Colorful arts and crafts, dynamic performers, energetic music, and the aroma of delicious foods on the National Mall can only mean one thing—the return of the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, held this year from June 27 – July 1 and July 4 – July 8. Even record-high temperatures and a storm June 29 that knocked out power to millions couldn’t stop the Festival. Early Saturday morning after the storm, I joined our Folklife staff to take a look at the damage wrought by the 80 mile-per-hour winds. Our dedicated volunteers and employees were already feverishly at work assessing damage and making sure that everything on the mall, from the animals at the U.S. Department of Agriculture exhibit to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, was safe. Although we closed for a day to make sure the tents were undamaged, by Sunday the Festival was open for business.
Bring Back the Funk
There certainly was no power shortage at the “Bring Back the Funk” concert that kicked off the festivities. Organized by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Mark Puryear at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the concert, with headliner George Clinton electrified the crowd. When I was a university president, some of my students affectionately nicknamed me “Funkmasta G. Wayne,” so it was a real treat for me to meet this true funk icon and even get his autograph. His famous stage prop the “Mothership” will be featured prominently in NMAAHC when the new museum opens its doors in 2015.
Since 1967, the Folklife Festival has been a microcosm of the Smithsonian’s diversity. Much of what we do revolves around studying diverse cultures, seeking diverse ideas and preserving the diversity of life. During the Festival’s 46-year history, more than 23,000 musicians, artisans, craftspeople, dancers, cooks and storytellers have come to the National Mall to bring their cultures to a wider audience. This year’s Festival featured three programs: Citified, an exploration of the role of art in communities east of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.; Campus and Community, a celebration of the 150th anniversary of land-grant universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and Creativity and Crisis, a commemoration of the AIDS Memorial Quilt’s 25th anniversary.
The Anacostia Community Museum’s Call and Response initiative explores the ways in which creativity and art are integral to the growth and identity of urban communities. As a part of that initiative, the Citified portion of the Folklife Festival examined the African American cultural heritage that emerged from agrarian Southern roots and was transformed by urban industry. From quilting patterns preserved and passed down in churches and community centers to the rural work songs and gospel music that formed the basis of contemporary urban music, these shared traditions maintain a sense of community and foster civic pride and involvement.
Campus and Community
Public universities are important conduits to communities, and our modern university system wouldn’t be what it is today without the efforts of former Smithsonian Regent, Senator, and Congressman Justin S. Morrill (1810-1898). He proposed that the government set aside land and funding for public universities devoted to agriculture and technical skills in addition to the classical canon, thus creating the template for liberal arts education. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act. It democratized higher education, transforming a privilege of the wealthy into an attainable goal for all and encouraged institutions to work for practical ends. In 1890, a second Morrill Act increased funding for states and required that institutions either admit African Americans or create comparable institutions for them, which led to the creation of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In 1994, Native American tribal colleges gained land-grant status, bringing the total number of land-grant institutions to 105. All told, land-grant colleges enroll about three million students annually and award about 500,000 degrees each year. Visitors to the Festival had a chance to walk through a solar-powered house, listen to a possible first-ever combination mariachi/steel drum band, and absorb mini-lectures about what these schools have to offer, all courtesy of some of the nation’s innovative land-grant universities and their students.
Creativity and Crisis
The Smithsonian is dedicated to telling all types of stories, including those that are difficult to hear. Creativity and Crisis marked the 25th anniversary of the NAMES Project Foundation’s AIDS Memorial Quilt. I saw many Smithsonian staff and volunteers among those lined up to read the names of those lost to AIDS, some of whom were known personally by the readers. It was a moving testimony that the fabric of our humanity is forever stitched together.
Rep. John Lewis, a personal hero of mine since his days as a Freedom Rider, eloquently spoke of the Quilt’s powerful response to discrimination and hatred, noting “the AIDS Quilt is saying we all live in the same house, the American house, the world house…Together we must build a world community that is free from disease and is finally at peace with itself.” The Smithsonian is committed to building that community through research that will help the world eradicate disease, through leadership in education, and through bringing out the best in each other by celebrating our shared humanity.
When Congressman Morrill established land-grant universities, he said that our university system should be built “upon a sure and perpetual foundation, accessible to all.” All of you provide that solid foundation for the Smithsonian, allowing us to reach diverse learners everywhere. Many thanks to the Director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Daniel Sheehy; Festival director Stephen Kidd; curators Olivia Cadaval, Betty Belanus, and Arlene Reiniger; program coordinators Cristina Diaz-Carrera and Anna Kaplan; Anacostia Community Museum Director Camille Akeju and her staff; and NMAAHC Director Lonnie Bunch and his staff. I am grateful for all of our employees and volunteers whose hard work made this another memorable Folklife Festival.
Posted: 31 July 2012