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CSUMC Friends Newsletter, Spring 2004, Vol. 2, No. 1 Become a member of the CSUMC Friends CSUMC home page Contact us Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures Home Page

Gilmore brings to job extensive field experience as public sector folklorist

Growing up in Oregon, Janet Gilmore moved often with her family. When her family stayed put, school districts, scrambling to make room for Baby Boomers, bused her to new schools, reshuffling her schoolmates. This constant dislocation did have an upside—it made Gilmore adept at sizing up situations and people early on. “I really think I developed skills as an outsider and an observer of culture by being displaced so much,” she said.

Pacific Northwest Co-Curator and Fisher Pavilion Site Manager Janet Gilmore
photo by Jens Lund
Pacific Northwest Co-Curator and Fisher Pavilion Site Manager Janet Gilmore chats with James Kiona, Yakama Confederation Columbia River fisheries coordinator, during the last moments of the Northwest Folklife Festival's "East Meets West: Maritime Culture of the Atlantic Northeast and the Pacific Northwest" program in May 2003.

Gilmore is the latest of three tenure-track professors hired to teach in disciplines sympathetic to the Folklore Program. She joins Christine Garlough in Communication Arts and Theresa Schenck in Life Sciences Communication as “cluster hires” selected for their work with regional folklore and expressive cultures.

Gilmore is a folklorist with extensive experience exploring material culture, whether it’s with commercial fishers in the Pacific Northwest or the many traditional artists in the Upper Midwest. Now she brings her talents to the Landscape Architecture Department this spring where she teaches Methods in Historical/Cultural Resource Preservation (LA777). This summer and fall she will teach Folklore 539, Festivals & Celebrations, as a foodways course. For Spring 2005, she may teach an exhibits practicum, and next summer she will offer a field school in Landscape Architecture (LA675).

Janet Gilmore/Photo by Jens Lund

Her interest in languages drew her to folklore. During her junior year at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, while looking at linguistics program offerings at several universities, she learned of graduate folklore programs. “I was blown away that there would be a course in the Blues … or Asian folklore.” The following summer she took a Chaucer class from folklorist Barre Toelken at the University of Oregon. Chaucer’s “Tale of Melibee” reminded her of a shaggy dog story her father loved to tell (“He could drag that thing out interminably, and the punch line was really lame.”) Recognizing the value of family stories and traditions in literary inquiry “was like a lightbulb going off.”

She soon entered the folklore program at Indiana University, yet another abrupt induction into a new culture, this time with new dialects and styles of manners. “Again, the Baby Boomers were cramming in there,” livening up the academy, but worsening job prospects. Famed folklorist Richard Dorson hired Gilmore as an editorial assistant. But, between her “lack of experience in the world and disillusions” with academia, she took a break from graduate school. “I went off on a vision-quest and I went home.”

Back in Oregon, she taught two springs in an interdisciplinary “Man and the Oregon Coast” program at the University of Oregon’s Institute of Marine Biology. With students going down to the nearby docks and interviewing commercial fishermen, “the next thing I knew I was hooked.” She stayed to do research, which led to her 1986 book, The World of the Oregon Fishboat: A Study in Maritime Folklife, reprinted in 1999.

Eventually she moved to Wisconsin, where she became involved in contract fieldwork and the Wisconsin Folk Museum. “The Folk Museum offered me the opportunity to take the contract work I’d done and develop exhibits that expressed what I thought was important from working with these people,” she said. “It was heaven.”

Since the Museum closed in 1995, she helped transfer almost all its collections to five non-profits. Now, under a National Endowment for the Arts grant, she is working with UW library science students to create intellectual access to many of those and other publicly-funded folklore materials.

After years of contract fieldwork, Gilmore was drawn back to the work of a college professor because she was able to “roll everything I had been doing into the position–the public service component, teaching, publication.” She sees it as a viable way to fulfill her goals. “I need to pass on my knowledge,” she said. “I need to find homes for my archival materials. I need to publish as much as I can to give back to the people I’ve done fieldwork with over the years.”

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Last updated: August 11, 2003

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