoint.”

On July 11, 2017, on the 22nd anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide, the Kentucky Folklife Program partnered with leaders in the Bowling Green Bosnian community to present a free educational symposium on the Bosnian War and Srebrenica Genocide. During the symposium, members of the Bowling Green Bosnian American community shared stories about living in wartime Bosnia, including besieged Srebrenica and Sarajevo. Attendance exceeded our expectations at over 100 in number, including city officials, university faculty, members of the Bosnian community and more. (Photo by Virginia Siegel, 2017)

Kentucky is home to people from all over the world, giving Björkman, his colleagues and students a chance to explore other cultures through the lens of a Kentucky-based perspective.

Björkman met Dennis Hodzic, a Bosnian refugee who had, along with thousands of other Bosnians, fled to the Bowling Green area after the Bosnian War. Björkman, along with five current or recent Bosnian graduates of WKU and Folk Studies faculty members, created the Bosnian Oral History Project. They visited homes, businesses and mosques, using oral history techniques to learn about — culture, livelihoods, experiences and stories.

“These are your neighbors, your kids go to school with their kids, you work with them, but do you know the story of their displacement from the war?” Björkman says.

This research became the foundation of a grant-supported exhibit, A Culture Carried: Bosnians in Bowling Green. Individual stories were told through artifacts and clips of oral history interviews, which are now available on the accompanying KFP website:

“We showed food traditions, an example of a living space, things people brought from their homes in Bosnia, games that they play, the diversity of faiths among Bosnians, and we ended with young people talking about how immigrants add value to society and help build a robust community,” Björkman says. “Any time you can break down the barriers of culture, especially when you’re talking about ethnicity and religious differences, and instead help someone understand another person’s traditions, that’s how you create a common humanity, and a better understanding of the changing face of Kentucky.”

Pictured are several of the first individuals to be interviewed for the Kentucky Folklife Program’s continuing Bowling Green Bosnia Oral History Project. Front row, left to right: Amer Salihović, Adisa Omerović, Senida Husić and Virginia Siegel. Back row, left to right: Nermin Peimanović, Kate Horigan, Denis Hodzić, Brent Björkman and Mujo Musić. Brent Björkman, Kate Horigan, Ann Ferrell (not pictured), and Virginia Siegel are staff and faculty of WKU and the original interviewers. (Photo by Virginia Siegel, 2015)

The museum helps erode other barriers, too, including for those who may be hesitant to step onto a university campus.

“A lot of people are daunted by a university and wonder if they belong there, especially if they haven’t been to college,” Björkman says. “I think a museum is a safe space in which to learn about yourself, learn about your community, take art classes, see a lecture. Students and parents can take pride in who they are by better understanding Kentucky. I see it as a great lens to understanding for people.”

For more information on the work being done by the Kentucky Museum, Kentucky Folklife Program and to learn more about the Folk Studies Graduate Program, part of the Department of Folk Studies and Anthropology visits these sites: