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Experiencing Culture from the Inside Out: Working as a Smithsonian Folklife Festival Intern


service learningBetty J. Belanus is a curator and education specialist at the Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She enjoys introducing her interns to the world through the amazing Smithsonian Folklife Festival and other projects almost as much as traveling to visit other cultures in person. Learn more about the Festival at

One of things I enjoy most about my job as Education Specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is supervising college-aged interns. Over the past 28 years, I have had about 200 interns (I lost count years ago), the vast majority of them young women studying folklore, anthropology, history, international studies, ethnomusicology, or something else related to learning about cultures in the U.S. or around the world. Some of them have experienced traveling or living abroad, others have traveled only vicariously through their readings. They usually come for a semester or for the summer, helping prepare for some aspect of an upcoming Smithsonian Folklife Festival or, in the case of the summer ones, enter the maelstrom that is the Festival (which takes places annually for ten days around July 4).

The Festival features the culture of different countries and/or states or regions of the U.S. every year, so there is always something new to learn. This past year, the featured country was Peru, and I had the pleasure of supervising two interns, Erica Martin from American University and Tiffany Wilt from Montgomery College, who both stayed from February through July, seeing both preparations and the Festival through. Both rising juniors, I had some doubts at first that they were going to have the academic, and maybe also personal, maturity to pull off the big projects I had in store for them. They soon proved me totally wrong. Neither had been to Peru, or even to South American before, but Erica was bound for a semester in Chile in late July, and Tiffany was bound for another adventure—transferring from the more local Montgomery College to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Both spoke Spanish, which was, of course, a huge help in working with materials from Peru.

service learningOur task from February to March was pulling together an issue of the Cricket Media publication, Faces: People, Places and Cultures, aimed at 9–14 year olds, using the fieldwork from the Peru curatorial and field team. Since this is the first time our Center had done an issue of Faces, it was touch and go from the start, and we all worked on inventing the process as we went along. I wrote a rough outline of the articles and features, and the interns divided up the list of articles and filled in the blanks from the field research and web resources. Gradually, we got to know the traditions and individual participants that we would be meeting at the Festival in a few months. We even got to correspond with some of them, as well as making “email friends” as we progressed with the issue.

The interns soon learned that Peru was a lot more than Machu Picchu, the famous Incan ruin that just about many people were aware of if they knew anything about Peru. As Erica and Tiffany took on such tasks as translating the origin myth of a remote Amazonian community from Spanish to English, gaining permission to use photos from a surfing competition utilizing traditional reed boats, and trying to figure out how many stories from the ground a suspension bridge made of local Andean grasses would be, the interns gained an intimate, albeit long distance, relationship with various facets of Peruvian culture and history.


service learningWe also included some Peruvian Americans in the issue. One of the highlights of researching the articles together was an interview we did with Giuseppe Lanzone, who along with his brother Mario, run a Peruvian-themed food truck (aptly called The Peruvian Brothers) which often parks in front of our office building. He spoke about the longing that the family had for their native foods, and how happy the brothers are that the truck brings the taste of Peru to a wide audience here in Washington, D.C. (The fact that he and his brother look more like male models than food truck owners and operators especially held the interns’ attentions!) Tiffany and I spent a happy morning in my kitchen testing a recipe for causa, a Peruvian spiced potato dish which the brothers provided, so that we could translate it into easy instructions for Faces readers.

By mid-March, our deadline for all Faces content, the interns had a head start on the next big project: organizing activities for a family area at the Festival. Called Wawawasi Kids Corner (following the Quechua term for nursery or pre-school), the area combined participatory performances and hands-on craft activities; something new every hour. Also to be included were matching games, puzzles, and a touch table of small artifacts and materials that reflected the traditions of the Peruvian participants at the Festival. In May, Erica and Tiffany were joined by a new influx of summer interns, who they initiated by instructing them to read all the Faces content! The two transitioned into Lead Volunteers (a position that paid them each a small stipend) during the Festival.

Then, suddenly, the Festival was upon us. Excitement and anxiety heightened in the last couple of weeks leading up to the opening. Also, eager anticipation to see the Peru issue of Faces delivered for sale at the Festival Marketplace. Participants and magazine arrived at nearly the same time in late June. It almost seemed like an anticlimax when the magazine arrived. We noticed little mistakes that had been overlooked, and color that was a bit off from the original photos. Still, here it was in our hands and ready for the world.

The first few days of the Festival, along with getting used to the Wawawasi venue and schedule, Erica and Tiffany took some time to bring copies of the Faces issue around the participants who were featured. Tiffany described how rewarding that “special delivery” was:

“Meeting all of the people that we wrote about in the articles was the best part about doing the project. Erica and I sort of had our special articles that we really really loved and meeting those people [featured in the articles] was extremely rewarding. It was also really strange to read about someone from such an outside perspective and then meet them in person. When you just read something you're so removed from that subject that it has an air of unreality. The best part was being able to give them the article and say I did this: I wrote about you and I feel like I know you already so can we be friends?”

service learningBy the end of the Festival, we were all exhausted but happy with the response to the Wawawasi, which was almost always filled to the brim with “kids of all ages,” and also gratified by the great response to the Faces issue. After a couple of weeks of Festival clean-up, it was time to say goodbye to Erica and Tiffany, and it felt strange after all we had been through together. Erica left for Chile in late July, and Tiffany prepared to move to Western Massachusetts. Since then, we have occasionally texted, exchanged emails, and Tiffany and I had a fun reunion at the National Zoo late in the summer visiting the Peru-related animals there (spectacle bears, alpacas, and the animals in the Amazonia area).

Erica and Tiffany will always have a special place in my pantheon of interns, however, and I still feel very protective of them. I sent Tiffany a care package to ease her first weeks at Smith (which, truth be told, was my own alma mater). When an earthquake hit Chile, I worried about Erica and was relieved to find out it didn’t impact her region. In fact, she was traveling with her study group to Peru when the earthquake hit Chile! Erica commented on how working on Faces and the Festival had prepared her for her trip to Peru:

“I felt incredibly lucky to have been able to travel to Peru after working on CFCH Folklife Festival for nearly six months. Having done research on many of the case studies featured during the festival, I traveled to Peru feeling better prepared than I had when I first got on the plane for my semester abroad in Santiago, Chile. …Being able to work on the Faces issues served as a great foundation for what I wanted to experience in Machu Picchu. The articles about the food and, of course, potatoes were probably the most helpful while in the more tourist-frequented parts of the country, along with the research we did on the camelids [alpacas and llamas] and textiles of Peru, of which there were plenty of examples on seemingly each city block.”

When I solicited their responses to the experience of working on Faces and the Festival for a short article I was writing for our annual report, they wrote back with the heart-felt comments that I have been quoting throughout this article. Tiffany, only half-joking, expressed the wish that we could all visit Peru together some day: “Definitely I'm going to force Erica to go with me again one day and maybe even take Betty along. I'll know not to just visit Machu Picchu because Peru has so much more to offer!”

I would be proud to accompany these two curious, smart and funny young women to Peru, and beyond, given the chance. But, I feel as though we already traveled a long and amazing journey last winter, spring and summer without ever leaving Washington, D.C.

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