Five Myths about the Festival
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which takes place every year on the National Mall. Since 1967, the Festival has gained almost mythical status as a cultural event that is free, fun, and educational, offering a space where people who may live worlds apart can find common ground in learning about one another’s traditional music, dance, crafts, food, and daily lives.
However, a few false myths have perpetuated over our 50-year history. We’re here to set the record straight.
1. The Festival has always taken place on the National Mall around the Smithsonian museums.
This is partially true, in that the Festival has always taken place on some part of the National Mall. The first Festival in 1967 occupied only two tents, directly in front of the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History). In following years, it spread to fill this space, as well as the area in front of the National Museum of Natural History.
However, between 1973 and 1976, the Festival was temporarily relocated to the surroundings of the Lincoln Memorial and Reflecting Pool. From 1977 to 1981, the Festival was moved again, with outdoor activities where the National Museum of African American History and Culture is now, and indoor activities in the Museum of History and Technology, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Renwick Gallery.
In 1982, the Festival returned to its original location. In honor of this change, Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley said, “We celebrate the return to a quieter, more easily accessible, and larger site, and also to one that makes more clearly visible the strong, complementary relationship between museum collections and the presenters of living traditions.”
During turf restorations and irrigation installments by the National Park Service, the Festival moved toward the Capitol in 2015, in front of the National Museum of the American Indian, and in front of the National Air and Space Museum in 2016. This year we return to the original spot, between Seventh and Twelfth streets.
2. The Festival always ends on the Fourth of July.
While in certain years the Festival did indeed end with the celebration of America’s Day of Independence and a spectacular fireworks display, the Festival has in more recent years been built around the Fourth—beginning in the last week in June and extending through the week of the holiday.
From 1977 to 1980, the Festival took place in October, and in the U.S. Bicentennial Year of 1976, it lasted for twelve weeks!
3. The Festival draws more than one million visitors each year.
While there are some years that sound evidence shows the Festival drew more than one million people (the 2002 Silk Road program, for instance), counting visitors for the event is not a precise science, since there are multiple entry points for our grounds.
The approximate annual count is more likely between 400,000 and 600,000. Still, for a ten-day outdoor event, this is pretty phenomenal. Compare this number to visitation for the entire month of May 2017 at the most popular Smithsonian museums on the Mall: 754,468 for the National Museum of Air and Space, and 715,705 for the National Museum of Natural History.
4. The Festival always features one U.S. state or region, one country, and one themed program.
There were only about thirteen years that followed this “formula.” Early Festivals often featured only one state in addition to general American folklife tradition themes (like baking, weaving, and brass bands), while later years typically featured a variation in programs, such as two countries and a music program.
The 1973 Festival was the first to include the Old Ways in the New World program, which connected descendants of immigrants in America to their ancestral traditions. Later, this program transitioned into the standard individual country programs, beginning with Mexican and Mexican-American Traditions in 1978. The last state to be featured was Texas in 2008.
5. The Festival gets smaller every year.
Space constraints due to rehabilitation efforts on the National Mall have caused the Festival to appear smaller than it really is in the past several years. Because of the newly refurbished central grassy plots, which must remain open, we must be more and more creative with space in the coming years.
In 2017, Festival performance and demonstration space spreads across approximately 780,000 square feet (14 football fields, or 18 acres!), including the historic Arts and Industries Building. More than 800 participants will perform and present over the course of the ten days. Smaller? We think not!
Betty Belanus has served as a curator and education specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage since 1987. Hannah Peterson is a Folklife Festival intern and a rising senior studying classics and philosophy at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.