A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Laurie Sommers Featured by American Council on Historic Preservation

Image courtesy achp.gov

The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) recently interviewed Michigan Traditional Arts Program Adjunct Researcher and Independent Consultant Laurie Sommers as part of their "Preservationists in the Neighborhood" series.

Here are a few highlights from an excellent and thorough piece:
"Laurie Kay Sommers, a native of Lansing, Michigan, holds a Ph.D. in Folklore from Indiana University. She currently works as an independent consultant in folklore and historic preservation through her company, Laurie Kay Sommers Cultural Consulting, LLC. She is the Co-Chair, American Folklore Society Working Group in Historic Preservation. Sommers has worked in public folklore, ethnomusicology, and historic preservation for more than 30 years for organizations such as the Michigan State University Museum, the Michigan SHPO, and the South Georgia Folklife Project at Valdosta State University. Her background in historic preservation dates to the late 1970s, when she worked for the Michigan SHPO and then as an independent consultant to the SHPO, Commonwealth Associates (Jackson, MI), and various other clients.
Can you tell us what you are working on right now?One current project is to continue the activities of the Working Group in Folklore and Historic Preservation, a policy initiative of the American Folklore Society. Our goal is to better position folklorists and folklore methodologies as central forces in historic preservation. I authored the white paper, "Integrating Folklore and Historic Preservation Policy: Toward a Richer Sense of Place" and developed the associated Web site that has case studies of projects that involved folklore and historic preservation, as well as a bibliography andwebography. A particular emphasis of the working group has been to develop model Traditional Cultural Places nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, in particular nominations that expand the purview of Traditional Cultural Places to include more than sites associated with American Indian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Fellow folklorists Beth King (Wyoming) and Tina Bucuvalas (Florida) have worked on successful nominations for the Green River Drift (cattle trail) and Greektown in Tarpon Springs. We also seek to network with like-minded folks in allied fields and to engage young people in our work. 
How does folklore play a role in historic preservation?
Folklorists in the past often did not find their skills valued or welcomed in the world of historic preservation and Section 106 review. This was certainly not always the case, but when I was working for a cultural resources management firm as a "historian" (at the same time I was a graduate student in Folklore), I would have cost the company extra money by including ethnography in my reports: this would have been considered nice but definitely not essential. A colleague who did survey work in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was told that he was to focus on buildings only, not people and their stories/memories of place. From a folklorist's point of view, that was a travesty. What are we preserving? If historic preservation is interested in preserving "place" in its broadest and richest sense, then folklore has much to contribute:
  • As placemaking (and the historic preservation community's place within it) gains momentum at local, state, and national levels in both public and private spheres, the folklorist's methodology can lead to a richer sense of place through ethnographic documentation of context and use - the ways story, ritual, and behavior link communities to places and make them meaningful.
  • As Section 106 and environmental review continue to be major activities for CRM firms and SHPOs, some preservationists are realizing that ethnography - long a weak point in environmental review efforts - is important to the process. Folklore methodologies can help engage the local community and elicit their voices.
  • As the National Park Service revisits National Register Bulletin 38 (Traditional Cultural Properties or TCPs) and seeks to clarify its parameters, folklorists are creating model nominations for a range of places, beyond the sacred American Indian, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian places that are typically listed as TCPs.
  • Folklorists are expanding the range of properties and places typically listed in the National Register to include a wider range of cultural communities and a greater diversity of buildings, structures, and places (think a traditional Wyoming cattle trail, Tarpon Springs' sponge fishing docks, an Italian American religious shrine in Staten Island). This in turn is providing a richer and more inclusive documentation of our heritage.
  • As the National Park Service pays increasing attention to cultural landscapes, folklorists can assist in the understanding and documentation of cultural traditions, responses to the natural environment, and land use and activities, all landscape characteristics highlighted in National Register Bulletin 30 (Rural Historic Landscapes).
  • As the historic preservation movement increasingly embraces diversity and the vernacular, folklorists can bring our skills to bear. Model programs like Citylore's ground-breaking Place Matters have integrated folklore, historic preservation, advocacy, documentation, and grass roots participation by focusing on New York City's culturally and historically significant places, not necessarily the architecturally significant sites typically included in the National Register. (http://placematters.net/)
Do you have advice for novice preservationists?
  • Take advantage of existing internships - or try to create new ones with organizations of particular interest. This can provide valuable training and professional contacts prior to formally entering the job market.
  • Consider volunteering to build your resume. I volunteered the summer after I graduated from college, and it opened all sorts of doors. Think broadly and creatively about potential partners in your work.
  • Take a look at the approaches to preservation, landmarking and advocacy by Citylore's Place Matters in New York City where the starting point is the local community's definition of what is significant and worthy of preservation (often buildings not eligible for the National Register). (http://placematters.net/)
  • Don't forget the people, stories, uses, and the meaning of the places you seek to preserve. It's not just about the building.
  • Know that you are doing important work in placemaking, economic development, and sustainability."
Read the full interview here