Olivia Cadaval, Sojin Kim, and Diana Baird N’Diaye. Curatorial Conversations: Cultural Representation and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. 304 (hardcover) or 360 (paperback) pp., 71 b&w illus., ref., index. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2016.
Curatorial Conversations explores the legacy of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (SFF) by bringing together scholars with decades of experience as curators, researchers, and participants. This collection of essays is not so much a history of the festival as it is an attempt to trace the evolution of what it means to be a SFF curator and a reflection upon how relationships with cultural communities—whether Cajun fiddlers, Tibetan expatriates, or NASA engineers—have been refined and strengthened since the festival’s 1967 debut. My intention here is to provide a brief overview of the anthology and highlight three themes I found particularly salient, before concluding with some questions concerning the future of the festival.
Scholars from multiple fields have made significant contributions to the festival, and so this volume includes reflections not only from folklorists, anthropologists, and archivists but also from practitioners in applied fields, including cultural activists and program directors. Beyond its introductory and concluding essays, the book is divided into four sections. Part I grounds the reader in the festival’s backstory chronicling its early pioneers and its foundational values—namely, validating and centering cultural communities and developing collaborations to further social justice. Part II navigates the intersection of culture and politics, investigating how each of the 180 festival programs through the years have had to negotiate local, regional, national, or global politics. Part III delves into the craft of curating: framing each (re)presentation, delineating cultural spaces, and tailoring the scope of each program—a task that can appear impossible. Part IV addresses the impact of the SFF beyond each annual iteration and problematizes curatorial authority. The essays cover over 50 years of festival history and dozens of cultural programs. While the book’s central organizing principle is the curatorial process itself, several other themes emerge that are relevant to anthropologists and other researchers in the social sciences and humanities. I will focus on three: methodology, multivocality, and education.
Generally, the SFF has embraced a performance-centered approach, following disciplinary trends in folklore and anthropology. Beyond literal performances, such an approach favors processes over static events; multivocality over dogma; and fluidity over boundedness. The performance-centered methodology also emphasizes collaboration with national and international communities, using narrative sessions as venues for agentive performance. Presenters speak to the audience directly. As Jeff Place states with reference to Appalachian presenters (in his chapter, “The Bristol Sessions“), “[T]hey wanted the program to tell the story they told about themselves” (201). At the same time, the presenters have been carefully chosen by the SFF curators, and the scenery, layout, and signage of the festival have been organized to convey a particular representational framework (see especially James Deutsch’s chapter, “Good Enough for Government Work?: Federal Agencies at the SFF”). In the introductory essay, Diana Baird N’Diaye, Olivia Cadaval, and Sojin Kim emphasize that curation is a process that is distinguished from producing (23). Marjorie Hunt develops this theme in her essay, “The Poetics and Power of Presentation at the SFF,” where she shows the important role curators play as translators who can guide presenters, tradition bearers, community leaders, and skilled craftsmen to articulate their deep knowledge to visitors.
As anthropologists, ethnographers, and folklorists have come to realize, cultures are neither static nor monolithic. Even national symbols, purportedly unifying, are multivocal—more so when histories are disputed, ethnic and religious minorities are marginalized, or political disputes are a hair’s breadth from war. Several of the authors describe the complexities of traversing such multivocality. For example, in Cadaval’s essay on “Imagining a Collaborative Curatorial Relationship,” she details historical tensions between Jamaican and Rastafarian participants over who has the authority to represent a culture. This question is also implicit in Amy Horowitz’s history of the Jerusalem Program, which was ultimately never staged at the SFF and illustrates attempts to curate multivocality from a place where meanings (and borders) are constantly contested (see “Next Year in Washington: The Jerusalem Program—Postponement and Rebirth”).
The educational goals of the festival include advocating for marginalized or denigrated communities and social justice. These aims have been articulated from the beginning of the SFF by Ralph Rinzler, the festival’s creator, and early staff members (see Jack Santino’s essay, “What I Learned from Ralph Rinzler: The Politics and Poetics of Public Presentation”). Education remains a central tenet of the cultural programs. In “How Folklorists Changed the World,” Steve Zeitlin explores how the SFF’s educational goals have expanded beyond the festival itself into other programs such as StoryCorps, CityLore, PBS documentaries, and radio programming. However, realizing the SFF’s educational goals is not without controversy, and contributors stress that education should not be unidirectional. As Frank Proschan argues in his confessional piece, “Against Curation: The Challenges of Community Self-Representation”: “[It] is communities that must control the means by which they represent themselves and are represented to others” (83). (The alternative subtitle of Proschan’s essay is “Confessions of a Former Control Addict.”) N’Diaye goes further in suggesting that staff must provide opportunities for participants to learn skills for self-promotion, self-documentation, and self-presentation in her chapter on “Agency, Reciprocal Engagement, and Applied Folklore Practice.” As with disciplines like anthropology, the SFF must grapple with the repercussions of colonialism and imperialism. For example, Richard Kennedy describes how workshops in the Philippines were at times met with suspicion due to the colonial legacy of the United States (see “West Meets East: Asian Programs at the SFF”). Unfortunately, at times, education and advocacy had to take a backseat to bureaucracy and politics. Cynthia Vidaurri recounts a festival project that was never completed in “Cuba—Confluencias, Creatividad y Color.” While one of the goals of the Cuban program was to combat American stereotypes of Cubans, the tense relationships between the two countries made it impossible.
These challenges aside, the collection as a whole convincingly articulates the potential for genuinely informed and respectful cultural exchange and learning. Noteworthy in this connection is Betty Belanus’s hopeful essay, “The SFF: Many Auspicious Doors,” which highlights the possibility of curators learning from participants and using local knowledge to critically examine the festival to improve engagement. In the volume’s epilogue (“Reflection-Projection”), James Early challenges festival staff to go further to look for new models of collaboration and hone the dialogic possibilities of the SFF.
In the preface, C. Kurt Dewhurst and Marsha Macdowell describe the festival as a “laboratory” for experimentation (7). The question is, as Santino suggests, how experimentation has helped realize the festival’s goals (47). Furthermore, one might ask how experimentation has moved the SFF away from the legacy of “human zoos” and ethnocentrism found in world fairs and other international expositions where indigenous cultures were put on display in living exhibits. Several essays (notably those by Early, Kennedy, and Santino) confront this problematic past of exoticization and objectification, defending the SFF from such criticisms. Certainly, the festival is not positing the superiority of any one culture or community. Yet, a certain uneasiness remains regarding participants as “living exhibits,” and the volume asks how the festival can move beyond curatorial experimentation. One path that N’Diaye and Vidaurri intriguingly explore is the trend towards local modes of being, indigenous methodologies, and community-based performativity. These approaches interrogate the very concept of history by exploring local and indigenous conceptions of the past and present. Perhaps the future of the festival depends less on experimentation on the part of curators and more on the vast array of cultural knowledge from the participants themselves. This question recalls the underlying tension, discussed earlier, between curating and producing as a methodological distinction.
Space precludes discussion of many other important issues raised in the volume. Readers will also find, for example, consideration of the roles that visitors play in their attendance at the festival, and scrutiny of the politics of funding, including ethical concerns about sponsors such as Exxon-Mobile or even national ministries of culture. For both anthropologists and historians, the volume offers an understanding of cultural representation through the lens of one long-running institution, providing insight into how a wide range of community leaders, curatorial practitioners, and tradition bearers have navigated the public presentation of living cultural heritage.
Charitie V. Hyman: contributions / / Tulane University