Peru at the 2015 Smithsonian Folklife Festival


Courtesy of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Every summer, the Smithsonian orchestrates a two-week long Folklife Festival. For the last week of June and first of July, part of the National Mall is transformed into a small village of tents and temporary structures bursting with, in the words of the Smithsonian, an “international exposition of living cultural heritage.”

This year, the festival will be focused on Peru: a place of extremely diverse ecosystems and cultures. Those planning the program have made many trips to Peru for exploration and fieldwork. In March, the group explained what interested them most:

“What was most interesting[…]were the distinct ecological relationships between the people, their history, and their artistry and creativity; the physical environment—the land, the water, the animals, the natural resources; and the challenges of industrialization, expropriation of natural resources, tourism, and globalization. I never ceased to be amazed how Peruvians respond to these with cultural persistence and creative reformulation of traditions, successfully sustaining their values and ways of life.”

You know how exhibitions of different cultures can sometimes feel superficial and/or exploitive? That has never been my experience at the Folklife Festival. It’s a chance to meet, observe and learn from practitioners of many cultural, living traditions so that we might begin to understand both cultural differences and similarities.

And for those who have little patience for the mall or the quiet corridors of our museums (you’re crazy, btw), this is different. This is an outdoor extravaganza filled with the tastes, scents, colors and sounds from near and far.

The very first festival (in 1967) featured American craftsman and artists as diverse as our population. There were doll makers, needleworkers, potters, blacksmiths, fife and drum groups, brass bands, spirituals, Puerto Rican music, Cajun music, Mesquakie Indian music, cowboy songs, clogging, Scottish, Russian and Irish dancers, and more. And that was just the first year.

A Native American blanket toss at the 1974 Folklife Festival, by Unidentified photographer, Photographic print, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

A Native American blanket toss at the 1974 Folklife Festival, by Unidentified photographer, Photographic print. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Since then, the festival has highlighted Hungry, American Indians, cultural conservation, US-Mexico border lands, African diaspora, the American South, Haiti, Colombia, China, Kenya and much more.

Over the years, the Folklife Festival has brought more than 23,000 musicians, artists, performers, craftspeople, workers, cooks, storytellers, and others to the Mall. These days, the festival is attended by more than a million people. But don’t let that scare you off! A million people in an outdoor place of this size, over two-weeks time, is nothin’. In my experience, you should arrive early for performances but otherwise, just go with the flow.

The Details

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is will run from June 24th to 28th and July 1st to 5th. It is free and located on the Mall between 3rd and 4th streets NW. It will be hot and sweaty. Dress accordingly.

There will also be very limited parking, so take the Metro to Federal Center, L’Enfant Plaza or National Archives.

Finally, bring some money—cash or card. The food is gonna be good, and the Marketplace (located in the Potomac Rotunda on the ground floor of the National Museum of the American Indian) will feature arts, crafts and music from many traditional artists.

Click here for more information.


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