The Polka Music/Polka Culture Exhibit Collection

URLs to browse or search the collections

The Polka Music/Polka Culture Exhibit Collection consists of the 41 contemporary and historic images and selected caption information from the “Polka Music/Polka Culture” photo-text exhibit that toured Wisconsin in 1991. The collection represents the history and significance of polka music chiefly in Wisconsin, but with reference to the greater Upper Midwest region. While honoring the diversity of ethnic heritages that have informed the music and dance and contributed to distinctive ethnic polka music styles, the selections also emphasize continuities and synthesis across cultural groups and the emergent “polka culture.” The images were organized into twelve panels in the original exhibit according to topics that include: “Polka Music, Polka Culture,” “From Old World to New World,” “Step to the Music” (dance forms), “House Parties, Weddings, Halls,” “Family Bands,” “Communities,” “Polka Radio,” “Ballrooms and Festivals,” “Records, Songbooks, Sheet Music,” “Polka People,” “Polkas and Public Images,” and “On Preservation.”

The “Polka Music/Polka Culture” exhibit was the first traveling photo-text exhibit organized and circulated by the former Wisconsin Folk Museum of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. It built on over a decade of collaborative and mutually informing public folk arts documentary projects from the late 1970s into the early 1990s that focused on Wisconsin’s and the Upper Midwest’s ethnic and Old Time musical traditions. Chief among the contributing projects and documentary collections were Northland College’s “Ethnic Music in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan” project and Accordions in the Cutover LP; Wisconsin Folk Museum’s “German-American Music” project and Ach Ya! LP/CD and slide-tape program , and “Wisconsin Swiss Traditional Music” project and Swissconsin cassette/CD; Chippewa Valley Museum’s “From Hand to Hand: Folk Art of the Chippewa Valley” exhibit project; Cedarburg Cultural Center’s “In Tune With Tradition: Wisconsin Folk Musical Instruments” exhibit project; the “Down Home Dairyland” radio program, book, and cassette/CD set produced in concert with Wisconsin Public Radio and University of Wisconsin Mills Music Library; traditional music research for the Michigan Traditional Arts Program, Michigan State University Museum; Minnesota State Arts Board and Minnesota Historical Society’s “Minnesota Polka” project and Minnesota Polka LP/cassette; and the Smithsonian Institution’s 1991 Festival of American Folklife “Family Farming in the Heartland” program.

James P. Leary, folklorist and researcher, and Lewis Koch, photographer, organized and curated the “Polka Music/Polka Culture” exhibit project with funds chiefly from the Wisconsin Humanities Council. Folklorist Richard March assisted as an outside consultant, while Wisconsin Folk Museum director Phil Martin and outreach coordinator Jean Johnson helped with grant administration, publicity, and the exhibit that featured artifacts.

Leary and Koch toured the exhibit to eleven events at ten sites in Wisconsin, including six polka festivals, a concertina players’ meeting place, one ethnic festival, two community festivals, and a university library: Wisconsin Polka Boosters Festival in Concord, Ellsworth Polka Festival, Red Barn Polka Fest in Evansville, Haugen Days, Art Altenburg’s Concertina Bar in Milwaukee, Mount Horeb’s Fall Fest, Phillips Czechoslovakian Days, Willard Polka Festival, Wisconsin Dells Polka Fest (twice), and University of Wisconsin-Madison Mills Music Library. In response to audience interest, Leary prepared a brief essay entitled “Polka Music, Ethnic Music, A Report on Wisconsin’s Polka Traditions” to hand out at the tour sites. A revised version is published in Leary’s Wisconsin Folklore (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). The exhibit was installed at the Wisconsin Folk Museum during the 1992 season with the addition of artifact displays from personal and the Museum’s collections. Some of these artifacts now reside among the Wisconsin Folk Museum collections at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Folklore Village and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Folklore Program continued to use the exhibit over the years for educational and classroom use.

The small selection of project photographs presented in digital form here will link to a digital version of the original exhibit accessible through the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures website. For more details about several of the contributing projects, productions, staff, inventoried collections, and recommended credit format, please see selected listings in “Public Folk Arts and Folklife Projects of the Upper Midwest,” in Archival Resources in Wisconsin: Descriptive Finding Aids: or Collection descriptions may also be found in the American Folklore Society’s National Folklore Archives Initiative “Folklore Collections Database.” Support for the preparation of digital recreations of the exhibit materials and online exhibit came from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, and University of Wisconsin Digital Collections. Julia Wong prepared the metadata. Janet C. Gilmore served as editor-in-chief and marshalled CSUMC digitization and virtual exhibit construction. James P. Leary provided additional editing and Ruth E. Olson additional project coordination. UWDC staff Melissa McLimans and Catherine Phan served as guides to this repository’s fruition.