Folk Art and the Art Museum

Lead Research Organisation: Tate
Department Name: Research and National Programmes


While the study of British folk culture, in the form of song and dance, is relatively well-established, and while the critical history of folklore studies is an area of lively inquiry, the visual folk arts remain under-explored. Material culture studies and folklore studies may have advanced as academic disciplines, but British art historians have almost entirely eschewed the study of folk art. As Henry Glassie has indicated in relation to American art history, incorporating folk art into established narratives is not a matter of mere addition or extension, but of a thoroughgoing revision to accepted historical frameworks and intellectual structures.

These research seminars will explore the place of British 'folk' art in the art museum, bringing together experts in the fields of art history, sociology, anthropology and museology, including scholars from Europe and the USA. They will help to build a collaborative research partnership between three institutions (Tate, the American Museum in Britain and Compton Verney) all currently considering new exhibitions or displays of folk art. The seminars will allow them to gain access to specialist knowledge and foster new ideas which will in turn inform the curation and display of folk art objects at these sites.

Compton Verney is working towards an evaluation of its folk art collection both in terms of the responses it engenders in visitors and its current display. The AHRC seminars will greatly enhance this work in order to formulate new future displays and exhibitions. The curatorial team there will be responding to this evaluation by programming interventions within the existing collection and drawing upon these approaches to plan a future thematic exhibition on folk art, folklore and ritual which will include historic and contemporary art and artefacts.

The important folk art collection at The American Museum in Britain is key to the museum's success in presenting a distinctly American aesthetic to a largely British audience. Folk art at the American Museum is not confined to one gallery but is showcased in many areas. Since The American Museum opened in 1961, much of its folk art collection has been displayed in the converted stables building. The decision has now been made to install this collection in the former picture gallery of Claverton Manor.

Tate holds the national collection of British art, and is committed to exploring and expanding the definition of British art history. The workshops would help to identify and map out the research themes to underpin a major folk art exhibition proposed for Tate Britain in 2011.

This resubmitted application has benefited from the useful comments offered by the AHRC peer reviewers, and a developmental research workshop involving curators and educators from Tate, the American Museum and Compton Verney, held in February 2009. The workshop re-affirmed the commitment of the partner institutions, and the timeliness of the proposal. It also helped to clarify the reasoning behind the Anglo-American focus of the seminars, while suggesting ways of further incorporating European perspectives.

The seminars will each address a different theme pertinent to the study of British folk art. Seminar one will examine the place of folk art in relation to the established narratives of art history, and interrogate how it is defined as a category. Seminar two will explore the use of folk art in modern art and contemporary practice and consider how this informs the broader consideration of what constitutes 'folk art'. Seminar three will compare the traditions and reception of American and European folk art, and use the outcomes of this examination to explore possible new approaches to British folk art. Finally, seminar four will conclude the programme by looking to the future and suggesting new modes of presentation and display which might be appropriate for folk art in the light of the outcomes of earlier workshops.

Planned Impact

The research outputs for these seminars will be fully documented and, potentially,
very widely disseminated. We anticipate that the research will have impact in at least three main areas:

- internally, among the curatorial and education staff at the partner institutions
- for our visitors, who will be able to see the tangible effects of our collaborative research activity in future displays across the partners' sites
- more widely within the museum profession and among cultural policy makers, for whom the issues of identity, cultural value and museological practice addressed in our seminars are being urgently discussed

Research reports capturing the outcomes of each of the sessions will be prepared. The seminars will also be recorded and archived at the Research Centre at Tate Britain, and will thus be fully accessible to future researchers (the Centre is open to the public). At the end of the series of seminars, a refereed research paper on British Folk Art drawing on the outcomes will be produced and published online as part of 'Tate Papers'. In these ways the research outcomes of the seminars will be made readily available for the academic and museum community, and the larger interested public.

In the longer term, the seminars will shape and inform the future displays of folk across all the partners' galleries.
The decision has now been made to install The American Museum's collection of folk art in the former picture gallery of Claverton Manor. The project should be completed by 2012, so these research seminars will have a direct influence on the presentation and interpretation of the folk art collections. At Compton Verney the seminars will greatly assist in the formulation of new future displays and exhibitions as curators will be able to drawing upon the knowledge and contacts provided by the seminars to plan a future thematic exhibition of folk art, folklore and ritual. Finally, the seminars will also help Tate to identify and map out the research themes to underpin a proposed major folk art exhibition in 2011.


10 25 50
Title British Folk Art 
Description Tate Britain exhibition, influenced by research conducted during AHRC awarded Research Network Grant. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact There was an exhibition - well received and a catalogue.