Folk Studies MA Student Interning with the Smithsonian
- Thursday, October 8th, 2020
This fall, graduate student Taylor Burden is interning with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Usually the internship would be completed in Washington, D.C. where the center is located, but due to COVID-19 she is completing her internship online under the supervision of Betty Belanus, Education Specialist and Curator.
Burden shares, “I’m working with Betty on the project ‘American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots’ as part of ‘Earth Optimism,’ a year-long, Smithsonian-wide initiative highlighting improvements in environmental conservation. The stories collected for the project will become part of a website aimed at presenting “voices of American ginseng” through text, audio, photo, and video.
Ginseng is a valuable forest botanical that has been gathered wild for hundreds of years. The medicinal plant grows wild in the deciduous forests of the Appalachian Mountains and eastern United States, but is now also grown on farmland in the Midwest, primarily to sell to China where the man-shaped root is believed to have supernatural properties. Today, American ginseng faces many threats, from suburban sprawl to illegal eBay sales. Despite these issues, ginseng connects individuals, through both trade and folklore.
Burden goes on to share, “The Bowling Green area, Mammoth Cave specifically, is a hotbed for wild ginseng. Due to COVID, Smithsonian employees aren’t allowed to travel for fieldwork, but since I am in the area, I am able to interview diggers, growers, and dealers to help create profiles for the project. Last week, I interviewed Larry Johnson, a Mammoth Cave Natural and Cultural Resource Management Specialist, who specializes in rare plants such as ginseng. I’ve gotten to work with a lot of really fascinating individuals virtually, via phone and e-mail, but the fieldwork is my favorite part.”
Despite the virtual nature of the internship, Burden is able to stay abreast of the goings on at the Smithsonian CFCH through bi-weekly staff meetings and “check-ins” with supervisor Betty, coordinator Arlene Reiniger, and the rest of the interns working on the project.
As the semester continues, Burden looks forward to interviewing more individuals in the hopes of creating profiles, in addition to establishing connections between historical western Kentucky ginseng figures through archived documents.