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Get To Know Washington's Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Story by: Taashi Rowe
This Year's Theme: The Silk Road

The program highlights how the "East" and the "West" were brought closer together through a creative commercial and cultural exchange that still enriches our lives today.

Festival Hours

11:00 am - 5:30 pm
Dance Parties: 5:30 pm - 9:30 pm

Festival Location

National Mall between 7th-14thStreets Near Smithsonian Museums

Festival Cost

FREE - There is no charge for admission

Festival Parking

Limited - Side Streets and $10-$20 Day Pay Lots

Metrorail Finder

National Mall
Smithsonian Station
(Blue & Orange Lines)

L' Enfant Plaza Station
(Blue, Green, Orange & Yellow Lines)

Federal Triangle Station
(Blue & Orange Lines)

Current Weather

Click for Washington, District of Columbia Forecast

Weather Forecast
Usually hot and humid. Wear light clothes, use 40 spf sunscreen, and drink plenty of fluids

Food and Drink

Available for purchase at concessions on-site.
Water fountains throughout Mall.

Souvenirs

Available at the Festival Marketplace

Contact Information

Daily Event Recording: 202.663-9884
Voice: 202.357-2700
TTY: 202.357-1729

(Official) Smithsonian Folklife Festival Web Site

Grassroots of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Smithsonian Folklife Festival Image of textile craftwork Every summer since 1967 the National Mall becomes possessed by Folklife fever as thousands of people throng the nation's front lawn for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

The Festival, which normally starts at the end of June and goes on for about 10 days, unlocks a hidden passageway that transports visitors into smaller versions of communities that sustain Folklife as designed by the Smithsonian. The minute one walks out of the Smithsonian Metrorail station on to the National Mall it is hard not to stand back and be impressed by the sights and sounds that differ from year to year. Communities represented have been from Mexico, India, the Bahamas, Kentucky or New Hampshire to name a few.

The Folklife Festival is often described as a living breathing, walking and talking museum. Through this live museum people share community-specific traditions passed down for generations. Traditions people still live out daily. Festival visitors get a unique opportunity to view a variety of cultures in replica of the world the presenters come from. At times visitors also get to savor the entire sensory range of a culture by listening, touching, seeing, feeling, smelling, and tasting samples of vibrant environments that may be vastly different from their own.

When people hear the term "Folklife" all sorts of visions start dancing in their heads. They may think, primitive cultures, or traditions brought over from the "old country" or even the guitar inspired hippie lifestyle from the Bob Dylan era. But New York City as a hotbed of Folklife activity is most certainly not the first example of Folklife most people think of.

Nancy Groce, curator of the New York City program 2001, tried to clear up those misconceptions about Folklife. "Folklife puts emphasis on traditional cultures, it gives a unique sense of place. Sometimes it may be ancient …Folklife can be found in a third world country or a first world city like New York," said Groce. Groce also stated, "The festival attempts to highlight the cultural aspects of a different state or region, a country and one other arena each year."

The festival themes are born from years of research and other scholarly work. However, what makes the traditions shared with thousands, truly authentic is that the participants in the Festival are not actors of any kind and many are not academic scholars. They present these traditions only as they have lived them.

Life-sized objects of the different cultures have been set up on the Mall such as " a horse race course form the Capitol to the Washington Monument, a Tennessee moonshine still in sight of the Justice Department… and a buffalo birth on the Mall." These according to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival Culture Of, By, and For the People written by Richard Kurin director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

Groce said that each year federal or state governments for different nations, states or regions often ask to join or are included in the Festival because there have been some interesting fieldwork on those cultures. And according to the Folklife Center's web site:

"The Festival has strong impacts on policies, scholarship, and folks "back home." Many states and several nations have remounted Festival programs locally and used them to generate laws, institutions, educational programs, books, documentary films, recordings, museum and traveling exhibits. In many cases, the Festival has energized local and regional tradition bearers and their communities, and thus helped to conserve and create cultural resources."
Smithsonian Folklife Festival Image of textile craftwork In Kurin's book he said that the festival is done each year 'for the people to be heard, so that people may be encouraged, so that we learn and so that we celebrate cultural democracy.'

The Festival came about because as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1966, S. Dillon Ripply wanted to bring more excitement to the Mall and simultaneously to the Smithsonian, said Kurin, via telephone. He thought the ideal attraction would be music, Kurin said, because Ripply grew up in New England where summertime meant band music. Ralph Rinzler, former civil rights activist, who was familiar with music ranging from Cajun, to Blues and Appalachian was hired to help plan the first Festival. Rinzler became an integral part of the Festival up until his death in 1994. Kurin said the Mall was not always a popular meeting place, and Rinzler had been inspired by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's March on Washington, to make use of it. "Rinzler saw that frequent use of the Mall signaled active participation in cultural and public life. Museums were narrow in terms of what they represented and were thought of as dusty and [restrictive,]" said Kurin, "The question then became, 'Why not show culture as alive in people's lives and communities? "

From then to now, over its 35-year history, said Kurin's book, the festival has drawn over 32 million people. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is an exciting opportunity to stand in wonder, touched by the lives, legends, and lessons of our world's many cultures.


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