“Cultural Conservation”: Preserving Place and Practice (Mellon Curriculum)

The term “conservation” is often associated with art objects, historic buildings and sites, or ecological resources such as water. But what about “cultural conservation?” The field of folkloristics—the study of creative expression in everyday life—has both embraced and contested the concept of “cultural conservation.” Recognizing and supporting vernacular creative practices, folklorists investigate the relationships between individuals and their material and social environments in order to understand how and why cultural forms are created, adapted, maintained, or abandoned. In this course, we will consider local, state, national, and international efforts to identify and sustain community-embedded forms of creative expression and cultural practice. We will examine the goals and implications of “cultural conservation” in three contexts: the built environment (buildings, sites, religious/ritual architecture, urban landscapes), the natural environment (ecosystems, agricultural and rural landscapes), and the cultural environment (museums, rituals, festivals). Site visits will be a core element of the course and will include extended work at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where we will examine the Museum’s curatorial and conservation practices, as well as at public folklore/folklife projects throughout New York City, including City Lore, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, and the folk arts programs of the Brooklyn and Staten Island Arts Councils. In each case, will examine how folklorists, cultural activists, and community members are working to address issues of social inequality and cultural empowerment in their neighborhoods through interaction with their physical environments; and how different parties understand and apply such concepts as “heritage,” “tradition,” “preservation,” and “community” in the “conservation of culture.” Over the course of the semester, students will develop a final paper or project about place-based practices of preservation. They will present their research to the class as it develops, and are encouraged to incorporate ethnographic or multimedia elements (virtual exhibitions, podcasts) into their work. 3 credits.