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Smithsonian Perspectives

The Festival of American Folklife is a popular model for presenting grass-roots culture to the public

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Every summer, a new museum with neither roof nor walls arises on the National Mall. Its collection — of people, performances, lectures, processions, signs and foods — offers a somewhat incongruous presence on the nation's front lawn, flanked as it is by the monuments, federal buildings and national museums. But the Festival of American Folklife, now in its 29th year, has become a mainstay of the Smithsonian, an immensely popular living exhibition of our American and worldwide cultural heritage. The Festival, which has been called "a living museum," "a national treasure," "a service at the Church of the Great American Idea," is an outdoor extension of the Smithsonian, with the same mission but a somewhat different approach from most museums.

The Festival's approach is to help people represent themselves, to be broadly inclusive, and to present grass-roots cultural traditions in an engaging, educational way. The Festival assumes that people who create much of the art, artifacts and technology housed in our museums are themselves national treasures. Our researchers work with represented communities to develop accurate and insightful public presentations that usually include explanatory signs, printed program books, introductory scholarly presentations, musical performances, craft and cooking demonstrations, celebratory reenactments, and narrative discussions. Overall, the tone is conversational, the spirit free, the event participatory. Located on the Mall, the Festival has no walls of exclusion. The list of states, nations, occupations, communities and themes represented is encyclopedic.

The Festival has illustrated the cultural richness and diversity of our nation and the world. It has also demonstrated how differences can be appreciated and serve as a source of strength and creativity. If only for a few days, the Festival provides an excellent venue for bringing people together — no mean feat in these troubled times. Understandably, it served as a centerpiece of the American Bicentennial celebration in 1976, and more recently as a model for such large-scale public events as the Black Family Reunion, the L.A. Festival, Presidential Inaugural festivals and Olympic Arts festivals.

The Festival extends beyond the Mall with the production of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, traveling exhibits, books, films and educational programs. Some productions have won Academy Awards, Emmys or Grammys. Festival exhibitors such as Michigan, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Oklahoma, New Mexico, the Virgin Islands and many nations have restaged their individual programs back home, sometimes using them to establish ongoing cultural heritage projects. White House Workers — a 1992 Festival program on the work lore of White House butlers, doormen, seamstresses and others — illustrates this fruitfulness. The program was filmed and edited into a recently aired television documentary. It was also developed into an exhibit now traveling to Presidential libraries across the nation; a second version was mounted for local schools and served as a basis for educational programs (one hosted by the First Lady). The exhibit will eventually reside in the new White House Visitors Center. The program also led to a "Blacks in the White House" issue of American Visions magazine last February.

This year's Festival runs from June 23 through June 27 and June 30 through July 4, and features American Indian women's traditions, the heritage of the Czech Republic and Czech-Americans, music of Russian-American immigrants, and the cultural life of the Cape Verdean community. This latter program well illustrates the Festival process. Cape Verde, an island chain located off the west coast of Africa, is an independent republic and former Portuguese colony. Cape Verdean-Americans, numbering about 400,000, most of them born and raised here, began immigrating to New England in the 18th century, and later played instrumental roles in the whaling and cranberry industries. Cape Verdeans have an important story to tell about their role in American life, their immigrant and continuing transnational cultural experience, their multiracial heritage and their enduring sense of community.

We thank those Cape Verdean-Americans who provided the impetus for the Festival program, carried out most of the research in concert with Smithsonian scholars, led the effort to raise funds from foundations, corporations and individuals through benefit dances, auctions and other community events, and joined with the Smithsonian to tell their story to the American public through the national museums.

The Festival can never offer up more than a sample of the rich and complex cultures it seeks to portray. Yet by engaging people in that presentation, those represented as well as visitors, the Festival can enhance the public's understanding of its fellow citizens and neighbors, and help communicate our legacy to future generations. As we look toward 1996, with Festival programs on the American South, on Iowa (for its 150th anniversary) and on the Smithsonian Institution itself (for our 150th), we trust this spirit of cultural dialogue and collaboration will continue to flourish.

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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