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A sampling of folklife and cultural tourism projects in the U.S.
Case Study: "Tours and Detours"
Vermont Information and Welcome Centers
Local cultures and traditions are foregrounded in a series of Vermont travel information and welcome centers redeveloped by the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing in the 1990s. These interior displays, entitled "Tours and Detours," were curated by Meg Ostrum, a museum specialist and interpretive planner who was then on staff at the Vermont Folklife Center. The aim of the redeveloped sites was to encourage people passing through Vermont to take detours to explore local cultures and attractions. While initially slated for welcome centers and rest areas only, the exhibits were expanded to include mini-displays at state historic sites as well.
Each regional exhibit features historic, cultural, natural, and economic resources of the area. Ostrum involved community groups from the beginning in developing the exhibits. She undertook cultural inventories by bringing together groups of people in each region and asking them what was most important in these thematic areas to highlight for outsiders. Smaller as well as larger places of interest were included in the exhibits. Groups were also asked which places people felt should be reserved for local use and not included in the exhibits, such as local swimming holes; these places were not included. After the meetings, notes of the inventories were sent to those who attended the meetings with instructions to choose the top two or three things from the list that they would highlight as most significant. This initial input was crucial in the development of the exhibits. An advisory group was subsequently put together to guide the exhibit curators through the process of completion.
The exhibits were designed to be introductory rather than in-depth; in Ostrum's words, "to give people an idea, to surprise them, to show them just enough to whet their appetites." In developing the exhibits, Ostrum worked with a travel writer to identify those aspects of the inventories that would be most interesting to visitors. The exhibits, which consist primarily of lush color photographs with accompanying text, also include a few selected artifacts. Past issues of Vermont Life magazine were an excellent way of identifying images of ways of life which artifacts alone could not. Community events, such as the Maple Sugar Festival in St. Albans, were highlighted.
The collaborative approach to developing these exhibits won them strong support from local residents as well as local tourism professionals. The process of meetings was instructive for everyone, Ostrum remembers, as it "got people representing smaller and larger institutions and organizations in the same room. It helped all the groups to see how they fit in to a bigger picture and to understand how outsiders perceived them."
Despite some initial concerns about opening up local culture to a wider audience, there have been no negative incidents raised as a result of this work. On the contrary, some artists have become better known by being included in the exhibits in a way that has favorably helped their businesses.
The reaction of local people has also generally been good; Ostrum feels this is probably because the community was involved in planning and, in particular, was given a chance to select specific places they wanted to keep to themselves. The effort was NOT perceived as someone coming in from the outside and spotlighting them, but instead seen as a much more grassroots and locally-based effort. Many of the subjects initially covered in the exhibits have now been featured in packaged tours developed by the regional marketing organization currently in place throughout the state.
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