Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

United States of America

Contact: +1-202-633-1141; +1 703-915-2843
Postal address: 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Suite 2001 Washington DC 20010
Geographic Coverage of NGO’s expertise: Armenia, Bhutan, China, Ecuador, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, Spain


Year of creation: 1967

Safeguarding measures:

- identification, documentation, research (including inventory-making)
- preservation, protection
- promotion, enhancement
- transmission, (non-)formal education
- revitalization
- other
- developing a research-based ecological approach to cultural sustainability

Main areas of work related to the Convention:

Each of the Center's core departments - the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Cultural Sustainability Initiatives, Research and Education, and Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives – plays an important role in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage. Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2017, the Center's Festival department produces the annual research-based Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Each year, the Festival brings more than 200 tradition bearers from the United States and around the world to share their music and dance, storytelling, craftsmanship, foodways, knowledge systems, and oral traditions with hundreds of thousands of visitors. The Festival plays an important role in the research, documentation, and promotion of intangible cultural heritage. For example, in 2013, the One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage program highlighted thirteen communities from around the world to share their efforts to revitalize and maintain their most important cultural practices. As the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is dedicated to supporting cultural diversity and increased understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound. Folkways provides online access to tens of thousands of audio recordings and hundreds of video features from the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives of the Center, as well as collections from partner archives including the International Library of African Music at Willard Rhodes University in South Africa, the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology of the American Institute for Indian Studies in India, and the Aga Khan Music Initiative for Central Asia. In addition, the Center offers tools for teaching, in-depth feature articles, and individual subscriptions. The label provides unparalleled access to seldom heard voices of people from all over the world. In 2014, we also began to distribute the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music. Folkways plays an important role in the documentation, research, preservation, promotion, transmission (through formal and non-formal education), and, at times, the revitalization of intangible cultural heritage. Cultural Sustainability Initiatives is the newest department of the Center, building on a research-based ecological approach to cultural sustainability and working with communities to identify interventions to strengthen the sustainability of their traditions. In China, the work carried out by the Center with ethnic Tibetans supports language documentation and training, intangible cultural heritage documentation, and artisan craft documentation and development. In Armenia, the Center launched the first international fellows program at the Smithsonian, in partnership with the Armenian Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography. Using this ethnographic research as a foundation, the Center is piloting an innovative model of community-based tourism that keeps representation and revenues in the hands of communities and tradition bearers. Specific cultural sustainability initiatives are grounded in documentation and research, but they play an even more critical role in providing solutions for enhancement, transmission, and revitalization of intangible cultural heritage. Finally, Research and Education and the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives are essential and fundamental components of the Center's work. In particular, the Rinzler Archives play a critical role in preservation of intangible cultural heritage. lt contains the Frances and Moses Asch Collection, recognized by UNESCO as Memory of the World in 2015.


As the largest museum, research, and education complex in the world, the Smithsonian Institution is well known for its collections of more than 154 million objects. The Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is the institution's leading force for safeguarding the diversity of intangible cultural heritage. The current strategic plan of the center outlines three major objectives. Each objective is built on the foundation of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, an effort actively engage by the center by promoting greater understanding and sustainability of cultural heritage across the United States and around the world through research, education, and community engagement: - Expand understanding of diverse living cultures The center bridges research and practice; seeks to enrich knowledge of intangible cultural heritage, creativity, and diversity; and uses that knowledge to provide engaging, practical trainings for the next generation of intangible cultural heritage professionals. Our research efforts are paralleled by our commitment to strengthen the stewardship, accessibility, and impact of intangible cultural heritage collections. - Invite public engagement in cultural practice and exchange The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage uses multiple methods of public engagement - the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and over 100 million annual visitors to our digital platforms – to spark discovery, support sharing, and deepen knowledge about intangible cultural heritage. - Champion cultural vitality and sustainability. The center promotes the widespread recognition of the value of traditions, supporting not only their preservation but also their long-term sustainability. Our ecological approach to cultural sustainability means that we work with communities to holistically assess the status of intangible cultural heritage and collaboratively develop trainings and other project-based activities to foster supportive conditions to sustain heritage in line with the community's own long-term vision.


As outlined in the Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage, the Center maintains that communities should have the primary role in safeguarding their own intangible cultural heritage. The work carried out by the Center is rooted in the principle of cultural democracy - the exercise of the right of free expression by diverse individuals and communities as they document, preserve and share the cultural traditions that matter most to them. Most of the Center's research is community-driven, community-based, and relies on the collaborative participation of local stakeholders. Recognizing that cultural heritage should not be subject to external judgments of value or worth, this approach is vital to ensure that the community's culture is respected and the Center's values are upheld. The nature of this work requires that the Center staff members maintain strong, long-standing relationships with both individual tradition bearers and organizations around the world. This network enriches the Center's scholarship, programs, and projects. Principles of community engagement and mutual respect are applied in each of the Center’s areas of work. The Festival programs are conceptualized in direct and mutual collaboration with participants – each program has a curator from the Center and a curator from the community. The Center engage directly with each tradition bearer participating in the Festival, working toward a shared vision for their experience, which includes not only providing a platform for their work but attention to critical details like lodging, transportation, meals, and adequate rest. The staffing swells to nearly 250 people during the Festival, including a team of participant coordinators, interns, and volunteers to ensure a positive and successful experience for participating tradition bearers. For Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, artist rights and royalties are central. Folkways staff spend a significant amount of effort ensuring that artists are compensated fairly and in compliance with contracts. In 2016, we paid more than $600,000 in artist royalties. Finally, Cultural Sustainability Initiatives are driven by community-identified objectives, and grounded in community-based research. Each activity has a local partner counterpoint and the Center focuses significant effort on providing broad and equitable access through the creation and distribution of local language materials.