- Introduction:Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
This special issue brings perspectives from a variety of academic disciplines—cultural studies, literary theory, museum studies, Asian studies, performance theory—to bear on the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (SFF) around the general theme of folklife and nationalism. America's largest public venue for folklorists and folklife, the SFF is a powerful force in shaping public perceptions about folk culture in America and around the world. Although interdisciplinary views on an institutionalized national spectacle might seem at first an odd fit for JAF, we believe that the SFF, the nation's folklife showcase and the brainchild of professional folklorists and culture brokers, merits serious critical attention as a cultural laboratory, a touristic phenomenon, and de facto cultural policy.
The SFF (called the Festival of American Folklife until 1998) is staged annually in America's most public physical site—the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) in conjunction with the National Park Service. Each summer, the SFF presents folklife to throngs of domestic and international visitors for ten days during a two-week period that extends over the July 4 holiday. It is free to the public and claims to host approximately a million domestic and international visitors each year. Most years the SFF juxtaposes three or four simultaneous programs. According to CFCH director Richard Kurin, the festival was founded as an addition and alternative to the national museums, as "a way of telling the story of the diverse peoples who populated the nation but whose cultural achievements were not represented in the museums or their collections" (Kurin 1998:54).
Since its inception in 1967, the SFF has problematized static notions of tradition and heritage by defining folklife as dynamic, inclusive, and contemporary. It has further expanded the gloss of the term "folklife" by including elite cultural genres in its international programs. As its rhetoric reveals, the SFF is at heart a scholarly endeavor created by professional folklorists with a social agenda. Its goals, as stated on the SFF Web site (2005), are to celebrate cultural diversity and to advocate cultural conservation. It does much of this work through fieldwork-based research that identifies culture bearers and offers public presentations and interpretations of their cultural contributions. [End Page 3] The diversity it constructs is shaped by the complexity of folklore studies precepts and not solely based on the ethnic categories invoked in most American multicultural venues; rather, the SFF's vision of diversity juxtaposes communities—occupational, regional, ethnic—that are marked by shared values, beliefs, experiences, practices, and so forth. These SFF "communities" are most often represented through aspects of their expressive culture, specifically music, dance, foodways, and material culture. For reasons of funding expediency, occupational and ethnic groups have generally been organized and framed according to state and/or region while thematic programs, like cultural conservation, have served to establish common threads between cultural groups.
Using multiple modalities to achieve its educational goals, the SFF is a kaleidoscopic production that defies convenient categorization and invites, yet baffles, theorizing. At the administrative level, it is museo-edu-tainment staged through what Robert Cantwell aptly termed "ethnomimesis" (1993). In performance, it contains aspects of the zoo, museum, theme park, carnival, concert, community center, and traveling theater. Presented on national sacred ground and incorporating sacred ritual, it often takes on a hallowed and reverential aura, and although it might be argued that what it least resembles is an actual festival as defined by folklorists and anthropologists, the SFF is designed to combust convincingly, and the memories of visitors, participants, and even staff are, well, festive.
The SFF poetically references a conversational model that is grounded in a concept of hosts and guests while avoiding the rhetoric of tourism. Performers, in the role of hosts, are referred to as "participants" while tourists are called "visitors." An idealistic, innovative, populist-based experiment in cultural democracy, the SFF brings culture from the margins to the nation's symbolic center, where it sets the stage for dialogue between the visitor and the...