The bubble and the tent: Keeping culture accessible at the Smithsonian Institution
01 August 2013 – Will Walker
With the resignations of the Hirshhorn Museum’s director and the chairman of its board of trustees this summer, the Bubble, or Seasonal Inflatable Structure, project (at left) has collapsed in a very public way. As the Bubble deflated under the weight of its projected costs, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a different kind of venue for arts and culture, continued its long run of phenomenal success. (This year’s festival, which ran from June 26 through July 7, featured Hungarian heritage, African American styles of adornment, and speakers of endangered languages.) Although the Bubble’s projected $12.5 million price tag was the most frequently cited reason for its demise, I want to propose an alternative explanation. With the former director’s goal of using the Seasonal Inflatable Structure to host think tanks and Davos-style meetings of the minds, the project bore the taint of elitism and was not a good fit for the Smithsonian.
The folklife festival’s open, accessible, and democratic character, on the other hand, makes it a perfect showcase for the institution. An annual tradition since 1967, the festival is extremely popular with the public, routinely attracting hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of visitors. One of its founders, folklorist Ralph Rinzler, dubbed it “A Festival to Cherish Our Differences,” and it has always succeeded in melding a populist feel with a multiculturalist ethos that is neither heavy-handed nor simplistic. The idea behind the festival is straightforward: bring people to the Mall from all over the country and the world to present the rich diversity of human cultures. Visitors are invited, but never pressured, to engage in multiple ways with the festival’s programs–from simply enjoying performances to listening to a lecture or striking up a conversation with a craftsperson. Conversation and dialogue are encouraged; indeed, they are at the heart of the festival’s philosophy.
As I researched the history of the festival for my book–A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013)–listening to countless recordings from the 1960s and ’70s, I heard the incredible power of its dialogic approach. Remarkably, ordinary people freely discussed serious topics, such as Native American land claims and cultural continuities from old world to new, in passionate, yet civil tones as the music of Dewey Balfa or “Sweet Honey in the Rock” hung in the air. The debut festival in 1967 featured a New Orleans brass band, a Navajo sand painter, a folk dance group from North Carolina, a string band from Virginia, Native American dancers from Iowa and Alaska, and a square dance caller from Baltimore.
Relatively small, at least at first, its influence on the Smithsonian would, nevertheless, be significant. At the time the Smithsonian’s leadership was struggling to adapt to the new American cultural landscape ushered in by the civil rights movement at home and decolonization abroad. The festival offered an approach to cultural exhibition that invited people to speak for themselves rather than privileging curators’ perspectives. It was the beginning of a paradigm shift in museums that would lead to projects such as the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Although the festival is a massive undertaking to organize, its infrastructure (tents, stages, signage, and food concessions) is rather basic. Superficially, it is indistinguishable from the many county fairs that spring up each year across the country. This physical similarity is appropriate as the festival is dusty, hot, exciting, and alive in the same way that county fairs are. Of course, behind the scenes a great deal of fieldwork and research go into selecting and presenting the cultures on display. The festival is a public program with an enormous amount of intellectual heft behind it, but it doesn’t wear its scholarship on its sleeve.
If the Hirshhorn’s leadership had succeeded in carrying the Bubble project to fruition, it would have offered another gathering place for cultural events. Unlike the county fair atmosphere of the festival, the Bubble would have been a high concept and aesthetically striking venue. In the end, however, a showy space for the “best and the brightest,” or, more likely, the most deep pocketed, to share ideas about art and culture was unable to garner broad, public support. It turned out that the Smithsonian didn’t need the Bubble. It already had its own temporary space for the meeting of minds: the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
~ Will Walker is assistant professor of history at the Cooperstown Graduate Program (State University of New York-Oneonta).