On the Road

For ten days this summer, the great geographical and cultural distance that lies between the heart of Europe and the far reaches of Asia will be reduced to the length of a leisurely afternoon stroll along the National Mall. For the first time in its 36-year history, the Smithsonian’s annual outdoor Folklife Festival will have a single—and remarkably ambitious—theme: the Silk Road (see China, forked north and south of the Taklamakan Desert, and traversed a vast stretch of central and western Asia on its way to the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Along those staggering distances lay a wealth of cultures and traditions. They exist there still; during the Folklife Festival, June 26-30 and July 3-7, 2002, they’ll come to life in the heart of Washington as well.

Merchants took to the Silk Road for commercial gain. But their movement also brought another, more serendipitous cargo: the ingenious, idiosyncratic emblems of peoples—their science, technology, religions, customs, crafts, music, food, architecture, fashions—made the journey, too, and the dazzling variety of the world that commerce opened was diffused, appropriated and adapted.

That’s the tale to be told in this year’s Folklife Festival, "The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust." Produced in association with the Silk Road Project, an organization founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and supported in large part by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the festival features exhibits designed by Rajeev Sethi. These will invoke the Silk Road’s cultural breadth on the National Mall, with representations of the Great Gate in Nara, Japan, at the eastern end, toward the Capitol, and St. Mark’s Plaza in Venice at the western end, in the shadow of the WashingtonMonument. Between the two—Italy and Japan, that is—in an epic-scale display down the broad central swath of the Mall, visitors will wander through Istanbul, Samarkand and Xi’an. On the way, they’ll move among hundreds of musicians and artists from the nations of the Silk Road, working side by side with Americans who trace their origins to the region or have been influenced by its traditions.

The Smithsonian Institution has always been a monument to Americans’ understanding of the world, the physical and the human both, and never is its mission better realized than when a display or program or publication prompts someone to say, "So that’s why!" (Or "when," "where," "who" or "how.") Since 1967 the Folklife Festival has been an annual occasion for exclamations of that kind. It entertains by celebrating cultural traditions against a scrupulous investigation of their historical sources. It’s a party that scholarship gives.

Visitors who journey across the festival’s site will be able to measure the distance in city blocks, but by immersing themselves in its energy and larger purpose, they can traverse continents and centuries. An especially valuable aspect of the event will be its focus on central Asia, a region to which many Americans were all too indifferent before the events of the past year. We now know the names of the nations in that remote part of the world and recognize their borders and disposition on an atlas page. The festival will give the nations and their traditions a human face.

Travelers along Washington’s Silk Road will meet with an array of individuals who, through their demonstrations of skill—in music, dance, papermaking, martial arts, storytelling, carpet weaving, cooking and more—do not merely affirm cultural traditions. They embody them. This Folklife Festival, like every other, celebrates humanity. On a great green stretch of this nation’s capital, people from many different societies will be brought face-to-face. And those transient chance encounters may affect the way they think about the world.

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