Systematic research and collecting of folklife and folk art materials at Michigan State began in the 1940s under Dr. Richard Dorson, a history professor. In 1975, a statewide survey of folk arts by two guest curators at the MSU Museum eventually led to a sustained cluster of research, education, exhibition, collection development, and outreach and engagement activities based at the museum and centered on traditional culture, particularly that of Michigan and the Great Lakes region.
The museum now serves as a major state repository for a variety of traditional culture collections generated by museum faculty and staff, MSU faculty and students, and other researchers.
Several partnerships with other organizations have anchored this cluster of activities:
In 1977, the Michigan State University Museum joined with MSU Extension and 4-H Youth Development to create FOLKPATTERNS. This is a statewide cultural heritage education program for youth.
In 1987, a Michigan Traditional Arts Program partnership was established with Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. This partnership program enabled the MSU Museum to strengthen traditional arts research and education as well as to engage in cultural policy and planning.
Partnerships with Michigan Festival Inc. and with the City of East Lansing to produce folklife-based festival programs have provided a structure for an ongoing program of research, documentation, collection, interpretation, and both public and scholarly presentation of traditional culture.
In the late 1990s, partnerships formed with MATRIX: Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online have resulted in international and national leadership projects that incorporate new technologies in research on, presentation of, and management of data on traditional culture.