On the National Mall: The Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival Turns 50!

Toward the end of June for two weeks the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival returns to the National Mall. This year’s events mark a milestone: the Festival’s 50th anniversary.

Since the 1970s, the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival held each summer introduces Americans to cultural traditions from different parts of the country and from around the world
Since the 1970s, the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival held each summer introduces Americans to cultural traditions from different parts of the country and from around the world.

The annual celebration constitutes the largest annual cultural event in the U.S. capital. This year, the program focuses on Circus Arts and American Folk and includes live performances, demonstrations, artisans, discussions and exchanges that showcase the transformation of cultural traditions as diverse people and communities migrate and mingle.

The program celebrates the rich history of circus life as told by America’s circus families, the artists and coaches, costume designers, makeup artists, musicians, lighting and sound technicians, prop and tent designers, riggers, poster artists, wagon builders, cooks, and many others who make the circus come alive. Visitors will see performances by aerialists, acrobats, equilibrists, object manipulators, and clowns. Ironically, while we celebrate the circus as a cultural event, many real circuses are closing for good. This year Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey announced it is closing for good after 146 years on the road.

The complementary program, American Folk, will focus on the American experience, according to the Festival’s website, demonstrating how “the arts can connect us with our heritage, bring us together as a community, and deepen our sense of belonging.”

If past is any guide, as many as 1 million visitors will take in the Festival. Singing, dancing, craft and game workshops, cooking demonstrations, storytelling – all are part and parcel of the typical Folklife Festival. The Festival generally includes both daytime and evening entertainment and other activities. Visitors engage as they meet and talk with people who have come to the Mall to present their stories and traditions.

A pictorial history of the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival

  • Tourist story [Smithsonian Folklife Festival] (Library of Congress)
  • A man dressed as a monkey, or bahrupiya, impersonates the monkey god Hanuman in the India program at the 1985 Festival of American Folklife on the National Mall. (Daphne Shuttleworth/Smithsonian)
  • A group of participants from Hiroshima province, Japan, demonstrate rice planting and the hanadave ritual at the 1986 Festival of American Folklife on the National Mall. (Jeff Tinsley/Smithsonian)
  • Festival participants examine taro patches enclosed by rock walls in the Hawai'i Program at the 1989 Festival of American Folklife on the National Mall. (Smithsonian)
  • Taquile musicians from Peru perform in the "Land in Native American Cultures" program at the 1991 Festival of American Folklife held on the National Mall, Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian Photo)
  • Matachines dance in an adobe plaza constructed for the New Mexico program at the 1992 Festival of American Folklife. (Jeff Tinsley/Smithsonian)
  • A Lithuanian blacksmith demonstrates his skills in the Baltic Nations program during the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. (Smithsonian Photo)
  • An aerial shot of the 1999 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, showing the site of the South Africa program.(Jeff Tinsley/Smithsonian)
  • The Dalai Lama speaks to a large crowd on the National Mall during the 2000 Smithsonian Folklife Festival which featured a program on Tibetan Culture Beyond the Land of Snows. (Jeff Tinsley/Smithsonian)
  • A house is built in the Bermuda Connections program at the 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. (Shayna Rosenthal/Smithsonian)
  • Crowds on the National Mall during the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which featured the Silk Road. The annual Folklife Festival highlights grassroots cultures across the nation and around the world through performances and demonstrations of living traditions. The Festival, which began in 1967, occurs for two weeks every summer on the National Mall and attracts more than 1 million visitors. (Jeff Tinsley, Smithsonian Institution)
  • A polo match is played on the National Mall during the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival featuring The Silk Road. (Jeff Tinsley/Smithsonian)
  • Visitors at the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. (Jeff Tinsley/Smithsonian)
  • Camels survey The Silk Road site at the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival held on the National Mall. (Harold Dorwin/Smithsonian)
  • Visitors try Scottish ceilidh dancing at the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. (Richard Strauss/Smithsonian)
  • A Dogon dancer from Mali walks on stilts through the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. (Smithsonian)
  • A view of the 2004 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The annual Folklife Festival highlights grassroots cultures across the nation and around the world through performances and demonstrations of living traditions. The Festival, which began in 1967, occurs for two weeks every summer on the National Mall and attracts more than 1 million visitors. (Jeff Tinsley, Smithsonian Institution)
  • Members of Los Tecuanes from Manassas, Virginia dance in front of the Smithsonian Castle during the 2004 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. (Richard Strauss/Smithsonian Institution)
  • At the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, visitors admire the Pakistani hand-painted truck originally brought to the Smithsonian for the 2002 Folklife Festival. (Ken Rahaim/Smithsonian)
  • Visitors stroll around the Northern Ireland program site at the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. (Ken Rahaim/Smithsonian)
  • A view of the 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The annual Folklife Festival highlights grassroots cultures across the nation and around the world through performances and demonstrations of living traditions. The Festival, which began in 1967, occurs for two weeks every summer on the National Mall and attracts more than 1 million visitors. (Jeff Tinsley, Smithsonian Institution)
  • Kenyan artisans take a well-earned break during the 2011 Folklife Festival. (Peace Corps)
  • A young attendee learns about Malian art at the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. (Peace Corps)
  • Sun Dancers from Botswana on the Peace Corps World Stage at Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2011. (Peace Corps)
  • One section of the Bottle School Wall is completed during the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. (Peace Corps)
  • The 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall featured programs on China and Kenya. (Photo by Francisco Guerra, Smithsonian)

Past years have showcased a nation, a region, a state, or a theme. The Festival has given top billing to more than 90 nations, every region of the United States, scores of ethnic groups, more than 100 Native American tribes, and a whole range of occupations. Themes for past Festivals include states such as Texas, Wisconsin, and Virginia and countries such as Peru, China, Mexico, and Bhutan. Past themes have also recognized agencies and institutions that have contributed immeasurably to the American experience — NASA, the Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service, the Peace Corps. And so much more has been showcased over 50 years.

It’s worth noting that the Festival’s future was not always assured. About 10 years ago the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over large areas of the National Mall and was preparing a plan for the Mall, put high priority on the condition of the lawn, the trees, and other landscaping. Many feared this would doom the Folklife Festival. But letters and editorials protesting this potential outcome got the Park Service’s attention. The Festival not only survived, it thrived to celebrate this year its 50th.

But time will tell if the Park Service will continue to support the Folklife Festival on the Mall. If this event is important to you, the National Mall Coalition encourages you to contact your Congressman.

 

Locate your Senators and Representative

ex: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington, DC 20500

 

The Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival’s site is on the National Mall between 4th and 7th Streets, NW. Parking is limited, so check out nearby Metro stations. Hours: daily (except the 5th) from 11 am to 5 pm with evenings events 6:30 pm to 9. Admission is free.

 

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