About ten years ago I was strolling through the National Mall on a Saturday afternoon. I was living in Maryland at the time and interning for an international public relations firm in the heart of Washington, DC, during the week, but on the weekends, I took advantage of the free time to explore the nation’s capital city.
So it was on one of these free Saturdays that I was wandering past the Smithsonian museums. I don’t remember where I was going, exactly, or if I had already visited my intended destination for the day and was headed back to the subway for the ride home, but something derailed my attention. It was the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an extension of the museum system with interactive displays and exhibits, workshops, live performances and food.
I didn’t realize this was an annual event at the time, and I was so thankful for my good fortune of stumbling upon the free festival. I found a schedule of events for the festival—the theme that year was Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust—and then hunkered down for the rest of the day. I ate spicy foods and watched artists creating pieces representative of ancient cultures along this trade route. My interest in visiting Uzbekistan, China and Turkey was solidified as I listened to unusual instruments being strummed and tapped and blown. And, in a completely unexpected turn of events when I started my Saturday morning, I saw Yo-Yo Ma and the Silkroad Ensemble play—for free.
Before I left the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that day, I bought a 2-CD album of music found along the Silk Road, and it’s still one of my most favorite albums.
I’ve never forgotten the magic of the Folklife Festival, so when I found out that the Peace Corps was celebrating its 50th anniversary with a presence at the 2011 event, it became a must-do cornerstone in our epic summer road trip. Peace Corps: 50th Anniversary made up one-third of the festival last year, with artisans from countries where volunteers work and conversations about the Peace Corps with current and returned volunteers. In addition to the Peace Corps, Colombia: The Nature of Culture and Rhythm and Blues: Tell It Like It Is made up the other two components of the event with a myriad of food vendors, live performances and workshops—just like what I found nearly ten years earlier.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is an annual event, free and open to the public. Every year, there are usually three different cultural topics highlighted at the event. Previous topics include spotlights on several destinations—Mexico, Alberta, the Mekong River, Northern Ireland, South Africa, the Mississippi Delta—and other cultural topics of interest such as food culture in the USA, NASA, Appalachia and American social dance. In 2012, the programs are about the relationship between the USDA and land-grant universities, arts and creativity east of the Anacostia River and the AIDS Memorial quilt.
I think one of the greatest things about Washington, DC, is the abundance of free and accessible activities and festivals in the city, and the Smithsonian plays a big part of that. This festival really is a concentrated, more detailed extension of what might be found in one of the museums, and the richness of the event should not be missed if you’re traveling in Washington, DC, during one of the two weeks it’s up and running on the Washington Mall.
If you work the Smithsonian Folklife Festival into your summer Washington, DC, itinerary, here a few tips to make your trip more enjoyable:
> Drink lots of water. It can be brutally hot and humid in Washington, DC, in the summer, so stay cool and well hydrated. You can purchase water, but I’d advise bringing your own bottle.
> Wear sunscreen, and take advantage of shaded performance spaces to stay cool.
> Take a chance. You might not think you’re interested in a certain theme or performance, but you might be pleasantly surprised at what you find. Just like I fell in love with music along the Silk Road, the same might happen to you. Choose a few lectures, workshops and concerts, and sit through them. Even if you don’t love them, you’re likely to learn something or at least leave with a greater appreciation.
> Take advantage of the subway system. Don’t worry about parking. There is plenty of public transportation that surrounds the National Mall.
> Taste the food. If one of the themes is related to a destination, chances are there is food relevant to the local culture.
> Ask questions. People giving demonstrations and lectures are there because they’re passionate about the topic they’re speaking on and they want to share that passion.