From Tradition To Avant-Garde... And From Washington To Dumbrava Sibiului

Corneliu Bucur has been the manager of the ASTRA Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization since 1990. In 1965, he graduated the Babes Bolyai Faculty of History and Philosophy in Cluj. In 1981 he presented his doctoral thesis, with the following theme: "Introduction in the history of the technical civilization of the Romanian people." At present he is a professor and coordinates doctoral theses at the Lucian Blaga University in Sibiu. He holds leadership positions in various international ethnological organizations: The European Commission of Outdoor Museums, The World Folklore Organization, The Ethnological Commission of Vienna etc. You are the one who has revived the ASTRA Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization in Sibiu. What tradition and what models did you follow?The museum was founded in 1905, after Cornel Diaconovici's wonderful project. Back then it was called the ASTRAMuseum, or the Museum of the Association and it represented the ethnographic-historical museum of Romanians in Transylvania (at that time only a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). In 1950 the communists closed down the museum. It was one of the greatest cultural crimes in Europe, committed under Moscow's protection, and the actual intention was to abolish all institutions which helped conserve the cultural identity of every people behind the Iron Curtain. Thanks to Cornel Irimie, in 1956 some of the collections were recuperated which survived the 1950 disaster, when some 60,000 objects belonging to the ASTRA Museum were thrown out in the street, without any kind of coordination or supervision. It was also his merit of having rearranged a small folk art exhibition within Brukenthal Palace. In 1960, he also started this gigantic project, following a beautiful thematics, intended as a first specialized museum of the culture and technical civilization of the Romanian people. Subsequently, we developed the thematic project by orienting everything towards a Museum of Traditional Civilization, as it is called today. We believe that not only folk technique is connected to the entire phenomenological context of the village, but absolutely all the domains of traditional civilization, such as: architecture, folk art, transport, public utility institutions and so on and so forth.After the 1989 Revolution, our Museum had the initiative of keeping track of every folk craftsman, and at the moment we have around 500 in our digital archive. Then there followed a project which is highly appreciated abroad, praised by UNESCO and in Japan, still less appreciated in our country, a project of evaluation of the exceptional qualities of those artists who lived anonymously, until recently (one of the conditions of folk art is to remain anonymous!) and trying to offer them national recognition (doubled by a gesture of public homage). The idea of an Academy of traditional arts, which would perpetuate the values of the oral culture subsystem, came to life after the speeches held by Rebreanu and especially Blaga upon their reception in the Academy. Right now we have 216 members in the Academy in all of the seven sections: religious, literary, musical, ludic, artistic, graphic art and mechanics. We have wondered to whom the seventy-, eighty-, ninety-year-old and the centenarian masters of folk art would hand down their legacy, unless we have a selective and successful system to ensure the survival of the secrets of their craft. Then we launched a new project, which seemed very original at the time and which is so beneficial today, – a National Olympics under the aegis of the Ministry of Education and Research, which takes place in two phases, the district phase in the villages and the final phase in our Museum. The Olympics is always led by great masters of folk art, members of the Academy and great ethnologists and specialists in the field of folk culture. In the final phase of the Olympics we offer diplomas to national Olympics winners every year and they become national champions in their traditional craft in each genre. Nowadays we can say that Romania has created for itself a system to promote and transmit traditional artistic crafts and in this way ensured the endurance of every aspect connected to artisan traditions.It was only a step away from this to the UNESCO program of conservation of the world cultural heritage.We have discovered ourselves in the equation of our system which was rather difficult to digest for some and even inaccessible for others, in a parallel, as a consensual effort with what UNESCO started up in 1996, under the powerful influence of the Japanese. The Japanese themselves in 1986 developed a law to actively preserve the artisan masters of the nation, who were called "living human treasures." We found ourselves in the UNESCO program sent to the entire world, in 1989 and 1999, by two recommendations (now they are preparing the text of an international convention for protecting the world spiritual heritage), as an avant-garde of the world movements and the modern paradigms of UNESCO which says: "All you nations of the world, keep at any cost your identity at this moment of great danger that is globalization. Your identity represents the real living traditions of every community in every nation." Not very long ago, Ralf Pitman, a great New Zealand specialist who lives in Tokyo, spent a week in our museum as a UNESCO representative, exactly at the time when the Olympics took place. He was absolutely fascinated by what he had seen. He claimed that nowadays in the world there are three systems that have elaborated a certain conception, a philosophy and a mechanism for preserving traditions: the Japanese system, the South Korean and the Romanian one. This chance of being among the protagonists of the most modern movement in the world in the field of culture, related to the preservation of the spiritual heritage, gives us a lot of satisfaction. And all this because we were able to place our museum in the avant-garde of a movement, which wasn't even considered valid and accessible to museums before our initiative. When I spoke, at UNESCO, about this initiative, I only raised smiles. Two years ago, during the elaboration of the texts of the International Convention, UNESCO wasn't ready to consider museums compatible with the system. But the Romanian museum placed itself in the avant-garde of a movement and even as a promoter of universal ethno-museology which actually combines the two categories of the material and spiritual national heritage. Mirela Creţu is the head of the ASTRA Museum of Transylvanian Civilization department of the Museum of Traditional Folk Civilization in Sibiu. She graduated from the A. D. Xenopol Faculty of History of the Al. Ioan Cuza University in Iasi, the department of history and ethnology. At the moment she is a Ph.D. candidate at the Nicolae Lupu Faculty of History and Patrimony of the Lucian Blaga University in Sibiu. Since 1996 she has been a specialist in museography and since 1998 she has been working in Dumbrava Sibiului. What was the starting point of the Folk Traditions Festival and what makes it so special?The idea of organizing the National Festival of Folk Traditions, which has now reached its 4th edition and which already has an entire history, started after the experience Romania had in 1999 by participating in the Washington Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The ASTRA Museum was in April 1999 the host of the general rehearsal of the Romanian representation in Washington. It was an extraordinary moment, completely new for the ASTRA Museum. Not because we hadn't organized this kind of events – let us not forget that the Folk Craftsmen Fair in Romania is at its 21st edition -, but because everything was unprecedented: numerous craftsmen, folk singers and rhapsodists from various fields and also some new sections. I'm referring to the religious sections where church choristers, psalm readers or the priceasna1 singers were demonstrating the way they officiated back home. Besides the sermon delivered by the priest they brought a new type of song, a different way to express their faith and their hope. It was their countryside way of expressing themselves, from where they came. There was also the new section of culinary art, where master chefs (actually not real chefs, but simple country women, who were wedding "socacite," who used to prepare the food for funerals and who knew the secrets of kneading ritual dough) demonstrated in front of the visitors, who also had the possibility to taste this food. We also met representatives of folk literature – not necessarily folk poets, but those who kept a large repertory of anecdotes, ballads of outlawry, military songs, stories and legends from their villages.After we returned from Washington we organized exhibitions of the artisans who represented Romania. Almost a quarter of these artisans were already members of the Academy of Traditional Arts in Sibiu. If we had solved in this way the problem of knowing the craftsmen present at Washington, we couldn't promote the folklore and traditional choreographic art representatives to the people in Sibiu or to the public, and of course neither could we promote the culinary art masters. That's how the idea of organizing the festival was born.Many participants in the festival are only children, some of them barely over ten years old!Every year the participant groups have children as their members. They are brought here to see, understand and recognize the purpose of what's happening in a museum and what is their actual importance, as individuals who carry on the tradition. Children usually repeat the adults' gestures but it's more difficult for them to understand why the adults make those precise gestures. By seeing the real dimensions of a museum, what is going on and what the echo of their activity is, they will find the necessary strength to go on.Which are the counties that participate this year in the festival and which one have you noticed so far?Bacau participates from Moldavia, Hunedoara from Transylvania and Braila from Wallachia. From the Republic of Moldova, from Cantemir in the Buceag steppe, we have a group of children and five traditional artisans. It would be unfair of me if I'd have to name some representative figures, a district over another or a few artistic personalities. Still, I have to admit that some of the people present in Sibiu are well known to us, we have been working with them for a very long time. I'm talking about Mircea Lac and the school he has been running for almost 30 years at the former Pedagogic High School in Deva. What he is doing there is extraordinary: he is preparing the future teachers of traditional Hunedoara folk art. He teaches these children the processing of bone, the making of balti2 – which is no easy task -, the casting of tin, specific to the woodland area and the land of Zarand. When in turn they become teachers, it will be impossible not to share their knowledge to their pupils. Mircea Lac could have conducted this activity in a children's club, anywhere. But the class he's teaching carries on its activity in a normal school. Mihai Popa's class in Bacau represents a similar type of school; he came with seven of his handiest little artisans. He only teaches them how to work wood, specific to Romanian as well as Catholic communities. In the groups Mihai Popa presented to the Olympics of Traditional Craftsmanship in Sibiu, he had some Chango3 present. The way in which they ornate their objects is different from the Romanian one. The motifs, the shapes, the symbols are the same but they know how to arrange and structure them differently. Braila also has a wonderful artistic program. Besides the Romanian bands – they came from Gropeni with an ensemble whose dim beginnings are in the 1930's and which appears to have been initiated by Dimitrie Gusti and the teams he led in Gropeni – they brought an ensemble of Lippovan Russians. Braila is one of the main centers of spirituality of the Lippovan Russians, where people from Canada, the U.S., France come to get married in the old-rite Orthodox cathedral. Their repertory consists of Greek and Turkish popular songs. The traditional "blue-heart" folk music band, specific to the Braila ports, isn't missing.
 Cultura, no. 23, August 2004
1 A prayer sung in Orthodox churches while the priest receives the Eucharist 2 A specific type of girdle made out of tin tacks strung on three narrow leather bands, worn by women in the woodland area. They were initially used as fecundity symbols.3 The name given to a Romanian and Hungarian speaking population that migrated from Transylvania in the neighboring regions.

by Cătălin Sturza; Corneliu Bucur; Mirela Creţu