A Historian’s Guide to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

For longtime Washingtonians, the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival is a beloved tradition, one that demonstrates what’s best about our public support of the cultural arts, history, and education while also providing arguably the best time to be had all summer. Begun in 1967, the international festival spotlights three areas of living cultural heritage, and for the two weeks that overlap the July 4 holiday, thousands of tourists and locals descend on the Mall to experience extreme cultural immersion through food and drink, performance, demonstrations, crafts, storytelling, and related arts.

There is much here for historians to engage with. This year the themes are Hungarian Heritage, the Will to Adorn, and Endangered Languages, and the Smithsonian’s festival website  has plenty of helpful content for both the uninitiated and experienced visitor, including a blog for each thematic area, video content about the themes, related radio and music guides, interactive maps, and a full schedule that’s searchable by day and theme. There’s even an app with all kinds of interactive and social media functions to enhance your experience at the festival. Even so, the festival can be overwhelming to navigate, so we thought we’d offer a guide for historians (and anyone else) who might want to take part in this terrific event.

Hungarian Heritage: Roots to Revival. This program focuses not only on the cultural traditions of Hungary, but also the recent folk revival that has fostered a reinvigoration of traditions in the Hungarian diaspora. Includes dance, craft, and foodways from four regions, Szék, Kalotaszeg, Sárköz, and Kalocsa, which “all maintain distinctive folk arts, forms of dress, music and dance, speech, and religious practices.”

Don’t Miss: The Dance Barn has multi-level instruction demos and sing-a-longs; the Danubia Stage features performances of dance, music, and fashion including “Traditional Jewish Tunes” and “Students from the Lizst Music Academy”; Heritage House offers diverse programs and demos on topics from “Family Traditions” to “Language, Identity, and Culture”; the Hungarian Kitchen has food and drink.

Photo Credit: Jeff Tinsley, Smithsonian Institution

Photo Credit:  Jeff Tinsley, Smithsonian Institution

 

One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage. This area focuses on the idea of language as a generator and preserver of cultural heritage. Emphasizing language as a “way of knowing,” attendees will be able to “talk with Kalmyk epic singers and Tuvan stone carvers from Russia, Koro rice farmers from India, Passamaquoddy basketmakers from Maine, Kallawaya medicinal healers and textile artists from Bolivia, Garifuna drummers and dancers from Los Angeles and New York, and many others.”

Don’t Miss: The Talk Story area has programs such as “Language and Knowledge,” “Language Stories,” and “Adaptation and Change”; Song and Story Circle highlights language forms such as poetry, dance, and song; Voices of the World has demonstrations and performances of and by speakers of dozens of endangered languages and cultures; Spend some time with the media-rich storymap of endangered languages.

The Will to Adorn: African American Diversity, Style, and Identity. This program spotlights how clothing and adornment are one aspect of African American identity. The program includes workshops, hands-on/try-on sessions, and performances. Look for “milliners, hairdressers, jewelers, tailors, and ceremonial regalia makers … and exemplars of style such as musicians, dancers, activists, poets, athletes, and others.”

Don’t Miss: “Fashion as a Political Statement”; “Hair, Health, Identity”; and “Clothing as Communication.”

For those of you who must work during the day, there are multiple special events and performances each night beginning at 6 p.m.

Lastly, a few general tips, for those new to the folklife festivals:

Go Prepared to Eat. There is literally food everywhere, from demonstrations to food stands to talks about the cultural origins of food (with samples). Noshing your way through the festival is a low-bar way to have your culture and eat it too.

Get a Little Lost. Wandering aimlessly around and stumbling onto some surprising, great little booth is one of the great ways to take in the Folklife Festival. But if you find yourself passing by the same booth over and over and wondering how many Hungarian mézeskalács makers there can possibly be, you can probably call it a day.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is held on the Mall from from June 26–30 and July 3–7, 2013.

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