UWDC Woodland Indian Traditional Artist Project Collection

June 17, 2013
Elena and Verna Greendeer work on a ribbon skirt. UWDC: Arts.woodland00038.bib

New and exciting digitized materials are added into the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections all the time, and we’re delighted to highlight their work this week.  The Woodland Indian Traditional Artist Project grew from the need to educate people about the Upper Midwest region’s indigenous peoples.  The collection draws on  20 years of work with these communities to document their heritage and traditional arts.  Associate Professor Janet C. Gilmore, who has been working on the project with the UWDC, shares her perspective.

UWDC Woodland Indian Traditional Artist Project Collection Infuses New and Continuing Life into Analog Documentation

by Associate Professor Janet C. Gilmore

Close up view of Julia Nyholm's hands twining a "family bag."  UWDC: Arts.woodland00002.bib
Close up view of Julia Nyholm’s hands twining a “family bag.” UWDC: Arts.woodland00002.bib

The new UWDC Woodland Indian Traditional Artist Project site has been many years in the making, requiring the considerable effort of many workers over several project spans.  The selection of images represented, and eventually the audio files that will join them, is but a tiny portion of the documentary materials generated for the original project in 1994-95, but we hope that this UWDC presence will lead the public—especially families and communities of the artists represented, as well as researchers and educators—to more of the collection. With significant public arts funding, the former Wisconsin Folk Museum in Mt. Horeb sponsored the original project, which served to increase the public’s awareness of the region’s remarkably diverse Woodland Indian heritage through exceptional master traditional artists.  The curatorial team of Jim Leary, Lewis Koch, and Janet Gilmore shepherded the project during its phases of ethnographic documentation and subsequent development of exhibits—one installed with artifacts at the museum, and a photo-text one that toured four Woodland Indian nation centers in the region in 1995.

Developments in digital technology at the turn of the 21st century encouraged the team to infuse the old analog photo-text exhibit with new and continuing life in the virtual realm. But through constantly changing circumstances, this process has been longer and much more complicated than expected.  Jim Leary began by working with UW-Madison specialists to convert the photo-text exhibit’s images and related sound clips into raw materials for the online exhibit.  By 2010, under the direction of Gilmore, but involving several extraordinary archivists, a “Public Folk Arts and Folklife Projects of the Upper Midwest” site had been created in UWDC’s Archival Resources in Wisconsin: Descriptive Finding Aids, with around 20 project collections described. To provide examples of productions generated from these projects, we hoped to link to virtual versions of them—but in many cases virtual versions had to be created and hosted in a sustaining environment.

Gerald Hawpetoss beads a moccasin. UWDC: Arts.woodland00039.bib

With cluster faculty enhancement funds, Gilmore worked with project assistant Carrie Roy to place the digital images and sound clips transferred earlier into an online photo-text format.  While Roy designed the template for the online exhibit with Drupal, we contracted with UWDC to host the digital repository to which the exhibit would link.  As a host, UWDC offered us a dedicated band of highly qualified digital specialists, ongoing software and equipment upgrades, numerous digital media safeguards, copyright and permission standards, and opportunities for greater worldwide access alongside hundreds of kindred project collections.  With UWDC help, we rescanned images to higher quality standards for the photo-text as well as the former exhibit with artifacts.  Archivist Julia Wong prepared the extremely detailed metadata that the ethnographic documentation allowed. And working off another public folk arts grant to refine this analog to digital process of old productions, folklorist Mark Livengood completed the online exhibit, informed by Koch’s original design, which is hosted through the Folklore Program website.

We look forward to a more expeditious process in breathing new life into older, ephemeral productions based on the great riches of public folklore documentary projects.  These projects, only made possible through the dedication of public funds for the arts and humanities since the late 1960s, have been so important in communicating across numerous class and cultural divides, contributing to the university’s continuous feedback loop between citizenry and the academy that is the Wisconsin Idea.  The ability to perpetuate and disseminate such a small gem as this UWDC collection continues to serve the original project’s and exhibits’ purposes to enhance understanding of the way in which traditional artists express the often unheralded cultural vitality of local communities everywhere.

Janet C. Gilmore, Associate Professor

Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures
Department of Landscape Architecture
Department of Comparative Literature and Folklore Studies