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Friday
Mar272009

Smithsonian Folklife Festival - At least it's not about Lincoln

I know we're haven't even reached the Cherry Blossom Festival yet, but the Smithsonian recently announced the cultures that will be spotlighted in this year's Folklife Festival. So let's start the ball rolling on this one. After all, it's never too early to plan you summer vacation.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is an annual event held on the National Mall for two weeks every summer, sandwiched around the Fourth of July weekend. For those that haven't made it yet, I strongly recommend it. Every year, the Smithsonian picks a few cultures (generally three) and sets up exhibits celebrating them. They normally will include music and theater; concessions of that culture's food; demonstrations of arts, crafts, and cooking; storytelling; and so on. Except for the fact that it's a mile from the sun in mid-summer in DC, it's a great time and I look forward to it every year.

This year, the Smithsonian will feature the culture of Wales, Latin American Music, and African American oral traditions. I have to admit that I'm a bit underwhelmed by the choices this year, but I'll give it a shot. I may be scarred, as the first Folklife Festival I ever attended was the incredible Silk Road exhibition in 2002, which dealt with a series of exhibits on cultures from Venice to Japan. It was very clever, especially the way they tied in similarities in each culture linked by the common experience of being on the Silk Road. There was a unifying theme, and the Festival as a whole benefited from it.

Since then, it seems to have been simply a hodgepodge of groups thrown together. I guess this year's choice of the Welsh makes sense. Wouldn't want to leave them out. After all, in the last few years, they've exhibited Northern Ireland; Kent, England; and Scotland. Watch out, Isle of Mann, they're coming for you next! And I do enjoy Latin American music. I enjoyed it in 2006 as Nueva Musica: Latino Chicago. I enjoyed it in 2005 as Nueva Musica: Music in Latino Culture. I even enjoyed in 2004 as, well, the exact same thing. I know the Smithsonian is trying to push the Smithsonian Latino Museum, and that's great, but can we pick some element of Latino culture besides the music? The third, Giving Voice: The Power of Words in African American Culture, is as yet too ill defined for me to form much of an opinion. Clearly, the Smithsonian is trying to get the ball rolling on the new Museum of African American History and Culture. Fair enough, we'll see what the exhibit entails when it debuts.

I'm still a fan of the Folklife Festival, and will no doubt visit it several times this year, but I get the sense the Smithsonian isn't even trying anymore. What happened, folks? Did Silk Road take too much out of you? Let's maybe think about next year have more of a unifying theme than "Three groups who have been dumped upon by history."

Reader Comments (2)

My memory is rusty, but I think the Folklike Festival has been more random than unified over the years. (I first went in the the early to mid '90s.) I do think there's been a shift, though, from focusing on places to focusing on "cultures," which makes some sense as the festival is about folklife. But at the same time, it leads to a bit of nebulousness.

April 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

No, you're right. It's natural state is randomness, not coherent narrative. The Silk Road, was the aberration, not the other way around.

April 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTim Krepp

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