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.


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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