Mall Visitors to Get Taste of Bhutanese Culture

Posted June 24, 2008 at 4:29pm

Recent visitors to the National Mall have been greeted by an unusual sight: a Bhutanese Buddhist temple.

Although the temple’s most intricate carving and painting was completed in Bhutan earlier this year, Bhutanese artisans have been assembling the structure on the Mall since early June so it will be ready in time for the 42nd annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which starts today.

The festival was founded in 1967 when then-Secretary of the Smithsonian S. Dillon Ripley decided the museums were not attracting enough interest and had become places where “someone would come after a big lunch on Sundays,” said Steve Kidd, production manager for the Folklife Festival. Ripley thought the museums would draw a larger crowd if they brought in different groups and allowed them to represent their own cultures.

“The way Ripley said it is, ‘We’ll take the instruments out of their cases and let them sing.’” Kidd said.

This year’s festival will feature three main exhibits: “Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon,” “NASA: Fifty Years and Beyond,” and “Texas: A Celebration of Music, Food and Wine.”

Kidd, who has been involved with the festival for eight years, said the three themes were selected based on which cultures showed interest in the festival, which material was most captivating and which topics could attract enough funding.

Roughly 120 Bhutanese dancers, artists, craftspeople, cooks, carpenters, farmers, and representatives of monastic life will be involved in “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” Located in the eastern Himalayas, the isolated Kingdom of Bhutan is bordered by China and India and has established an official policy of measuring development by the happiness of its people, rather than more conventional economic indicators. The exhibit on the Mall is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Bhutanese culture to ever be presented outside of the kingdom.

Bhutanese participants will perform folk dances and festival dances and demonstrate the kingdom’s 13 traditional arts, including woodcarving, pottery, incense-making, bamboo crafts, sculpting, weaving, calligraphy and sword-making. They will also demonstrate Bhutanese cooking on a traditional stove and play a variety of sports, including javelin, stone-tossing, traditional darts, wrestling, and archery, the national sport in Bhutan.

Although NASA is not typically considered a cultural group, the organization will be represented in this year’s program to highlight workplace culture. The agency will send 200 astronauts, astronomers, engineers, educators, astrophysicists and other experts to the Mall to represent its 80,000 employees, contractors and grantees. Visitors will see moon buggies, stardust and even space food.

The Texas exhibit will feature more than 25 bands and musical artists representing Tejano, polka, Western swing, gospel, conjunto, cowboy, Cajun, blues, mariachi and Creole music styles. Visitors will be invited to taste a variety of Texan dishes, and eight state wineries will explain how winemaking became an important industry in Texas.

Popular among tourists and D.C. locals alike, the Folklife Festival attracts about 1 million people each year.

“The festival is a way for people to get firsthand contact with extraordinary tradition-bearers and people they would otherwise never meet,” Kidd said. “It is what we like to call ‘cultural democracy.’”

This year’s festival will run today through Sunday and July 2 through July 6 on the Mall between Seventh and 14th streets Northwest. For more information, visit the festival’s Web site at folklife.si.edu.