CULTURE AT THE SERVICE OF THE LIVING, Distinguished Speaker Series with Michael Mason, Director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

By Liliana Guerrero (ARAD ’21)

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Dr. Michael Mason, Director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, presented “Cultural Sustainability at the Smithsonian: How a Framework for Relationships, Understanding, and Action Transformed a Fifty-Year-Old Institution” on the center’s work on cultural sustainability. His talk was part of the Arts Administration program’s Distinguished Speaker Series, a platform for students to gain insights on different subjects in the field of arts administration.

“Folklorist, priest, performer, son, brother, father, husband.” Those are the words that Michael Mason, Director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, chose to describe himself for the profile of his Blog Baba Who…Babalú!. Dr. Mason does not exaggerate when he expresses that he holds “so many roles” and “so little time.” As both a scholar and practitioner of the Santería religion, Dr. Mason is interested in studying the cultures of the African diaspora, a passion that culminated in his book Living Santería: Rituals and Experiences in an Afro-Cuban Religion. In his role as at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, he is responsible for the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, among other educational and cultural initiatives.

Dr. Mason works primarily with “folklife,” or Intangible Cultural Heritage as it is now known by UNESCO. This category includes handicrafts, gastronomy, rituals, festivals, oral traditions, music, performing arts and every other manifestation of live heritage than depends on a communities’ recreation for its existence. The concept is abstract and poses several challenges because it groups a diverse network of interest groups with different agendas. In Dr. Mason’s words, “the people who care about music, do not generally care about craft and the people who love rituals do not usually care about gastronomy.”

In 2013, when Dr. Mason first landed in his current job at the Smithsonian, he quickly realized that community engagement was an important value in the organization and that employees of all departments cited that work with communities was the most important aspect of their job. However, there was not a single budget line that represented the regular work with communities that his colleagues described as vital to their mission. The Cultural Sustainability program, which is part of The Folklife Center came to be as a response to this mismatch, in an effort to assign a group of people who were working consistently with communities to help them document, research, sustain and present the culture that matters the most to them.

The Folklife Center, for example, has been working in Bhutan to preserve its hand-loomed weaving traditions that are being constantly threatened by the growth of cheap machine-made textiles. This is one of the initiatives that the center has embarked on as part of its cultural industries program, which aims to “support cultural practices that reinforce community development.” The Center also supports cultural tourism to design experiences that appeal to the public. My Armenia is one example in which the center has collaborated with the people of Armenia to create tourist experiences, increase awareness of Armenia as a destination and provide a richer sense of what the country has to offer.

The Center is also committed to supporting the sustainability of endangered languages. The Center promotes language use through initiatives such as the Mother Tongue Film Festival, where films entirely spoken in a minority language are showcased during three days  in Washington, DC.

The previous examples illustrate the Center’s philosophy: culture should be at the service of the community. Dr. Mason believes in culture’s instrumental value as a tool to enhance the community’s well being, an instrument to seek the changes that communities have reason to value and to seek their own best interests. In this light, Cultural Sustainability proposes a shift from an “ossified” concept of preservation to a more dynamic approach of sustainability. Rather than statically preserving a cultural expression, cultural sustainability advocates for self-conscious cultural safeguarding that involves all actors and practitioners. The concept is grounded on the idea that culture must be at the service of contemporary actors.

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The work is slow and time-consuming because their interventions are grounded on research. It is an inductive process, that supposes up close and personal relationships with communities, and seeks to empower them, to give them agency as owners of their own cultural expressions. In brief, Cultural Sustainability is about emphasizing communities’ right to craft the future of their cultural heritage in their own terms.

Dr. Mason’s presentation elucidated the complexities in the management of intangible cultural heritage. The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is a leading institution in the field that continuously advances the mission of “increasing understanding, strengthening communities, and reinforcing our shared humanity.” However, it is a work in progress, dynamic as the concept of intangible heritage itself, a pursuit that requires a constant reinvention to address the challenges of an ever-changing world.

 

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Liliana Guerrero Delgado studied Business Administration at Los Andes University in Bogotá Colombia. After graduation, Liliana worked as a research assistant in the university and later joined the Alternative Contents division in Cine Colombia, her country’s largest cinema exhibitor and distributor. In this role, she distributed live events in cinemas such as New York’s Metropolitan Opera, London’s National Theatre productions and Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet amongst others. Liliana aims to work in the public sector in order to promote the strengthening of artistic endeavors by demonstrating the socioeconomic impact of this industry, making the cultural sector a key-contributor to Colombia’s development.

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