NYSCA Living Traditions: Safeguarding Tradition Beyond the Physical archive
NYSCA Living Traditions is New York State’s online portal for sharing and connecting traditional and folk culture assets. Launched in June 2018, the initiative is the product of a multi-year partnership between the Folk Arts Program of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) and City Lore, New York City’s urban folklife center. NYSCA Living Traditions aims to strengthen the web presence of folk arts in New York, preserve cultural knowledge, and empower traditional practitioners and folklorists to digitally manage, present, and exchange heritage documentation in culturally relevant and ethical ways.1
NYSCA’s Folk Arts Program aims to safeguard and revitalize folk arts within communities where they originate and to broaden opportunities to experience these traditions among general audiences. It supports over seventy non-profit organizations each year, including community-based ethnic organizations, museums, local arts councils and libraries, as well as folk arts organizations. Since it was established thirty-three years ago, it has developed a statewide infrastructure of twelve folk arts programs that are engaged in ongoing documentation of living traditions, along with programming and services to organizations interested in developing their own local folk arts programs. NYSCA Living Traditions brings together documentation created by these programs and others around the state.2
Founded in 1986, City Lore’s mission is to foster New York City—and America’s—living cultural heritage through education and public programs. We document, present, and advocate for New York City’s grassroots cultures to ensure their living legacy in stories and histories, places and traditions. City Lore works with a wide range of communities along with grassroots, folk, and traditional artists. We see ourselves as collaborators, and artists and communities as our partners; we embrace different aesthetics for the creation of art, seek to democratize the arts, and work to foster a wider range of communities, artists, and forms of expression.3
Just as the field of folk arts advocates for cultural diversity, it also works to establish diverse forums where knowledge can be gathered and disseminated responsibly. NYSCA Living Traditions is a content management system (CMS) designed to allow users to implement their own cultural protocols and practices for sharing materials. The site uses Mukurtu, a free, mobile, and open source platform developed in collaboration with indigenous communities as a means of managing and disseminating digital cultural heritage. Mukurtu provides numerous cultural protocols and access control settings; it is affordable, scalable, and updatable.4
NYSCA Living Traditions is a relational database. One of its purposes is to show a network of traditions practiced statewide, and to build connections and relationships between traditional practitioners who otherwise work in isolation from one another. For example, visitors to the site can search by ‘music’ and watch videos of a gentle lullaby recorded in Queens by a speaker of the endangered Shughni language, a playful extemporaneous Calypso encounter filmed in a Trinidadian restaurant in Brooklyn, and melodic dance calls from a fiddler in St. Lawrence County. Clicking on the ‘ritual’ label yields contributions from Dominicans in Brooklyn, Iroquois Mohawk in northern New York, Sri Lankans on Staten Island, and Italians in Rochester. Down the street or up the Interstate, the featured individuals may have never met, but their art forms—demonstrations of hope and healing; growth and gratitude—resonate with one another and across the rich ecology of traditions practiced throughout the state, further underscoring the dire need to encourage, nurture, and protect cultural democracy across New York and throughout the rest of the country.
Context and narrative are key to the site’s relational value. With advancements in technology, digital documentation is now nearly ubiquitous. Anyone anywhere can deliver content with perfect immediacy. While more democratic, these developments have also raised concerns over lack of, inaccurate, or even harmful context when the material is circulated on the internet. When present, context is usually proffered through type, and often generated by individuals with limited knowledge of or experience with the subject they post. NYSCA Living Traditions asks partner organizations to submit narrated context to support their collections. The portal includes video interviews of practitioners discussing the background of the pre-Carnival J’Ouvert (break of day) procession, or a demonstration of Kente cloth weaving. This is particularly appropriate given that most of the featured art forms are passed on through oral transmission.
Context is especially important when considering the digital frontier—YouTube, which has no control over and takes no responsibility for your content. Rather than placing a Guyanese healing ritual on YouTube, where the site’s search algorithms might set it adrift in a virtual sea of home movies and music videos, Living Traditions is a framework for controlling asset-level context for accuracy and protecting it against piracy, as well as for limiting relational-level context for relevance.
At the same time, reduced distractions on Living Traditions mean that visitors focus on quality as much as on content and context. This subtle but significant paradigm shift is meant to encourage contributors to seriously consider what they want to submit and to prepare in advance of documentation. Folklorist Chris Mulè, Director of the NYSCA Living Traditions project, reflects,
The hope is that the site will encourage contributors to simplify what they do with their material. I think sometimes people get intimidated by technology, worrying ‘oh, I have to edit my video so I can make this complicated arc.’ And not everyone has the time for that. So we’re encouraging people to simplify and to also be economical when doing fieldwork. Just like Alan Lomax. His wax cylinder was limited, so before he would record people, he would want their best song and ask them to run through it. He would ask them questions in advance, and then he’d make sure that what he was going to capture was important. Today we just press record and capture hours and hours of material, which are hard to weed through. With NYSCA Living Traditions we’re trying to reorient people to be economical and intentional with what and how they’re recording (Mulé, 2018).5
Physical archives will always play a critical role in heritage conservation and preservation. However, there are inherent limitations in the brick-and-mortar model in so far as community members may not be aware of them, and researchers may be located too far to access them in person. Further, new relationships need to be forged to benefit repositories that could use community support and knowledge sharing, and for communities with an awareness of invaluable heritage resources. NYSCA Living Traditions complements and enhances the model by co-curating with grassroots communities and placing access protocols in their hands, while broadly enabling access through the internet.
This is radical archiving: getting the material out there on a platform that honors, reflects, and respects the communities who generate and own the assets. In reality, public sector folklorists and community groups have limited resources for disseminating their materials and guiding researchers through their archives. As an alternative to only handing collections to an appointment-only archive, NYSCA Living Traditions provides a responsibly managed and maintained web portal where community materials can be presented and research can be self-guided, albeit with varying degrees of access. Partner organizations designate community administrators who may add and edit material in alignment with their own group’s criteria. Whole collections or individual assets within them can be made accessible to anyone, or can be restricted to people within their circle, or further—by age, gender, a seasonal condition of use, etc. Mulé, says, “we want the site to communicate with the communities we work with so that it speaks to them, so that they’re part of it, so that they can answer questions about licensing and who should be contacted if someone wants to use the material or re-circulate it. This is digital due diligence, and it’s overdue.”6
"City Lore". 2018. City Lore. http://citylore.org/
"Folk Arts | NYSCA". 2018. Arts.Ny.Gov. https://www.arts.ny.gov/programs/folk-arts
Mulé, Christopher. 2018 Interview by Molly Garfinkel. In person. New York City.
NYSCA Living Traditions | Gateway To New York State’s Folk Arts. 2018. Nytraditions.Org
Mulé, Christopher. Interview with Molly Garfinkel. New York City. 29 August 2018. ↩
Mulé, Christopher. 2018. Interview by Molly Garfinkel. In person New York City. ↩