It is the conversations and interactions between artisans and the public that distinguish the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, said Sabrina Lynn Motley, the festival’s director. “The festival gives primacy to the voices of living people….Unlike a museum, where objects are in cases, there’s no third wall at the festival. It’s a great opportunity to hear directly from participants and learn from their stories, feelings and knowledge,” she said.
Now in its 51st year, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival runs June 27-July 1 and July 4-8 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The 2018 festival will explore what Motley called “cultural heritage enterprise,” through the lens of winemaking in Armenia and human tower building and use of fire in Catalonia. “In both Armenia and Catalonia, there are deep and rich cultural bonds. Some are fragile and need tending. Others are robust. Both lead families and communities to look at the future in different ways,” she said. “What’s amazing is that you can take one cultural activity and, from that, open up an entire world.”
Home to the world’s earliest known winery, discovered eight years ago in a cave near the village of Areni, Armenia’s 6,000 year-old winemaking tradition was nearly snuffed out under Soviet rule. Fueled by that 2010 discovery, a new generation of vintners has set out to reclaim Armenia’s winemaking heritage. The country is experiencing a viticultural rebirth. “There’s a real interest in revitalizing the wine industry,” said Motley. “Some are employing traditional practices while others are using cutting-edge technology. Either way, they are connected to this historic site. Also connected to the winemaking are food, music and song.”
The memories and emotions these traditions convey will ideally challenge visitors to explore their own notions of home while experiencing Armenian culture. “What do you value that gives you a sense of home and connects you to your family and future?” said Motley. “I hope people go home from the festival and explore their own cultural lives.”
A resurgence in the building of human towers, known as castells, demonstrates the power of the Catalan culture to evolve and adapt to social circumstances, weaving together the historic and contemporary. Castells, which hark back to the turn of the 19th century, were central to early nationalist celebrations. Catalans would stand on each other’s shoulders, building towers as high as 10 levels. “It is an incredible spectacle,” said Motley, “one that speaks to the strength of community.”
The Catalan culture also is known for its use of fire, according to Motley. The correfoc, a traditional festival that features people dressed as devils playing with fire, often includes fireworks. “So some nights the festival will end with fireworks or large puppets,” she said. Puppet theater is tied to the reemergence of Catalan identity in the 1960s and 1970s.
The festival’s marketplace honors the creativity, heritage and skill of festival participants and supports the Smithsonian’s mission. “We are transitioning from a museum gift shop model to an artisan model, where people can interact while works are being crafted,” said Motley. “It will be an extension of the festival experience. You can buy wine from Armenia or a carpet or rug as you watch someone making it,” she said. The revamped marketplace – designed to be fun, entertaining and educational – will also include works created by artisans at previous festivals.
Because music is integral to the cultural experience, many nights end with a concert at 6:30 p.m. “Grab some wonderful Armenian or Catalan food and a bottle of wine and join us for some great music,” said Motley. “There’s nothing more enjoyable than a beautiful evening in D.C. accentuated by dancing or listening to music against a backdrop of flying frisbees.”
While many events are repeated throughout the festival, each is unique, according Motley. “Because the visitors or participants are different, or feeling or interacting differently that day, the workshops are never the same,” she said.
The beauty of the Folklife Festival, according to Motley, is the way in which schedules can be customized to meet individual interests. “Single-interest visitors can tailor their experience to food or music or crafts,” she said. “Those with broader interests have so much to choose from.”
“The festival was founded in 1967 as a way to explore early domestic traditions, bring the voices of people to the National Mall, complement works in our museum, and celebrate creativity and cultural heritage,” said Motley. “From conception, it made a huge splash. It was meant to be a one-time event but the press, Congress and the public clamored for more.”
Over the course of half a century, the festival has explored traditions from every state and over 100 countries, as well as several occupations – such as stock traders, lawyers and astronauts, according to Motley. “We love bringing people to America’s front lawn to explore cultural traditions and their historical and contemporary influences,” she said.
Enjoying the Festival
“Check the weather, bring sun block and stay hydrated,” said Motley. “Spend some time on the mall but then take a break and visit one of the Smithsonian’s amazing museums. Make a day of it.
“Be curious; come prepared to ask questions,” Motley added. “It is the exchanges between the public and participants that make for the best moments. The conversations can be so amazing and illuminating, even when they get heated.”
Committed to providing an exceptional experience to all visitors, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival offers tactile tours for those who are blind or have low vision, said Motley. Learn more about the festival at https://festival.si.edu.