Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Melody Explores the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Celebrating 50 years of folklife!

In 1967, the first Smithsonian Folklife Festival was held in Washington, DC. Created as a means of encouraging cultural exchange, the festival has been held every summer for the last 50 years. Each year has a different theme, often centered around the culture of a particular country, region, or US state. They’ve managed to feature every region of the US, as well as 90 individual countries. That’s pretty impressive!

The festival is held on the National Mall between the US Capitol Building and the Washington Monument, making it a popular stop for tourists visiting the monuments, museums, and government buildings. Fourth of July is usually sandwiched more or less in the middle of the festival, which runs for two weeks. They’ve got programming running all day, with lots of vendors, artisans, and experts in their field. 

In honor of the 50th anniversary, the festival’s theme this year was more multicultural than usual: Circus Arts! Almost every culture in the world has a circus, right? It also featured programming about migration and the history of the festival. Want to check it out?

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that despite it being the childhood profession of one of my favorite comic book character, I’m not actually that much of a circus person. I think acrobats and performers are exceptionally talented of course! But it’s just not really my scene. Also, I’m often unsettled by clowns. 

That being said, the programming they had at the festival was super cool. Big tents were erected all over the Mall, each with a different theme for the programs that were hosted inside. Volunteers were passing out brochures with scheduling information, but you could also see it all online. 

My first stop was the On the Move: Migration Across Generations part of the festival. This programming was apparently only going to be around for the first week of the festival, and was eventually replaced with programming that was more specialized to the 50th anniversary. Here, you could listen to people’s stories about how the movement of people throughout the country has shaped our culture and heritage.

There was a big focus on how young people contribute as well, which I thought was really great. Kids and teens do often get left out of discussions involving cultural exchange, so bringing them to the table is pretty awesome.

Further down the Mall, there were tons of different tents focusing on the culture, science, and history of circuses as a multinational and multicultural institution. My friend and classmate Alison was volunteering with the Circus Science tent when I ran into her, and she and her colleagues had developed lots of fun programing for younger festival goers to teach them about the circus.

Predictably, my favorite tent was the Cookhouse, where different members of circuses discussed what it’s like feeding a large, diverse group of people like a circus troupe every day.

The tents were also a nice way to get out of the heat. It has been really hot and swampy outside lately!

Live cooking demonstrations went on through the day, featuring things like stuffed eggshells and fried chicken. Unfortunately, this was all look but don’t touch, which is too bad because everything sounded very tasty! 

It was also interesting listening to how chefs and cooks working with different dietary and nutritional needs within a circus company. Since most performers are professional athletes, they need a specialized diet to help supplement the strain they put their bodies under. That said, there are also little kids in the community who want to eat things like cake and cookies! Sounds like an interesting tightrope to walk, if you ask me. 

Each tent also had wayside signs up giving you more information about and context for the programs. This was very helpful if you were interested in seeing what a tent was all about, but they were in between programs.

Some of them were even hand lettered!

There were lots of different live demonstrations by acrobats, which was always fun to watch. There was also two larger tents that had full on circus performances, but I didn’t have a chance to attend any of them. They seemed very popular, though! 

One of the other big draws was the Flying Wallendas, a family of high wire performers who are literally the real-life version of the Flying Graysons. In the business since the 1830’s, they preform without a net, and their kids get involved in the act too. I heard the youngest performer at the festival is only five!

I had all these grand plans to see everything at the festival the first weekend I was there, but the universe had something else in mind. 

Shortly after I ran into Alison at the Circus Science tent, dark storm clouds rolled in, and our beautiful sunny day quickly turned into a torrential thunderstorm. The festival was closed down for everyone’s safety, and everyone rushed into the closest Smithsonian for shelter. For us, that meant the Museum of Natural History, which actually turned out to be a good thing! 

If you go through the Ocean Hall at NMNH, you might notice there’s another exhibit tucked away in the back that features highlights from the museum’s African anthropological collection. Alison told me that the first part of the exhibit and the rest of the gallery itself are remnants of research that had been done for a previous Folklife Festival that spotlighted Mali as one of the countries. 

The exhibit The Mud Masons of Mali discusses traditional architecture and design, and includes oral histories that Alison believes were taken for Folklife. 

I’ve been in the gallery before, but I had no idea that it owes its origins to Folklife! It’s a very interesting exhibit, as is the rest of the gallery, so I’d really recommend checking it out next time you’re in NMNH.

Determined not to come away with only a few pictures of Folklife, I headed back down for the last weekend of the festival with two of my other friends and decided to see things I had missed out on the weekend before. I was most disappointed I didn’t get to try out any of the food! 

This year, there were vendors specializing in Mexican, Vietnamese, Irish and Tennessean cuisine. I’m not sure if this is typical of what you might see at Folklife, or if the food vendors usually represent the countries featured in that year’s celebration, but either way, you’ve got a lot of tasty sounding options. 

Picnic tables have been set up in the shade of the trees on the Mall for your enjoyment, and the vendors are spaced throughout the Mall’s grounds. I was a little annoyed by this in some ways, as it makes life complicated if you have members of your party that want two different things. Plus, they were so spread out that it was easy to miss one if you weren’t trekking up and down the whole festival. I didn’t see where the Mexican vendor was until I was ready to leave on the second day. 

Each vendor had several entrée options, all of which sounded pretty great.

I’m boring and predictable though and got the fish and chips from the Irish pub both times I went. (Remember, Jenna and I came here for lunch on 4th of July!) I really enjoy good fish and chips, and these were pretty excellent, especially for open air festival food.

Stationed throughout the festival were gelato stands! Five bucks got you one of five gelato flavors, all of which looked tasty. They also sold alcoholic ice pops with flavors like mojito and sangria, which sounded fun, even though I’m still not a big alcoholic drink person. Mango was the flavor of the day for Folklife Round Two…

But I got mint Oreo when Jenna and I were killing time before fireworks on 4th of July. We sat in the garden near the Arts and Industry building, where lavender is in full bloom right now, so that was pretty delightful, if I do say so.

Speaking of Arts and Industry, the building was home to more Folklife programming, and also the festival’s marketplace. This is the one place to visit if you want a nonedible souvenir, plus it’s one of the only Folklife venues that has air conditioning, so it’s a good place to come in if you’re hot and need a break, or a bathroom!

The building is really beautiful, but it’s been undergoing a major renovation for a while, so I think this is the first time I’ve actually been inside. You can still see where they’re making repairs in contrast to the older architecture of the building that’s still preserved.

There were lots of different vendors selling mostly handcrafted goods, all of which was very pretty, although most of it was out of my price range! Although many of the handcrafts did fit in with the circus them, many more did not. Vendors were selling jewelry, baskets, ornaments, and other products that would fit just about any taste and style. 

They also had a collection of circus themed books, including one about the Hartford Circus fire. As a Connecticuter, it’s always interesting to see other people actually acknowledging a part of our state history that isn’t Roger Sherman and the Connecticut Compromise, although the circus fire is obviously a pretty horrible tragedy. 

We also discovered that they sell shirts from past Folklife Festivals at a discount here, so if you’re looking for a shirt from days gone by (within the last four years or so), it’s also worth stepping inside and snapping one up for a bargain.

There’s one final must do at the Festival: the Lime Fizz.

The official website of the festival said that this was brought back specifically in honor of the 50th anniversary, as apparently the drink was popular with festival goers of yesteryear. I’ve done some digging around on the internet and can’t find anything that specifically points to this being a fan favorite or something that’s been raved about in the past, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe it’s out there. 

This drink was pretty amazing, and I’m not just saying that. Oftentimes fruity drinks are too sweet to really be satisfying on a super, super hot day, but the Lime Fizz was a perfect combination of sour, sweet, and just refreshing coolness that made it the cherry on the sundae of my weekend. They sell it with and without vodka, and I’m definitely already planning on figuring out how to recreate this in my own kitchen. 

And that was my trip to the Folklife Festival! It was a lot of fun, and despite it being really hot out these last two weeks, it was definitely worth making the trip downtown to explore, learn, and eat some really tasty food. I will absolutely be planning on going back next year. Hopefully it won’t downpour half an hour after I get there!

And maybe we’ll see you there!


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  2. This sounds really interesting. I hope I can go one of these days!

    1. Well, I've got no plans to move! Maybe next summer. :D

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