Today I visited the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage which is one of the three partner institutions in the Recovering Voices Program (with NMNH and NMAI). Housed in an ultramodern steel and glass office building at L’Enfant Plaza the outer appearance might not look very “folk”, but then what is folklife? Where I come from most folks’ associations will be of folkdance, folkcostumes, folkmuseums and something slightly odd and boring (says I who love all that). However, this Center’s mission is to study and promote all contemporary grassroot cultures both in the States and internationally. Inside the office the landscape is more colorful than the outer look of the office building, with baskets, clay pots, figurines etc all over the place, but turns out to be gifts from happy participants in the Folklife Festival that the Center organizes on the Mall every July. This year the program featured Columbia, Rhythm & Blues and the Peace Corps. The festival is probably what most people associate with the Center, but it is also popular for its Folkways Recordings productions that are available on CDs, podcasts and even cassettes. And I think cassettes might not be so backward as it sounds like, because when the goal is to diffuse something to the widest audience possible it is wise to use as many channels as possible –even those on the other side of the digital divide. The Center also produces books, exhibitions, documentaries, seminars and educational tools –like a guide on how to interview your own family members. The Folklife Center is also very much about research and for instance this year’s festival was preceeded by three years of ethnographic research in Columbia to determine what Columbians consider to be their contemporary culture. It was a very nice visit, but I forgot to ask how “folk” is the habit of Washingtonian business women walking to work in conservative dress and plastic sandals (for then to change to pumps in the office)? That’s one of the local habits that have intrigued me the most here and though I like it it still jumps to my eye.
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