McKissick Museum, the imposing building that sits at the head of the University of South Carolina’s historic Horseshoe, really doesn’t want to be associated with the stuffy pretension that its edifice hints at. That’s why the museum launched its FOLKFabulous festival a few years back: to bring its carefully curated research and exhibits on Southern history and culture to folks in an accessible, hands-on way. The museum is open for free year-round and boasts more than 140,000 objects in its collection, including one of the most extensive natural science collections in the Southeast, but it recognizes the need to be a more open, hospitable institution, to connect folk traditions from the past to the present in obvious and not-so-obvious ways for its audience.
“What we’re trying to do is not simply tell people about folkloric traditions,” explains Amanda Belue, communications manager for the museum. “We’re trying to give them an experience. You can bring a bunch of people together into a room and talk about something interesting, but I think the true understanding of the experience comes from actually doing it, actually getting a chance to put your hands on that experience and get in the middle of [it].”
FOLKFabulous started out as a one-day event held out in front of the museum, drawing inspiration from one of the current exhibitions but generally encompassing music, art and hands-on workshops, but the museum quickly realized it would get more mileage by partnering with another organization.
And so McKissick partnered with the South Carolina State Fair last year, carving seemingly unlikely space for FOLKfabulous programming amid livestock stalls and ferris wheels.
“We wanted a chance to find a venue that would allow us to reach a larger, more diverse population,” Belue admits. “The State Fair has been a fantastic fit with their emphasis on heritage and Southern traditions. We’ve felt that it would boost our mission as well as the State Fair’s educational mission [too].”
Throughout the festival, McKissick will host its Pottery in South Carolina exhibition, a show which is meant to correspond to the two main exhibits currently on display at the museum, Swag & Tassel: The Innovative Stoneware of Edward Chandler and Face It/Place It by Eugune. In addition, it will continuously offer hands-on experiences and collect State Fair stories and memories as part of the Fair’s 150th-anniversary celebrations set for next year. This will be augmented by a nice variety of programming, including participation opportunities that range from playing harmonica and making ceramics to writing poetry and yarn bombing. FOLKFabulous will also present a number of concerts from bluegrass, gospel and Piedmont blues artists, including master banjo player Kristin Scott Benson (Oct. 14) and revered Piedmont blues harmonica player Freddie Vanderford (Oct. 20).
Now in year two of the festival at the State Fair, Belue acknowledges that the museum has tweaked its approach to better fit the convivial and bustling atmosphere of the new venue.
“We had much longer programming planned [last year], with the idea that people would come and they would sit and stay,” she recalls. “What we we learned with the State Fair was that there is so much that everybody wants to do and they want to get to it all at once! So we had to modify a lot of our experiences to be shorter but not lose that meaning-making experience that we’re really trying to provide. So we’ve been creating smaller projects with kind of grab-and-go information that we really wanted to provide.”
Returning from last year, though, are workshops like Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award winner Peggie Hartwell’s family and memory quilting workshop, which was one of the more popular offerings from 2017.
“People were able to come and sit together and get a chance to tell their story using an art form to other people around them,” says Belue of the workshop, which leads in participants creating their own fabric story block. “It was really a transformative experience for everyone in the room. And that’s what we’re trying to do and to bring to the State Fair.”