On Saturday, June 23, the volunteers for the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival came to the Mall for their annual orientation. Every year, many dedicated members of the public volunteer their time and energy—helping with everything from Festival accessibility to the evening concerts. This summer, more than six hundred volunteers will work with staff and participants; the Festival simply would not be possible without them.
Festival volunteers typically represent a wide range of ages and interests, and must be at least sixteen years of age to apply. This year, volunteers are coming from places as far away as Ghana, England, and Wales! Many volunteers are veterans, who return every summer to help out with the Folklife Festival. Currently we have thirteen volunteers who have been helping out for more than twenty years. One of the longest-serving volunteers is retired school teacher Joan Paull, who is back for her thirty-seventh time with the Festival! Joan began volunteering in 1975, after first visiting the Festival. When asked if she has a favorite memory, she exclaimed, “You can’t ask that question! Every Festival has some outstanding wonderful, performance.” Some of her favorite moments from past Festivals include a camel that escaped from an enclosure in 2005, a buffalo that gave birth in the middle of the Mall, and the Dalai Lama’s visit in 2000.
Why do people volunteer at the Festival? Joan believes that her experiences with us have inspired her to travel around the world, and that the Folklife Festival has “not only been a springboard to me, but has also allowed me to broaden my own horizons.” She loves exploring new cultures, meeting new people, and having the opportunity to learn from them directly. This is the same reason why the Folklife Festival is such an exciting experience for many visitors: the Festival allows communities to speak for themselves as they share their cultural traditions, and encourages visitors—and volunteers—to engage with living cultures and their practitioners from around the world.
James Mayer is an intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He recently graduated from Macalester College, where he studied History and Classics.