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Visit the Commonwealth Folk Arts & Heritage Digital Archive
What if you could go back in time and tag along with one of Boston’s Big Dig tunnel workers as he leads a small group underground near South Station, or drop in on a home cook in Lowell as she prepares Polish pierogi? What if you could listen in as rhythm tap dancer and National Heritage Fellow Jimmy Slyde mentors his apprentice Rocky Mendes or learn how women create ephemeral patterns using rice flour as they practice the daily ritual of South Indian kolam art? With the Commonwealth Folk Arts & Heritage Digital Archive, a partnership between the Mass Cultural Council and the Archives Division of the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office, you can do all that and more.
This important and unique collection of Massachusetts field-recorded interviews, images, fieldnotes, and audio transcriptions is now accessible online. Created in 1999, the Folk Arts & Heritage Collection is the repository for folklore fieldwork conducted by Mass Cultural Council staff, contracted folklorists and photographers, and interns. Recordings in sound, image, and writing document traditional music, dance, crafts, and material culture, as well as traditional arts associated with seasonal celebrations, occupational folklife, and religious practice in the Commonwealth. Fieldwork is essential to curating exhibitions and producing festivals, publications, and digital media — all ways of sharing our work with the public. Fieldwork helps us recruit grant applicants and evaluate the impact of our grant giving.
We first wrote about the challenges of safeguarding these archival holdings and ensuring they remain accessible as media and technology evolve in a 2016 blog post.
The collection was transferred to the Massachusetts State Archive in February of 2016. The physical transfer was the first tangible step in the process of ensuring these primary source materials are professionally preserved, digitized, and made accessible via a digital library. Archivists have been working diligently to get the collection fully digitized. As of December 2020, years 1999-2013 have been uploaded to the Massachusetts Archives Digital Repository. Subsequent years will continue to be processed.
Below are selected examples of what lies waiting to be discovered – listen to the voices of people talking about their craft traditions, occupations, music and dance traditions, and taking part in annual celebrations.
Since 1999, six individuals from Massachusetts have been awarded National Heritage Fellowships, the country highest honor in folk and traditional arts. Explore the recorded interviews and photos that inspired us to nominate them for this award.
James Godbolt, aka Jimmy Slyde, dancer
Greek oud maker Peter Kyvelos, Greek oud maker
Joe Derrane, Irish button box accordion player
Harold A. Burnham, Essex wooden boat builder
Yary Livan, Cambodian ceramicist
Balla Kouyate, West African balafon player
Wondering how to find your way around the collection? Assistant Digital Archivist Alejandra Dean has prepared a guide to searching the collection. In addition to searching the digital collection, she offers this: “Anyone interested in doing research is welcome to use the materials at our facility in person, since the digital collection increases access and awareness of the materials but is not the entire collection. Our reference staff are available to assist researchers with any questions they have, either remotely or on-site.”