Next summer NASA will become only the second federal agency to be featured at the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival in the 41-year history.
The Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is allotting NASA a section of the National Mall the size of two football fields to fill with people and props to help tell the U.S space agency’s story on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
The only other federal agency to be featured among the cultures and regions that typically are the focus of the annual festival was the U.S. Forest Service in 2005, the year of its 100th anniversary.
James Deutsch, the Smithsonian’s curator for the NASA program, said the space agency might seem like a strange choice alongside the 2008 Folklife Festival’s other two featured programs, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan and the food and music of Texas. But it is not so strange when one stops to consider that the Folklife Festival in the past has featured trial lawyers as a subculture worthy of anthropologic scrutiny, Deutsch said.
“We are folklorists and anthropologists,” he said. “We are interested in the culture of the agency.” An important feature of what Deutsch referred to as NASA’s “occupational culture” is the fact that contractors outnumber civil servants at the agency roughly 2 to 1. “According to the numbers I’ve seen, there’s something like 40,000 contractors at NASA and only about 18,000 civil servants,” he said. “In telling the story of NASA you have to include the contractors … they are very much part of what NASA does.”
Deutsch, a doctor of American civilization, is approaching the NASA project as a curator, not a publicist. Last year, he was co-curator of the festival’s Mekong River program, which brought 250 people to Washington from the five Asian countries connected by the river to present their cultures and tell their stories to the festival’s many visitors.
“NASA is maybe less foreign for our visitors, but our mission is the same,” Deutsch said. “Our mission is to help people understand what they do, why they do it, how they do it and how it connects to each of us.” For NASA, it is an opportunity to tell its own stories, and share its vision for the future, with the 1 million to 1.5 million expected to visit the festival during its two-week run
June 25-29 and July 2-6.
Robert Hopkins, NASA chief of strategic communications, said participating in the Folklife Festival was too good an opportunity
to pass up, especially given that the event coincides with the agency’s 50th anniversary. “Our main interest here is generating excitement among a whole new audience,” he said.
Hopkins said the entire NASA family, including all four of its mission directorates and 10 regional field centers, will be involved in putting the agency’s past, present and future on display for festival visitors. He declined to say how much NASA expected to spend on the festival, but said it would be covered out of existing exhibit and outreach budgets.
Edward Goldstein, a NASA public affairs official who is helping coordinate
the agency’s participation in the festival, said NASA would not simply be hauling its trade show exhibits down to the National Mall and handing out literature. “This will be different,” he said. “What the Folklife Festival features is very much a participatory experience, so we want the audience to get a hands-on feel for what our scientists, engineers
do and interact with them on a one-on-one level. It’s not like a trade show, but we certainly will be displaying models of our missions and things of that nature.”
As for contractor involvement, Hopkins said that is up to the Smithsonian, since it is curator for
the overall program. “We’re really focused on our own activities,” he said. “When it comes to any other involvement, that’s really the Smithsonian’s role to work with anyone in the commercial or private sector,” Hopkins said.
Deutsch said he is ready and willing to talk with NASA contractors about participating in, and potentially sponsoring, the program. But he said he won’t tie participation to sponsorship. “I want to tell the full story of NASA and what it is doing,” he said. “If Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne has not made a donation, that doesn’t exclude them from the program.”
Deutsch also said
the festival’s sponsors must abide by U.S. National Park Service fairly strict rules covering signage and banners used on the Mall.
“This all comes from Britney Spears,” he said. “She did a major concert on the Mall sponsored by Pepsi Cola and the logos were so alarmingly large that Congress told the National Park Service you must do something about this,” he said.