Latin American Museums in Washington, DC

First I want to share that I made a false statement when I said in a recent blog post that I plan to visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture this month. Given how popular it is and how booked the free timed-passes are, it may actually be months or years before I visit.

Before and since this museum opened, people have been asking a parallel question: when will we see a national museum telling the stories of Latino history and culture?

The idea has been advanced for years, with the empty Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building as a favorite proposed site. Lawmakers, led by Representative Xavier Becerra (D-CA), are pushing for such a national museum. Joining in the support, the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino website promotes a physical, national Latino museum and lists more specialized or localized existing museums throughout the country. As a DC resident, here is a list of local museums and cultural sites that somewhat overlaps with the website’s list:

Art Museum of the Americas is located a couple of blocks from where I work, and not too far from the monuments, the National Mall, the White House, and various other museums. It was my third Weekly Museum Visit, and I blogged about it when I visited a second time to see The Ripple Effect: Currents of Socially Engaged Art. As part of the Organization of American States, it works to further OAS’s mission to “put into practice the principles on which it is founded and to fulfill its regional obligations under the Charter of the United Nations.” These principles include peace, democracy, and eradication of poverty, and The Ripple Effect featured Latin American and Caribbean art that testified to these values.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Cultural Center in downtown DC provides another place to see Latin American art.  IDB was officially established by OAS in 1959. I visited a few years ago to see an exhibition of Colombian art, which gave me “the opportunity to feel the magic extremes and enjoy this creative nation through a combination of art, history, image, feeling, experience and commitment with the future,” as described in this press release. My own take on the exhibit can be found here.

Fondo del Sol is a small museum inhabiting a converted row house in the Dupont Circle neighborhood that provides a bilingual exhibition space for Latin American art. Its website emphasizes its role as a community museum. Like Art Museum of the Americas, it was also one of my Weekly Museum Visits. I visited toward the end of its opening hours, but the staff invited me to stay past closing time and watch the beginning of a documentary about the Spanish Civil War.

Plant, candles, fruit, vegetable, rock - nature altar art piece

Art at Fondo del Sol in 2010

While the Smithsonian at this time does not have a Latino museum in its Arts and Industries Building, it does have a Latino Virtual Museum and a Latino Center whose exhibits have historically often been on display at the S. Dillon Ripley Center. The Ripley Center also hosted the traveling exhibition Amazon Voyage: Vicious Fishes and Other Riches ten years ago, with a scientifically- and culturally-focused experience that included live aquarium displays, lots of interactives my preschoolers back then loved, and bilingual English and Spanish text.

small building with a domed roof with green leafy trees to the left

The Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center

In the demographically diverse Columbia Heights neighborhood, visitors can enjoy GALA Hispanic Theatre and the Mexican Cultural Institute. At GALA, I attended a screening of, and panel discussion following, The Goose with the Golden Eggs: Tourism on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast as part of the Environmental Film Festival in 2014. The theater offers bilingual programming as described on its bilingual website.

ceiling with intricate circular detail

Ceiling at GALA Hispanic Theatre photographed in 2014

I visited the nearby Mexican Cultural Institute today for the first time. In a beautiful old building with fancy furniture and colorful murals, the exhibits in the galleries were highly relevant to some of the most charged topics in today’s political debates and on people’s minds. The Overflow of Productivity Logic presents art that challenges or disrupts notions of productivity in a capitalist, consumerist society. A recurring theme was the role of the artist, thinker, or creator in a paradigm that only values quantifiable, utilitarian output as worthy of being called work. A second exhibit, DELIMITATIONS, documents an art installation that demarcated the border between Mexico and the United States based on the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819.

rectangular beige building with Mexican flag

Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, DC

More resources on the broad subject of Latino American history and culture can be found on the National Hispanic Heritage Month website. This heritage month wraps up today, October 15 – this year with an additional focus on the possibility of a future national museum.

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A German American Space at Gallery Place

The Gallery Pl-Chinatown Metro station is at the crossroads and the center of a million things, including several museums.  Within blocks of the three exits are the following museums and historic sites: the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, the International Spy Museum, and the German-American Heritage Museum, which I have never properly written about. (The now-closed National Museum of Crime and Punishment was also in this vicinity.)

I visited the German-American Heritage Museum (GAHM) in 2011 as a Weekly Museum Visit. Last year, I also visited the Goethe Institut (another cultural institution dedicated to German heritage) at its Chinatown location, before it moved to a different address in DC. Goethe Institut’s website lists GAHM’s building, Hockemeyer Hall, as one of many buildings in DC with ties to the German American community. Most of these buildings are located near the Gallery Place Metro, a booming part of DC today (I’ve heard a rumor that 7th Street is trying to be DC’s version of Times Square) with a diverse history, including a prominent population of German immigrants in the early 1900s, before it was known as Chinatown after an influx of the Chinese American community in the 1930s.

German-American Heritage Museum, as photographed in 2011. Dirndl, wall text, bust, pictures on the wall, benches to sit on, musical notes painted on the wall

German-American Heritage Museum, as photographed in 2011

GAHM is a small space with objects on display, text panels, an area set up for lectures with a podium and rows of chairs, and a staircase adorned with the names and pictures of famous German Americans. Among the objects and images I saw back in 2011:

  • An installation made of books written by German authors about the United States. (The literary theme of German American history is also evident in nearby Martin Luther King Memorial Library, designed by German American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe).
  • A cartoon depiction of Albert Einstein. (Artistic allegories for science and understanding the physical world are present as well on the Old Patent Office Building, now housing the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, by architect Adolf Cluss and sculptors Adolph Weinman and Caspar Buberl.)
  • A small exhibit about German music. (The Washington Saengerbund, started in 1851 and making use of a couple of DC locations, attests to the importance of music to the German American community in DC.)

Happy Oktoberfest!

Gallery Pl-Chinatown is on the Red, Yellow, and Green lines.

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National Book Festival 2016 – A Celebration

This year’s National Book Festival was, of course, a celebration of books. I heard six writers speak about their work (while three others were so popular that there was no room for me or many other fans at their presentations).

The event was a celebration of libraries: small, big, and biggest. A display of Little Free Libraries promoted the Take a Book, Leave a Book movement that adds whimsy and fosters literacy in neighborhoods around the country. (At another table, visitors could take and leave book recommendations. I accidentally drew from the jar two slips of paper that were stuck together, so I will be reading both Sugar by Deirdre Riordan Hall and I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak at some point.)

In the Pavilion of the States, delegations from U.S. states’ and territories’ official public library systems gave away bookmarks and brochures. The Library of Congress, which puts on the National Book Festival each year, was celebrated as a multifaceted resource. Its pavilion space inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center replicated the library’s beautiful walls and ceilings, while representatives at the microphone and at tables shared with the public the many offerings LOC provides as a library and a museum.

Museums were also a topic of celebration in one talk I attended, given by Tonya Bolden, author of How to Build a Museum on the Smithsonian’s newest site. Bolden was the only author I saw last week who stood at the podium and addressed the audience directly, rather than using an interview-in-armchairs format. She delved into the role of celebrations in her own life – growing up in multicultural Spanish Harlem, “I thought life was a festival.” Bolden spoke of the events and parades held by the many ethnic communities in the neighborhood of her youth, including the Italians marching their saints down the streets (similar to what I recently wrote about seeing in Italy).

Author Tonya Bolden, an older thin black women wearing glasses and a red top, speaks at podium, holding up her book, with National Book Festival partition panel in the background

Tonya Bolden speaks at the National Book Festival 2016. Her book, How to Build a Museum, is about the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

But the main focus of Bolden’s address was an occasion happening that very same day: the much-celebrated opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Bolden had not yet visited the finished museum; she would be attending its opening day a few hours later. I have not been yet either (I plan to go later this month, when hopefully it’s a little less crowded), but Bolden’s talk, along with news articles and social media posts, have done nothing but whet my appetite for this brand-new and very important museum.

In addition to being a celebration in itself, NMAAHC also deals with some very serious subject matter. One audience member asked Bolden how to broach tragic topics in history and in the news with young children. Bolden’s answer: Talk to children about these difficult issues, because “kids understand ‘not fair’ better than adults.”

The celebration of books, libraries, and museums continues even after another wonderful National Book Festival has ended, and I will be sure to write more about NMAAHC once I have visited.

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Lilycove at Shady Grove

Lilycove is not actually a real place anywhere near the Shady Grove Metro. Lilycove is a fictional city (with an art museum called the Lilycove Museum) in the imaginary world of Pokémon. The imaginary world of Pokémon, meanwhile, has recently taken over society. This takeover includes real-world museums, and it also includes the part of the real world that is near the Shady Grove station, the Red Line’s western terminus in Montgomery County, Maryland.

The Pokémon franchise has been around for 20 years, and includes an anime TV show and movies, comic books, and games (both electronic and card). I remember in high school, catching glimpses of the anime series as my brother watched it, and learning the various species’ names and types as he taught me how to play the card game. It was only this summer that my interest in the world of Pokémon was reignited, as interest in Pokémon simultaneously exploded far and wide with the release of Niantic’s augmented reality app Pokémon Go.

At first, I was reluctant to download the app. Isn’t reality interesting enough without being augmented? Isn’t there something a little…creepy about superimposing fake things on real spaces? And if I start playing this game, won’t I get addicted?

My brother and a good friend convinced me that I would love the game, so I did download it, and I did indeed become addicted. When the game loads quickly, works properly, and measures distance accurately, it is an incredibly fun way to spend time, giving me something to do during the walking part of my commute or providing that extra motivation to take a walk just for the heck of it.

The world of Pokémon overlaps its important locations with real-world places, including museums. Important sites in the game, Pokéstops and gyms, are real-life points of interest such as museums, libraries, churches, restaurants, and parks. Each Pokéstop (where you can go to pick up in-game items and XP points) contains a photo and short description of the real-world landmark. In some cases, the landmark may be so small or blend so well with the urban landscape that you might not have been aware of it until the Pokéstop pointed it out to you: a tree with a tiny memorial plaque in front of it, a quirky sculpture on a rooftop. (The Pokéstops are not always up-to-date, and some of the outdoor sculptures that appear on Pokémon Go’s map have been moved or removed in real life.)

Not every Pokéstop is museum-related, but a decent chunk of them are. Near the Shady Grove Metro –  which to my knowledge has no museums nearby – the Metro station itself, a restaurant, and a church serve as Pokéstops. But in downtown DC where I work, Pokéstops I can easily reach while walking around at lunch include a piece of art at the Renwick, a plaque outside the Octagon, and a gargoyle atop the Corcoran.

Photo of a phone showing the Shady Grove Metro Station Pokéstop, at the actual Shady Grove Metro.

The Shady Grove Metro stop is a Pokéstop.

Aside from the literal intersection of virtual Pokéstops and gyms with real museums, Pokémon Go also relates to cultural sites by tapping into some of the same human inclinations that bring people to visit and love museums. After all, Pokémon Go is all about exploring places and building a collection. An article on the psychology of Pokémon Go discusses two types of collecting, taxonomic and aesthetic. Pokémon Go, which encourages players to “catch ‘em all”, is an example of the former. Meanwhile, blogger Andrew Reinhard writes about Pokémon Go as a prime example of archeogaming, declaring that the game “might be the best thing to happen to archaeology (or at least archaeological tourism) in years.”

Despite how utterly enjoyable this app has been for me and countless other players, it has not blended seamlessly with reality, but rather, it has come with controversy, mishaps, and naysayers. While Pokémon Go certainly did not invent distracted driving or walking, the fact that it is meant to be played while walking exacerbates the likelihood that players become too absorbed in the game and too oblivious to real-world surroundings, leading to some unfortunate results. The game’s premise, promoting getting out and moving around in order to reap the in-game rewards, looks good on paper but can be tragic in areas plagued by landmines or crime.

The world of museums and tourism is divided on what to make of Pokémon Go (not surprising, given that these visitor destinations are not a monolithic category of places). Memorials and museums that interpret some of the most horrendous moments in human history, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, have, quite understandably, asked Pokémon trainers not to partake of the app in their spaces. (Just as Pokémon Go did not invent distraction or landmines, the Washington Post points out that the game also did not invent rudeness in solemn surroundings.)

Meanwhile, the game has been dubbed a gift to museums in one article, while another writer ponders whether the app is a blessing or a curse. From one scathing webpage which is not loading for me today, I fortunately had the foresight to copy the quote, “When a Pokéhunter arrives at a[n archaeological] site (drawn by the lure of a rich Pokéstop) they are in the classic state of Cartesian disconnect.”

Questions have arisen, in a legal sense or otherwise, regarding who owns virtual space. While the makers of Pokémon Go attempted to map their gyms and Pokéstops onto existing public spaces, some mishaps ensued – such as when a man living in a house that had been converted from a church began to notice people outside his dwelling at all hours, because his churchlike home had been designated a Pokémon Go gym.

Niantic has since created a method for requesting the removal of an inappropriate gym or Pokéstop. (Proposed legislation known as Pidgey’s Law would fine Niantic for not doing removing Pokéstops as requested.) However, as virtual and augmented reality continue to develop, challenges will pop up when virtual points of interest pop up. Cities may begin looking at zoning according to virtual reality among other factors; the small historic town of Occoquan, Virginia is trying to come to terms with being taken over by Pokémon Go due to its abundance of historical landmarks and its prevalence of Water Pokémon spawning along the river.

If it is agreed that people should have some control over the virtual layer(s) of their own space, additional questions arise: who decides on a particular building’s virtual accessibility, its owner or its tenant? How do we navigate the disagreements that the public may have about appropriate use of public areas? One Sunday this summer, I had lunch with a frequent library patron who said that she believes libraries are sacred and are not appropriate places for playing Pokémon Go. The following Sunday, I had lunch with a library employee, who mentioned that she knows people are playing the game at her workplace and has no issue with it.

While some museums have been forthright that their collections and the whimsical collection of Pokémon are incompatible, many other museums have embraced the app. For example, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is noted in this article as one place in the city to go catch Pokémon and in this article as one art museum using the game to engage audiences. Shortly after the game was released, the museum hosted a Pokémon Go-themed Meetup during its pay-what-you-wish hours.

I visited the PMA nearly a decade ago, long before the advent of Pokémon Go. My friend and I explored the whole museum, and I photographed some of the art, including art depicting animals like a snake, a dog, and dolphins, as well as the Rocky steps. Today, visitors can go look for Ekans, Growlithe, and various Water and Rock Pokémon among the museum’s acclaimed art and famed architecture.

coiled snake made out of volcanic rock

Aztec Serpent sculpture, photographed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2007. It may not be an Ekans, but it is a snake.

For those museums that do want to lure Pokémon Go-playing visitors, Preservation Maryland offers some tips here, and the Virginia Association of Museums raises some questions to help museum professionals consider the game. The Museum Playbook offers some guidance on utilizing the app in the museum field, and Museum Hack discusses how getting in on the Pokémon Go action can help attract millennials to informal learning sites. In her blog, Mar Dixon published a guest post examining the social facilitation that can happen in museums via Pokémon Go. Forward-thinking museum people are considering the possibilities that augmented reality could offer the world of interpretation.

Some additional examples of Pokémon Go in the museum include:

At art museums…

At history museums…

At science museums…

Whether you are searching for Pokémon among museum exhibits or at a suburban Metro terminus, I wish you luck in connecting to the server and catching 101 Magikarps. Stay safe, and keep it classy when you’re at a memorial or sacred site.

Shady Grove is a Metro stop and Pokéstop on the Red Line.

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A Literary Thrill at Rockville

I have previously written about VisArts (here) and Beall-Dawson House (here), two sites near the Rockville Metro station. Another point of interest is St. Mary’s Catholic Church, located right next to the Metro and MARC Train stations.

The church’s cemetery is where F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of such classics as The Great Gatsby, is buried. When I stopped by, his grave was adorned with flowers, pens, and liquor. Readers clearly have been making pilgrimages to pay their respects; interest in the landmark particularly spiked after The Great Gatsby movie came out in theaters in 2013.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's grave at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Rockville, MD. Rainy, covered with flowers, a few pens, a couple bottles of alcohol.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grave at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rockville, MD

St. Mary’s is also a literary point of interest due to its role in the children’s novel Stealing Freedom by Elisa Carbone. Stealing Freedom tells the story of 13-year-old slave Ann Maria Weems, who escaped to freedom in Canada in the 1850s. Before her escape, historical records indicate she may have worshiped at St. Mary’s (where she would have had to stay in the loft reserved for slaves as well as free African Americans), and it is a recurring setting in the book. The smaller historical church stands to this day, while a more modern-looking building has been added as well for the still-active congregation.

Carbone is a local author, and a member of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC. I heard her speak at the Guild’s luncheon back in 2005. Stealing Freedom takes place almost entirely in Maryland and DC, and Carbone’s research included using visiting St. Mary’s as well as the Montgomery County Historical Society (which maintains Beall-Dawson House as a museum), among other resources.

Rockville is not hopping with tourism and nightlife like parts of downtown DC, but it does serve as its county seat and offer a couple museums, historical points of interest, and restaurants and a movie theater. I also associate this station with Montgomery College, which I traveled to by Metro-plus-bus for a few classes in the years between college and grad school. While the REM song “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” often played in my head during the long commute after a long class session after a long workday, there have been some good reasons to go back to Rockville after all.

Rockville is on the Red Line.

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Festivals of Italy, Summer 2015

I have posted some pictures from the trip my father and I took to Italy last summer, but I have not properly written about it. Our trip, which lasted a little less than two weeks, was spent in Rome during the weekdays and punctuated by visits to smaller towns with major festivals during the two weekends. In this post I will focus on those weekend excursions.

We spent the first weekend in the valley city of Sulmona (population 24,854) and the second weekend in the tiny mountain town of Fallo (population 155). The itinerary required us to travel back and forth across the country, staying in hotels in two different parts of Rome, which may seem counter-intuitive at first glance. However, this schedule (for which my father deserves full credit) allowed us to visit places like the Vatican, the Roman Forum, and the Capitoline Museums during the week, and to see the parades for the Giostra Cavallaresca in Sulmona and the Festa in Fallo that took place during the weekends.

One translation for the word giostra is joust, and as I (in all my general ignorance of sports) understand it, it is a contest involving lances and horses, but is not exactly the same as what English speakers refer to as jousting. The competition in the Giostra involves trying to accumulate rings on one’s lance, while riding on horseback in a figure-8 pattern.

Giostra parade, Sulmona, Italy, July 2015

Giostra parade, Sulmona, Italy, July 2015

My father and I did not watch more than a couple of minutes of the competition itself, as it was hot and crowded and we could barely see a thing. However, we did see afternoon/evening parades both evenings we were in Sulmona, and when we walked around the town during the day, we saw different areas decorated with specific team colors. In the processions, people in medieval dress marched down the main thoroughfare, representing their respective teams with pride.

As intriguing as it was to see these aspects of the Giostra, the events in higher-altitude Fallo had additional layers of interest for us, as this was basically our ancestral homeland. Our last name (hard to spell, hard to pronounce, hard to remember), uncommon in most of the world, is ubiquitous in Fallo. It may belong to the majority of the people there, though I can’t say so with absolute certainty.

In Fallo, my father and I joined other relatives from our extended family for delicious meals of pasta and for the Festa events. I was the newbie, having never been to Fallo before, and I got an informal tour that included the exterior of the house where my grandfather lived as a child, the field where the family worked, the church and its affiliated smaller chapel, and so many hills.

Festa parade, Fallo, Italy

Festa parade, Fallo, Italy, August 2015

There were parades Saturday night and early afternoon Sunday. San Vicenzo (Saint Vincent) is Fallo’s patron saint, and during the parades, a sculpture of his likeness was marched through the town, adorned with jewels and other gifts of gratitude for good fortune. Fallo is so tiny that it does not have its own priest, so a priest who serves multiple small Italian towns led the Mass and the march, and a marching band and fire-eating performers were brought in from nearby locales as well.

As someone who loves holidays and celebrations, I truly enjoyed being in Sulmona and Fallo during their festival weekends. I was impressed by the big party a tiny town like Fallo was able to throw. (Like other family members and me, some far-flung relatives return to their Fallese roots and come back to visit during this special annual event.) I am not one to cling to tradition in everyday life or policymaking, but I do appreciate longstanding customs in the context of marking occasions via holidays and parades.

Although there is still so much of the world I have never seen and want to see, it would also be wonderful to go back to Sulmona, and especially Fallo, someday. It would be even more wonderful to learn a bit more Italian before I do so.

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Musings on Museums and Festivals

In May, The Conversation published Jonathan Wynn’s provocatively-titled piece, “Why Cities Should Stop Building Museums and Focus on Festivals.” It was not a diatribe against museums per se, but more of a cautionary discussion related to the economic and societal effects of continuing to build more museums.

Wynn argues based on his research that building new infrastructure like museums and stadiums, while touted as a way to boost local economies and revitalize blighted areas, actually is a drain on cities’ resources and economies. The temporary and movable nature of festivals, by contrast, provides an alternative form of cultural offering to the community and tourists.

This article came out in advance of the summer’s many festivals (two of which I attended in DC) as well as the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Wynn characterizes the Olympics as an example of an “invasive ‘mega event’” leaving in its wake “concrete cultural infrastructure that monopolize[s] scarce real estate, leaving spaces underutilized for decades.”)

As someone who enjoys museums and festivals alike, I can’t help but get excited about any new museum. (Oooh, another interesting place to visit!) But the decision to build a new museum needs to take into account factors like financial feasibility, impact on the immediate surroundings, and resources to maintain the new museum while also sustaining already-existing museums.

Museums require an initial investment, but also continued resources in order to keep the doors open. In the last few years, the DC area has seen the demise of the non-profit Corcoran Gallery of Art, the for-profit National Museum of Crime and Punishment, and Arlington’s city-funded Artisphere. Meanwhile, grantmakers love flashy new buildings and wings, and are often not so interested in keeping a non-profit’s lights on (a phenomenon regularly discussed on the dryly witty Nonprofit with Balls blog).

Wynn further argues that festivals are more inclusive than museums, as festivals are often free. DC may be anomalous in that it has so many free museums and festivals, in addition to museums and festivals that charge admission.

Do museums and festivals offer comparable experiences to visitors? As I looked back on the Around the World Cultural Food Festival, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, earlier this summer, I noted a number of similarities with museums.

A performance of Mixteco dance by Nuu Yuku/Danza de los Diablos de San Miguel Cuevas at the 2016 Smithsonian Folklife Festival (Sounds of California). Four men shown in masks and costumes made from animal parts, dancing boisterously for an audience.

A performance of Mixteco dance by Nuu Yuku/Danza de los Diablos de San Miguel Cuevas at the 2016 Smithsonian Folklife Festival (Sounds of California)

The Folklife Festival is, of course, itself sponsored by an institution of museums. Each year’s festival is filled with objects and exhibits, and the Smithsonian constantly has programming in the form of lectures and performances inside its buildings, just as at the stages and tents at Folklife. Further overlap between the Smithsonian’s museums and Folklife Festival can be found in the small buildings that are put up on the National Mall each year as part of the festival.

This year, the cultures featured in the Folklife Festival were Basque Country and California. In the Basque section, I watched a dance workshop by Aukeran, viewed paintings by Jesus Mari Lazkano, and perused displays of traditional foods, crafts, and sports. My time in the Sounds of California area included music and dance performances, a talk by Janet Abrams about pets around the world and in immigration stories, and an installation that invited visitors to answer questions about ideas of home and migration on sticky notes.

At the Around the World Cultural Food Festival, area restaurants sold their fare at booths while a single stage showcased cultural performances. I ate Peruvian food, watched Bolivian dance, and caught the tail end of someone on stage speaking about the traditional Romanian ie, which would be celebrated one week later on the Universal Day of the Romanian Blouse.

Morenada Central VA takes to just-in-front-of-the-stage to perform Bolivian dance at the Around the World Cultural Food Festival in June 2016. Stage itself is empty, but dancers in bright dress are performing in a circle in front of the stage on a very bright hot sunny day.

Morenada Central VA takes to just-in-front-of-the-stage to perform Bolivian dance at the Around the World Cultural Food Festival in June 2016

When thinking about the visitor experience at festivals versus museums, the first major difference that occurred to me was perhaps a superficial one: the food tends to be much better at festivals. Trying the cuisine is one of the highlights of the Folklife Festival, and the Around the World Cultural Food Festival has food in its very name. With some exceptions, my experience with museum food is that you grab a tray, pay for your square of pizza or cellophane-wrapped sandwich, and sit down in the cafeteria because eating in the museum café was more convenient than trying to decide on a restaurant.

Beyond the culinary differences between museums and festivals, there is a more profound difference between what the two can offer. Festivals have a jovial, celebratory atmosphere; they are designed to be social and heavily attended. Crowds are expected. Museums can be those things, but can also be somber, quiet, and downright depressing as they educate visitors about some of the darkest moments in history. Consider the word festive in contrast to muse.

This is not to say that festivals never touch on serious topics. On the Sounds of California stage, the group FandangObon mentioned the bombing of Hiroshima during their demonstrations of Buddhist drumming and dance. Nevertheless, the speaker saw fit to include a disclaimer that the song they were about to perform was controversial, and while it included the Japanese word for bomb, I felt it had an uplifting tone of peace and hope.

These festivals took place in June and July and are now long gone from the National Mall, while the surrounding museums and monuments still stand. Wynn remarks that “the impermanence of festivals is a feature, not a flaw.” The festivals strive to have a lasting positive impact, while giving visitors something to look forward to next summer.

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