Multiple VAF members collaborated on special issue of Material Culture Review journal

15 May 2021 9:00 AM | Christine R Henry (Administrator)

Storied Spaces: Renewing Folkloristic Perspectives on Vernacular Architecture.  A Special Issue of Material Culture Review/Revue de la culture materielle (Volume 90-91, Fall 2019/Spring 2020). Read the issue here.

Editors: Michael J. Chiarappa and Gabrielle A. Berlinger

Articles by: Elijah Gaddis, Puja Sahney, Gloria M. Colom Brana, Meghann E. Jack, Michael J. Chiarappa, Thomas Carter

Interviews with: Robert Blair St. George, Michael Ann Williams, Bernard L. Herman, Gerald L. Pocius, Henry Glassie

At the 2018 Vernacular Architecture Forum conference in Alexandria, Virginia, Michael Ann Williams organized a panel that sought to re-affirm the role of folkloristic approaches to the study of vernacular architecture. In the papers that were presented, and in the comments that were delivered by Gerald Pocius, it was clear that the distinguishing features of folkloristic inquiry—the relevance of place and region, the primacy of fieldwork and ethnographic rigor, and recognition of a building’s capacity to communicate cultural values—still hold a grip on the field. But an acute consciousness of these tenets, and their connection to the tradition of folkloristic inquiry, has been decidedly quiet in recent years.

Encouraged by Thomas Carter and Gerald Pocius, and further supported by Richard MacKinnon in his former capacity as Editor-in-Chief of Material Culture Review/Revue de la culture materielle, a variety of folkloristic approaches to vernacular architecture have been assembled in a special issue of the journal dedicated solely to the topic (Vol. 90-91, Fall 2019-Spring 2020). Accompanying the articles are insightful interviews with Henry Glassie, Robert B. St. George, Gerald Pocius, Michael Ann Williams, and Bernard Herman. For VAF members, the special issue contextualizes how the study of vernacular architecture assumed a compellingly new place in North American folkloristics amidst the expanding scope of historical and cultural inquiry of the 1960s and still exerts its influence today. While the very source material we categorize as “vernacular architecture” was well entrenched among those who studied North America’s architectural history and regional cultures, it can be said—with certain authority—that folkloristic handling of built environments instituted a wave of methodological and interpretive perspectives that then, and now, ripple well-beyond the folklorist’s immediate disciplinary boundaries. In calling for renewed attention to folkloristic approaches to vernacular architecture, the collection of articles and interviews emphasize how the folklorist’s artifact-centered and artifact-driven approaches resonate in an interdisciplinary mix with historians, architectural historians, historic preservationists, anthropologists, geographers, and museologists.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Vernacular Architecture Forum (2019), this special issue of Material Culture Review highlights the role that folklorists have played in vernacular architecture studies in the United States. How did folklorists contribute a distinctive approach to the study of commonplace structures and landscapes as the field was emerging, and how are new generations of folklorists offering critical perspectives today? This collection of essays is the culmination of academic panels and roundtable discussions that folklorists convened at the Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF), the American Folklore Society (AFS), and the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF) between 2015 and 2018. The impetus to host these reflective conversations was a collective concern: “Where have all the folklorists gone?,” we asked at the VAF, and “Where are all the vernacular architecture scholars?,” we pondered at the AFS. As a result, established and emerging scholars whose work bridged the two fields came to the table at each conference to examine the historic overlap of folklore and vernacular architecture studies, to consider how these fields have distinguished themselves over the past 40 years, and to envision their future contributions to the invaluable study of our surroundings.  

Grounded in ethnographic methodology, folklorists draw upon deep engagement with individual builders and users of vernacular spaces, in addition to closely documenting material forms. The merging of discourse-based analysis with formal object study allows for a complex interpretation of both sense of self and sense of place. This relationship-driven and object-based approach reveals how people design and read their physical surroundings in relation to their histories, current conditions, and aspirations. Rather than define a boundary between the fields of folklore and vernacular architecture studies, therefore, this collection illuminates the interdisciplinary roots that bridge the two pursuits and investigates how the diverse methods of adjacent disciplines such as cultural geography, anthropology, philosophy, art history, and history became synthesized in folkloristic training to create a particular approach to the study of vernacular architecture.

In this volume, readers will discover research and writing that demonstrates how close listening, deep fieldwork, attention to interior spaces as well as exterior structures, affective experience, and the interpretation of built environments through the lenses of gender and race in addition to class, all define the folkloristic approach.

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