Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts

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Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts. By Maggie Holtzberg. Massachusetts Cultural Council and the National Heritage Museum, Lexington, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008. 199 pp. illus., $24.95 (Paperback).

The result of eight years in the making, Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts documents the field research conducted throughout the state by Massachusetts Cultural Council folklorists. Written by Maggie Holtzberg, folklorist and manager of the Folk Arts and Heritage Program at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the catalogue is a lavishly illustrated and informative volume written to complement a 2008 exhibition at the National Heritage Museum, Lexington, Massachusetts.

As a folklorist, Holtzberg is not only interested in the material result of folk traditions but also in the cultural heritage behind the art - a combination that proves both enlightening and inseparable. It was the stories and the people invested in traditional arts that prompted her to become an active participant: experiencing the ceremonies, interviewing the artists, and witnessing the cultural diversity of Massachusetts. As a result, the catalogue reads like a personal narrative as one is guided on a regional tour of the state. She is on a detective quest: to bring to light cultural identities that are normally hidden from the public eye. Through rigorous investigations, Holtzberg unearths the surprising in the familiar. She reminds us that folk art and tradition can take many forms and are an integral part of who we are.

When writing about folk art, it is impossible to avoid a discussion of terminology as the meaning varies in its usage. For the purposes of the catalogue and exhibition, Holtzberg defines folk art as "artistic expression that is deeply rooted in shared ethnicity, religious belief, occupational tradition, or sense of place" (9). This is a broad definition of an already general term, a loose establishment of boundaries without delving into an argument of terminology. The purpose of this exhibition and catalogue is not to revisit those debates but rather to focus on the artists behind the objects - an aspect sometimes lost in the various definitions. …

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