Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2011


Museum (and museum festival) visitors are not all alike. One way to conceptualize different preferences is to imagine the museum as an ocean, and to think of its visitors as skimmers (hurrying by, just dipping in here and there and quickly looking at everything), swimmers (steadily making their way around, wanting to linger a little and read some information but also to keep exploring), and divers (plunging into the depths, hoping to soak up every word of explanation they can as they spend a lot of time at each object).

When I visited the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, I was a skimmer: there were three different sections to explore, I had limited time, and goodness was it hot.

As I wandered through the pavilions dedicated to Colombia: The Nature of Culture, I wondered if I was getting a small sense of what it might be like to stroll through Colombia itself, taking in the everyday scenery without spending the time to look into the history of every sight, sound, texture, taste, or smell.  Live music drifted from some tents while stall after stall featured different crafts and wares from Colombian culture.

Texture of woodworking from Colombia

I ate a platillo vegetariano while watching Grupo Cabrestero perform. They opened with a a song that is played in the morning, helping cows to calm down and their milk to flow. I realized that this was the first song I’d ever heard about that particular topic, and I kind of wanted to see the musicians demonstrate with a real cow. (But this idea would be impractical, and probably not in the best interest of the cow, lactating on demand on the Mall in the middle of the afternoon for all us spectators.)

Next I went to the Rhythm and Blues: Tell It Like It Is section, which did not cater to all five senses like Colombia; instead, it focused primarily on sounds and tastes. Unfortunately, none of these tastes were vegetarian, and I came at a time when all the music tents were between acts. I did catch the last few minutes of the Jewels’ set, which had a crowd smiling and dancing, and I read panels that related the Folklife Festival programming to the exhibits at the to-be-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Jewels' audience "shakes their moneymakers"

The third area showcased the work of the Peace Corps, with a setup more similar to that of the Colombia section than that of the Rhythm and Blues section. At the Peace Porch, I listened to two Peace Corps volunteers discuss their experiences. I also read fliers about sanitation, touched a variety of herbal tea leaves, and added a wish to the Wishing Tree. (I should mention how much I love wishing trees.)

Wishing Tree

This year’s festival had a greater focus on sustainability than I’ve seen at previous Folklife Festivals. Both the Colombia and Peace Corps programs displayed examples of repurposed soda bottles, and the Peace Corps section also highlighted organic farming and a bike-pedal-powered maize sheller. Outside the fenced areas were dispensers of filtered water, with signs encouraging reusable bottles.

Water for reusable bottles

Did you attend the Folklife Festival this year? Did you have a favorite sight, sound, texture, taste, or smell?

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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