Arts Desk

Does the Smithsonian Folklife Festival Have Too Many Government Exhibits?

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival has been a fixture on Washington’s summer calendar for more than 40 years, and is arguably the most ambitious use of the National Mall each summer. For two weeks every year the Smithsonian brings in musicians, artists, storytellers, and craftsmen from around the world to put on a living exhibition. The festival is traditionally centered around three geographic regions or themes that present some aspect of folk culture. But one thing’s been clear in recent years at the festival, whose latest iteration wrapped up on Monday: that its curators seem to be stretching the already slippery definition of folk culture.

Three of the last four festivals have included an exhibit on some aspect of the U.S. government. In 2008, one of the three themes centered on NASA. Maybe for all the excitement of seeing astronauts and pieces of moon rock up close, no one really bothered to complain that NASA isn't really a folk culture—at least in the sense that Bhutan or the state of Texas (the other exhibits that year) are.

Last year, one of the festival’s exhibits was the Smithsonian itself—as if visitors couldn’t learn all they needed to know about the Smithsonian by reading the back of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival pamphlet, or walking 50 meters in any direction to the nearest museum.

This year, the Peace Corps exhibit was a slight improvement. Tucked behind the main stages were a series of exhibit booths examining how Peace Corps volunteers and locals have somehow improved various nations’ quality of life. One volunteer found a way to build schools in Guatemala out of recycled soda bottles, while another volunteer from El Salvador showed off a self-sustainable outdoor oven. Not everything worked: In one tent, Peace Corps veterans could write messages to the countries where they were stationed. Another tent hosted class reunions of former volunteers—more of a private function than anything appealing to the general public.

The exhibit had another problem: It felt like a recruiting fair. And that’s sort of what it was, the corps’ director Aaron Williams told the Associated Press.

The Peace Corps kicked in $895,000 of the festival's $5 million budget, about half of which is provided by the Smithsonian itself, The Washington Post recently reported. Colombia's tourism and culture ministry also contributed a big chunk to the Colombian exhibits. Approximately 30 percent of the festival's budget comes from licensing, revenue, and donations. But Folklife spokeswoman Becky Haberacker says funding has been "more of a challenge," meaning exhibits increasingly have to come with willing sponsors.

But does it matter? Asked whether these exhibits stretch the definition of folk culture, Haberacker says, “I don’t think that there is only one type of folk culture necessarily. As you grow as an organization over a period of time, you do things in a shared way and provide a sense of culture." Of the Peace Corps exhibit, she says, “The program is looking at it as a cultural exchange between the people who went to the countries, the cultures from the countries they went to, and the stories they have to tell about it.”

Certainly, organizations like NASA contain their own cultures, and the Peace Corps touches on many others, but the exhibit mostly suffered from feeling haphazard. While the Colombian and Rhythm & Blues exhibits were strong and engaging, a Ukrainian dance troupe performing as part of the Peace Corps display probably would’ve been a better fit for, well, a Folklife Festival spotlight on the Ukraine.

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