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Friday, June 24, 2011

Archiving the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Photo by Diana Davies, Walt Koken of the Highwoods String Band winning the fiddler's contest at the 1972 festival.

Those of you who have managed to get down to the Mall in the past two weeks will have noticed the elephant’s graveyard of tent parts slowly coming together under the watchful stewardship of many harried Folklife Center administrators, curators, and their respective legions of interns. It’s the time of year typically reserved for pitching tents and making noise, and the 45th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival is gearing up to do just that under the triple auspices of Colombia, the Peace Corps, and Rhythm & Blues.

Photo by Diana Davies, Ralph Rinzler with a folk group, 1969.
The Smithsonian Folklife Festival began in 1967 as the Smithsonian Institution Festival of American Folklife, the brainchild of James Morris, the then-director of Museum services, and of Ralph Rinzler, who would become its first director. The early festivals are a where's Waldo game of well-loved artists and household names from the folk community, shot by some legendary photographers not the least of whom is Diana Davies, who also documented the Newport Folk Festival and the Civil Rights movement. Davies' festival photography is stylistically distinctive and very beautiful, there's something unbelievably powerful about the strong compositions in the black and white shots that perfectly captures the energy of the late 1960s. To see some striking examples of her work, check out the Diana Davies Photographs.

Photo by Diana Davies, Maybelle Carter performing at the festival in 1969.
Photo by Diana Davies, the Highwoods String Band at the 1972 festival.
The Ralph Rinzler Archives house 45 years worth of festival documentation, much of it performance photography, process shots of folk crafts, and of course food from everywhere. Most of it is available in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival records.

To the archivists, the Folklife Festival represents an exercise in logistics. Its documentation and the subsequent data processing is one of the main duties of the CFCH’s Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives, one that spans many months, many interns, and many long drawn-out brawls with xml. To this end the archive deploys a small army of photographers on the Mall every year, some professional and others dedicated amateur volunteers, to shoot and conserve the pulse of this unique cultural exhibition. These are some of their stories, in their own words:

While the photographers shoot on the ground, from out of trees, perched on bamboo stilts or behind bonfires and disgruntled buffaloes, the Rinzler Archives photo-documentation team engages in a sort of guerrilla archiving exercise from a trailer in the administrative compound. People think of archiving as something that occurs inside reasonably well-lit, temperature controlled environments after the fact, but that's only part of the job. As the images come in they are processed and saved in the Smithsonian's digital asset management system and are available for researchers to view on site.
Tapestry by Ethel Mohamed, depicting the Festival activities during the Bicentennial celebrations.

Come join us on the National Mall from June 30th through July 4th and then again from July 7th through the 11th for food, music, discussion, crafts, and some ninja archiving.

-AurĂ©lie Beatley, Intern, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

1 comment:

  1. This is something that we can be proud about. Thanks for sharing this.