Public folklorists in the United States have long been plagued with the problems inherent in successfully presenting the culture of individual “folk” groups to the larger, dominant American culture. While audiences/consumers desire to be included in “private” culture, the folklorist as presenter/interpreter must respect the beliefs and wishes of the people whose culture is being presented. As the context and function of the particular tradition are changed through the act of presentation, what may have been private becomes public. This negotiation between the public and private in presenting cultures often creates a new product or form that could be called “public culture”—a mediated, interpreted, and “packaged” version of custom or tradition that both the esoteric and exoteric participant can be comfortable with. Thus what we have in exhibits and festivals of folklife is really a “product.” Cultural resources, or “traditions,” are the raw materials from which selection is made. These selected resources are converted into products through interpretation, through a form of storytelling. What is transmitted, and the means of transmission, become the product.
As I began to familiarize myself with the literature of heritage tourism, I became aware that the same transformation processes apply to the creation of “heritage” from history. In the well-established dialogue on “heritage” and the “heritage industry” in Britain, I found numerous issues and concerns that parallel those of public folklorists. In climates (or pockets) of economic decline, people look to exploitable resources for potential economic benefit. The natural environment, the past, and traditional culture are among those resources currently being exploited by communities, governments, and the tourism industry.
What are the goals for producing the cultural or heritage “tourism product?” Who benefits? Who chooses what is to be preserved and what is to be interpreted for public consumption? What kinds of cultural intervention and appropriation are part of this process? Who “owns” culture or heritage? Who endows value on sites, objects and/or activities? What is “authentic” and who decides? Does “commodification” equal “commercialization,” “degradation,” or “Disneyfication” of the sites, objects, or customary behaviors? What is “sustainable tourism” and to what degree are protection and preservation part of the package? These are among the problems and issues addressed by the authors of the essays in this volume.
In the opening essay, “Doing Right by the Local Folks,” Robert Cogswell examines the potential effects of the marketing of culture and heritage on the communities or groups being promoted. Community resources and relations . . .