One of the obvious differences between Old World values and New World values is implicit in their very names. Americans pride themselves on innovative thinking and entrepreneurial spirit, but are often criticized by the well-traveled for disrespecting the keepers of our fragile cultural and artisanal heritages while we make celebrities of the latest talent-free reality TV “personalities.” In Japan, an expert cabinetmaker can be revered as a National Treasure; over here, we get a surfeit of Kardashians. Something’s not quite right about that arrangement.
Fortunately, there are people in the US who are working very hard to restore some balance to what we hold in high esteem. Among them is historian/social activist Ruth J. Abram, founder of Manhattan’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which honors our immigrant heritage. A resident of New Lebanon in Columbia County, Abram came up with the radically innovative notion that people would be willing to visit a “museum without walls” that employs real live people demonstrating their particular crafts, instead of glass display cases filled with old objects and tiny labels.
Abrams pitched the idea to her neighbors and managed to recruit upwards of 50 “country guides” willing for part of the year to invite visitors into their homes, barns, garages, commercial kitchens, workshops and places of business, where they practice cooking, farming, toymaking, cattle-raising, automobile racing and mechanics, foraging, furnituremaking, dog-training and so on. It’s a bit like the final scene of Truffaut’s filmed version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where dozens of brave renegades who have each memorized a great work of literature stroll around reciting them during a paranoid age of compulsory book-burning. Only in this case, it’s rural arts and crafts that are being preserved for posterity, one practitioner at a time.
This new virtual (but not electronic) “Museum of Contemporary Rural American Life” has been dubbed Behold! New Lebanon, and this week it received official recognition as a museum by the New York Board of Regents and a $100,000 grant for educational programing from the Educational Foundation of America. Behold! New Lebanon beta-tested the concept successfully during the summer of 2014, and will begin its 13-week 2015 run on Independence Day weekend, guided by a newly hired program director, Caitlin Coad.
As a folklorist, Coad has worked for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the American Folklore Society’s Task Force on Historic Preservation Policy and as the coordinator of a countywide oral history project in Kentucky. As a public programs specialist, she has worked in the production of concerts, heritage festivals, neighborhood tours, playreadings, family festivals, film series and educational workshops, ranging from small community-organized gatherings to 20,000-seat venues, at places including the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Greek Theatre.
“Stories are a powerful learning tool. I believe we benefit from getting to know each other’s stories more deeply and recognizing the artistry abundant in our surroundings,” said Coad, whose job responsibilities will include documenting the country guides’ stories and skills and other aspects of small-town living through audio interviews and photography. “Folklorists see art in the creativity of everyday life, so when you strive for quality in the land you farm, the food you cook or the way you dress, that’s art. It’s my goal as a folklorist to document these skills and this traditional knowledge that largely go unrecorded, but are so essential to our identity and understanding of each other.”
The next steps will be to share the lore that Coad collects on Behold! New Lebanon’s website (www.beholdnewlebanon.com) and as components of future museum programs. “I hope the resulting collection will inspire a greater appreciation of the value of people’s work in New Lebanon and other small rural communities and spark an interest in continuing to document, value and celebrate this work, by visitors and community members alike,” she said.
We may not be able to persuade the US government to designate individual keepers of our vanishing rural heritage as National Treasures, but perhaps Town or County Treasures would be a good enough place to start. To find out more about the participating country guides and how to sign up for a tour this summer, visit www.beholdnewlebanon.org, and keep your ears open for more announcements as this novel museum concept continues to take shape, sans walls.