The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Celebrating World Cultures—and Our Own
From June 24 to July 5, the National Mall between the Smithsonian’s museums will be home to tents filled with music, crafts, exotic foods—and researchers. The annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival will feature the cultures of México, Asian Pacific Americans—and Smithsonian staff! Visitors will not only learn about the living cultural heritage of Mexicans and Americans of Asian Pacific descent, but also about the strange folks behind the exhibits and in the research labs of the Smithsonian.
The first Smithsonian Folklife Festival was held on July 1-4, 1967, and featured a wide array of performances from Cajun bands to Irish dances to a Chinese New Year’s Pantomime. Crafts included basket making, carvers, potters, silversmiths, and weavers. An immediate success, the festival was the idea of then-Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, who was dedicated to celebrating the diverse native and immigrant cultures of the United States.
The festival was organized by Ralph Rinzler, a musician who had directed field programs for the Newport Folk Festival. Over the years, the Festival has highlighted cultures from around the globe, including the Bahamas, Bhutan, Czechoslovakia, Oman, and Senegal. Many states and regions within the United States have also presented their distinctive cultures and occupations. Festivals also highlight occupations—from NASA engineers to long haul truckers to silk weavers. You can explore past festivals here.
While some of these cultures are unfamiliar to Festival-goers, the city and its inhabitants are equally strange to festival participants from remote villages of India or the Arctic who may not speak English or have ever been outside of their home region. Festival staff work to welcome the participants and make them feel at home during their stay—providing food, accommodations, and everyday supplies that they are used to.
Festivals have their challenges—the heat, summer storms, and the occasional tear gas. The 1970 Festival featured the American dairy industry. Protests in the nation’s capital during the festival led to the use of tear gas, which affected not only the protestors but also the cows—and they carried out their own protest by refusing to give milk for several days after. The largest Festival was held in 1976 to commemorate the Bicentennial of the American Revolution—it was located along the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool and lasted three months. Festival topics included Native Americans, Old Ways in the New World, the African Diaspora, Regional America, and Working Americans.
In 1996, to celebrate the Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary, the “work culture” of the Festival was Smithsonian staff, featuring astrophysicists, exhibits specialists, zoo craftsmen who build and maintain animal enclosures, security guards and their K-9 colleagues, curators, collections managers—the many strange and specialized jobs found across the Smithsonian. I helped organize that part of the Festival, bringing staff from Panama, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, and all the other places where Smithsonian staff work, to share their unusual jobs with the public.
This year Festival goers will again get to peek behind the Smithsonian’s doors, meet workers from across the Institution, and learn about the work that they do and why they do it. They’ll meet staff who study meteorites, work to preserve endangered species, document cultures from around the world, and explore the unique American experience. You can learn more about the Festival here.