Smithsonian Perspectives

In the Smithsonian's long history of studying cultures, we've learned to help people represent themselves

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The study of human cultures was one of the scholarly foundations Joseph Henry, the first Secretary, planned for the Smithsonian 150 years ago. The very first publication in the Smithsonian's Contributions to Knowledge series, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley (1848) by Ephraim Squier and E. H. Davis, explored the remains of prehistoric burial mounds and the peopling of North America. Another early volume, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family by Lewis Henry Morgan, was a seminal work that helped define the field of anthropology. It was, however, Civil War hero John Wesley Powell, explorer of the Grand Canyon and director of the U.S. Geological Survey, who dominated 19th-century ethnological studies. He was the founding director of the Smithsonian's Bureau of American Ethnology, which was devoted to documenting the cultures of American Indians, whose lives were radically changed through U.S. expansion westward across the continent. The Bureau, and later the Department of Anthropology, collected human remains, artifacts, artworks, documentary photographs, and other materials that helped represent people and their ways of life in museum exhibitions.

Toward the turn of the century, an eclectic group of Smithsonian naturalists, anthropologists and artists became interested in representing people and cultures through living displays and public programs. Working with Harvard's Frederick Putnam and his assistant Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology, the Smithsonian helped develop ethnological displays for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Groups of musicians and dancers, priests and camel drivers, and purveyors of traditional arts and industries demonstrated their cultural practices to millions of Exposition visitors. An important milestone in late 19th-century America, the Exposition introduced mass audiences to the Ferris wheel, popular foods, Mayan architecture, and cultural, naturalistic and industrial displays of exceptionally high quality. Organizers thought of the fair as an "illustrated encyclopedia of mankind." Less inspiring were the ways in which people and their cultures were depicted at the Exposition. In retrospect, the framework for the living exhibitions was an oversimplified evolutionary one. It categorized cultures in racial terms, separating the so-called primitive from the civilized, and drew unwarranted conclusions about moral and material progress and superiority. People were spoken about and displayed as if they were specimens of a type without a voice of their own.

We have come a long way in our human studies. We have learned that the human subjects have a contribution to make based on their own knowledge and insights. Ethnologists in our Department of Anthropology have, over the past generation, encouraged studies of "folk knowledge," ethnoscience and indigenous systems of classification, and cultural and artistic expression. Nowhere at the Smithsonian is this so dramatic as at our annual Festival of American Folklife on the National Mall. Initiated in 1967, the Festival has blossomed as a stimulus for research, and the production of documentary films, recordings, educational materials and training programs. The Festival has provided a model for other types of cultural work around the nation and around the world.

The Festival's basic aim is to foster the engagement between people and the scholars who seek to represent them, and between those displaying their cultural traditions and an appreciative, learning audience. A far cry from the Columbian Exposition, those represented at the Festival work with Smithsonian staff to research and develop their own presentations. They speak for themselves, confront our scholars, and even occasionally challenge the public. Consider this year's Festival program "Iowa--Community Style," where some 60 individuals, including professors and meat packers, and numerous organizations conducted research on scores of grass-roots traditions across their state. Ideas were developed on how to present Iowa's cultural life at this Festival (June 26-30 and July 3-7). Iowans will take their presentation home to celebrate their sesquicentennial of statehood.

Similarly, "The American South," another program on the Mall for the Festival, will be remounted in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park as "Southern Crossroads," part of the Olympic Arts Festival during this summer's Games. Some 250,000 visitors a day, and many more through electronic coverage, will learn how distinctive forms of expression such as blues, gospel, jazz and rock'n'roll became an American and, indeed, a worldwide phenomenon. Over the past generation, the gap between the cultures that are represented and the curators of culture has narrowed. Recent Festivals have featured the customs, tales and worklore of White House staffers, city taxicab drivers and even trial lawyers. This year, on the occasion of our own 150th anniversary, the Festival presents "Working at the Smithsonian." In taped interviews conducted across the Institution, some 300 researchers, curators, conservators, docents, educators, plumbers and horticulturalists will share their occupational culture with visitors.

Powell and other early figures would be bemused that their ethnological studies had led to documenting and sharing with visitors the tales of museum security officers, the artistry of scientific illustrators, the acumen of fund-raisers, the skills of exhibit makers.

Neither amusement nor menagerie, the Festival's goal of cultural education and inspiration will certainly be apparent in this 150th anniversary edition.

By I. Michael Heyman

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About I. Michael Heyman
I. Michael Heyman

I. Michael Heyman served as the secretary of the Smithonian Institution from 1994 to 1999.

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