Smithsonian Folklife Festival: Culture Of, By, and For the People

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  • This book, written by the Smithsonian Institution's Director of the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies, provides an in-depth look at the history, purpose and programs of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Produced by the Smithsonian Institution, in cooperation with the National Park Service, the Festival is an exhibition of living cultural heritage from across the United States and around the world. Held annually on the National Mall in Washington D.C. for two weeks around the Fourth of July, the Festival is free to the public.
  • The book contains numerous photographs of the Festival's participants and audience over the years, and is divided into seven chapters, plus an Appendices section. The first chapter, "The Smithsonian Folklife Festival," generally outlines the origins and content of the Festival, which began in 1967, and comments that the most distinctive feature of the event is its effort to highlight the voices and activities of Festival participants as they demonstrate, discuss and present their cultures and traditions.
  • The second chapter, "The National Mall of the United States," is devoted to telling the story of the history of the Mall where the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is held each year. Originally proposed by Pierre L'Enfant in 1791 as a public walk, the area experienced many different uses until 1902, when the U. S. Senate Park Commission Plan, informally called the McMillan Plan after its chairman, built upon L'Enfant's vision and began development of the Mall as it exists today.
  • Chapter 3, "The Festival and the National Museum," discusses how various individuals have defined the Festival. These views range from it being a living outdoor museum to a participatory people-to-people celebration in which all individuals, attendees and participants, interact with one another. The fourth chapter, "Why We Do the Festival," offers many reasons it is held, such as to give voice and learn from the living traditions of others, and to celebrate our common, though multicultural, humanity. The author also notes various comments made by Festival critics over the years, such as the belief of some that certain activities are demeaning to Festival participants.
  • Chapter 5, "Producing the Festival," opens with the statement, "In Smithsonian terms, the Festival is a museum, and its programs are akin to exhibitions." The Festival, like the museums, has a director, Diana Parker, who is its only year-round full-time employee, and the programs have curators. The author states that creating a Festival consists of two principal phases, research and production, and then details the myriad of processes involved in bringing each Festival to life, including research, planning, designing, curating, building, and funding.
  • "A Festival History" is the title of Chapter 6, the longest in the book. The Smithsonian had been involved in various efforts over its history to record or preserve disappearing cultures, but the Folklife Festival was to offer a particular way of presenting cultural life. When S. Dillon Ripley became Smithsonian Secretary in 1964, he brought with him a number of innovative ideas to broaden the Institution's study of human cultures. Ripley also wanted to enliven the Smithsonian for the public and envisioned live performances on the Mall as a way of accomplishing his goal.
  • In 1966, Ripley hired James Morris to develop a full program of performances on the Mall; Morris hired Ralph Rinzler, the Newport Folk Festival's director of field programs, to develop the program for a Smithsonian festival. The first Smithsonian Folklife Festival was held on July 1-4, 1967, and had two tents --- one for crafts and one for sales --- a music stage and a performance area on the terrace of the Museum of History and Technology. It was widely hailed as a great success.
  • The Folklife Festival has evolved and expanded over the years. Early Festivals included programs focused on America's regional cultures, Native American cultures and occupations of working Americans; in 1978, the Festival began a program to feature the cultures and people from around the world, and thematic programs were later incorporated into Festival plans. There have been some internal disagreements among key staff which complicated the process at times, but the Festival has continued to thrive.
  • Chapter 7, "The Festival Never Ends," is a fitting title to the book's conclusion, as the author provides examples of Festival participants returning home to develop ongoing programs for presentation and conservation of local cultures, and writes of other individuals whose lives were forever changed after participation in a Folklife Festival.


  • Heyman, Ira Michael 5/30/1930-11/19/2011
  • Rinzler, Ralph
  • Ripley, Sidney Dillon 1913-2001
  • Morris, James R
  • Parker, Diana
  • Park Improvement Commission of the District of Columbia
  • Festival of American Folklife
  • Smithsonian Folklife Festival


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Foward authored by Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Education
  • Secretaries
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Personnel management
  • Employees
  • Public programs
  • Museums
  • Cultural policy
  • Parks
  • Public folklore
  • Smithsonian Institution--Employees
  • Museums--Educational aspects


  • United States
  • Mall, The (Washington, D.C.)
  • Washington (D.C.)

Physical description

Number of pages : 176;

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