- Curatorial Conversations: Cultural Representation and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival ed. by Olivia Cadaval, Sojin Kim, and Diana Baird N’Diaye
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is iconic in the field of folklore; however, most people outside the discipline have never heard of it. Folklorists may find this dubious, but as Steve Zeitlin observes, “the Festival has hardly penetrated the consciousness of the American people” (p. 306). He recalls: “Since I left Washington in 1981 and moved to New York City, I have rarely met anyone who has heard of this glorious Festival” (p. 306). Curatorial Conversations, edited by Olivia Cadaval, Sojin Kim, and Diana Baird N’Diaye, is a welcome addition to literature on public and applied folklore. Using the Festival as the fabric, this edited collection explores the many threads of public programming, cultural politics, lessons, reflections, history, and the future of this pioneering, large-scale event. For readers who are familiar with the Festival, it is a backstage pass into the making (or unmaking, or not making) of various exhibits from the perspectives of the curators. James Early begins his epilogue by noting that the book’s publication roughly coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Festival (p. 315). Many key public folklorists weigh in their voices, and as the editors note, this collection examines the Festival through various lenses, including “places of friction and contestation that arise among the many parties involved in producing it” (p. 20).
The book’s excellent introduction sets the collaborative tone of the volume. I was struck by the discussion of the title “curator” and how the curatorial position came to be used and understood in the Festival context (pp. 24–5). Likewise, Kurt Dewhurst and Marsha Mac-Dowell unpack the role of museum curation in their preface. These discussions bring nuance to notions of curatorship over time as well as best practices moving forward. Additionally, the introduction provides historical context to the Festival, from S. Dillon Ripley’s declaration—“Take the instruments out of their cases and let them sing”—to the cultural contexts surrounding the Festival throughout the decades, including civil rights activism in the 1960s and 1970s as well as the mid-1970s “watershed moment” when the Folk Arts Program was established by the National Endowment for the Arts and the US Congress created the American Folklife Center. For international readers, these are crucial moments, and they inform our understanding of public folklore in the United States.
Cynthia L. Vidaurri points out in “Cuba— Confluencias, Creatividad y Color: The Making of a Cuba Folklife Festival Project” that in Latin American culture, “folklore” and “folklorist” carry different meanings; therefore, when doing fieldwork in Mexico, she refrains “from using the term [folklorist] because it makes people think I professionally perform folklorized traditional music and dance” (p. 143). Instead, she and colleague/co-editor Olivia Cadaval use the terms “cultura popular (grassroots culture) and cultura tradicional (traditional culture)” (p. 143). Vidaurri’s emphasis on language is perceptive and thoughtful, and essentially at the heart of this work are issues of cultural representation: “Language is so charged with values, ideology, particular meanings, and regional specificity that it is constantly necessary to review discussions in order to ensure that all parties share the same understandings” (p. 145). [End Page 89]
Along with the introduction by the editors, the book includes a preface, prologue, and epilogue. The rest of the volume is divided into four sections: “Early Vision and Transformations,” “Collaborations and Cultural Politics,” “The Poetics of Representation,” and “The Festival as Catalyst.” The authors all have been employed by the Smithsonian and have many years of experience and Festival programming among them. The sections could easily be weekly topics for a course and provide deliberate platforms for—no surprise here—curatorial conversations. As such, the volume may be read as a series of conversations among professionals as well as a springboard for ongoing issues, reflections, thoughts, and concerns about cultural productions. Even though the...