With a motto, “Culture of, by and for the people”, The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) is one of three cultural centers under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution.  It is located in the Capital Gallery Building at 600 Maryland Avenue SW in Washington D.C. 

An educational and research division, it seeks, according to its website, to “encourage understanding and cultural sustainability through research, education and community engagement” and promote “understanding and continuity of diverse, contemporary grassroots cultures in the United States and around the world.”  Its name illustrates the breadth and depth of its vision in developing the significance and value of cultural heritage.

Supported by federal government appropriations, private donations, philanthropic gifts and grants, the CFCH is comprised of its own three unique units: the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.  The archives and collections’ purpose is to curate, catalog and collect items, memorabilia and ephemera while the festival and record label use their collections to research and provide experiences.

The outreach of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is incredibly diverse and enlightening.  While it houses the largest, number-wise, collection in the Smithsonian, there are aspects of the Center that are private for the institution’s purpose. 

The CFCH engages the public with its production, according to its website, of the “Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Smithsonian Global Sound, exhibitions, documentary films and videos, symposia, publications, and educational materials.  The Center conducts ethnographic and cultural heritage policy oriented research, maintains the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, and provides educational and research opportunities through fellowships, internships, and training programs.  The Center also produces major national cultural events consistent with its mission.  In 2004 these included the National World War II Reunion and the First Americans Festival for the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian.”

Because the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is partially supported by federal funding, it has mandates similar to other federal institutions.  These include the American Folklife Center, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Park Service.  The institutions can collaborate in some instances due to common missions, interests, programming and resources.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is an annual 10-day event that occurs on the National Mall.  Premiering in 1967, the festival was originally conceived three years prior by S. Dillon Ripley, who had recently become the Secretary of the Smithsonian.  He had an innovative idea of presenting the institution’s artifacts and materials in a unique format to further engage those who frequented the Smithsonian.  He hired performer and music manager James R. Morris, a non-museum professional, to serve as the institution’s inaugural Director of Museum Services.  Morris’ suggestion of a free, summer festival set outdoors on the Mall was readily approved and he hired Ralph Rinzler, a successful festival organizer whose past work included the Newport Folk Festival.

The first festival occurred on the Fourth of the July weekend.  With a budget of approximately $5,000.00, the festival focused on American folklife, showcasing eighty-four participants.  Morris and Rinzler continued to expand the festival.  Almost a decade later, the festival for the Bicentennial Celebration had grown to span twelve weeks, was supported by a $7,000.000.00 budget and featured five thousand artists from the United States and throughout the world!

Underneath Rinzler, several critical advancements were made.  These include widening the scope of Center’s inclusion to reflect its global outreach and promotion as well as emphasize its research interests and public programing. He was able to successfully procure the highly-coveted Folkways Records music collection, celebrated for its vast folk culture and music content, from its founder, Moe Asch.  It would become known as the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections.  While Morris transitioned to other work within the Smithsonian, Ralph Rinzler remained working in and advancing the vision of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage until his passing in 1994. 

These three units of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage can be further highlighted from the following information sourced from its website:

  • Smithsonian Folklife Festival

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is a research-based presentation of living cultural heritage annually produced outdoors on the National Mall.  The 10-day event provides a platform for cultural exploration, exchange and engagement. Since its inception in 1967, the Festival has highlighted artisans from all 50 states, more than 100 countries and nearly 70 occupations.  Free to the public, the Festival drew 8.25 million visitors on site and online in 2017.  In 2010, the Initiative for Global Citizen Diplomacy honored the Festival with a Best Practice Award for International Cultural Engagement, and, in 2017, the American Alliance of Museums recognized the Festival with a Sustainability Excellence Award.

  • Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian.  With nearly 60,000 tracks of digitized music and sound, Folkways is a cultural treasure with unique holdings in American folk, world music and children’s music, including special series dedicated to African American and Latino music.  In 2017, the label reached 251 million listeners through radio, online streaming and sales.  To date, the label has won six Grammy Awards, one Latin Grammy, 10 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Awards and 30 Independent Music Awards.

  • Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is home to the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, a public resource named for the founding director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.  The center’s collections are global in perspective, covering world ethnic performance traditions, spoken-word recordings, sounds of science and nature, occupational folklore and family folklore.  They focus on American, and more specifically Euro-American, African American, Caribbean and Native American musical and performance traditions.  In 2015, UNESCO inscribed the Moses and Frances Asch Collection into its Memory of the World International Register.

Additionally, there are three areas of cultural sustainability that the CFCH supports.  Rooted in principles of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the research and activities have migrated, as per its site, “from reified and ossified discourses of ‘preservation’ to more dynamic and ecological models of sustainability.”  This information, centered upon sustainment, preservation and promotion, educates communities who are developing means to support and strengthen their beloved cultural heritage.

The Center has detailed the three areas of this research program on cultural sustainability as follows:

  • Sustaining Minority Languages in Europe Project

With most of the world’s languages severely threatened, thousands of language communities have committed to revitalization efforts, from documentation and renewal to maintenance. This project responds to that urgency by developing robust comparative research on revitalization efforts in six minority language communities.

  • My Armenia

My Armenia harnesses the power of storytelling to strengthen cultural heritage sustainability through community-based tourism development. This collaborative project between the people of Armenia, the Smithsonian and USAID aims to deepen understanding of the country’s living traditions and heritage sites.

  • Smithsonian Artisan Initiative

The Smithsonian Artisan Initiative is dedicated to building the sustainability of traditional culture. The program brings together community-driven research and documentation, product development, enterprise training, world-class design development and a suite of tools artisans can use to unlock access to both local and international markets.