Halle Butvin

Behind the Scenes at the Smithsonian Armenian Folklife Festival


WASHINGTON – When Halle Butvin answered her telephone, the gates were being put up at the blacksmith’s stand at the Armenian Folklife Festival at the National Mall a few days prior to the official opening. She exclaimed happily that everything was falling into place as it should. The year of curatorial planning and earlier research beginning in 2015 were paying off.

Butvin has been Director of Special Projects at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington from 2016, and prior to that for three years was an advisor at the Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations. She was involved in the Armenian Festival from the very beginning, when the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) called the Smithsonian.

She did not know anything about Armenia until she asked Smithsonian Folklife Festival director Sabrina Lynn Motley, when she started working at the Smithsonian, if she could choose any festival anywhere in the world, what would she showcase, and Motley answered Armenia. Motley had a soft spot for Armenia because she grew up in Pasadena and became interested in Armenian culture there. That in turn, Butvin said, “definitely influenced our willingness to go out to Armenia and go about the project.”

The Smithsonian Center does research on tangible cultural heritage and people’s traditions, and sometimes the research only leads to a paper or a conference. However, when there is a critical mass of both research and a relationship or the right match, then a festival program is the result. In the present case, Butvin said, “we recognized very quickly that the Armenian story of resilience and of being able to sustain tradition over time was something that we really wanted to be able to tell.”

Armenia had the benefit of the already ongoing My Armenia cultural heritage tourism development program (for which Butvin ran the artisan initiative), so that connections had already been made with Armenia, including a partnership with the Institute for Archaeology and Ethnography of the Armenian Academy of Sciences. This, Butvin said, really set things off on the right track and soon the Smithsonian knew it wanted to prepare a festival program. It was not until more research was done that the decision was made as to what year it would be held and how. The Smithsonian previously had some materials from the Soviet period on Armenia, but not much on contemporary Armenian culture.

Meanwhile, the project aligned with the interests of USAID, which wanted to promote economic growth and development in the regions of Armenia outside the capital. The festival focused on the intersection between cultural heritage and economics. Butvin said that normally USAID projects do not look that much at culture, so this was an unusual circumstance.

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USAID was only one of many partners sponsoring the festival. They funded the curatorial team and the research that it did, but the Smithsonian fundraised for the full program largely from the Armenian-American community. Butvin said the community “really came out to support the program.” There were over 40 community donors that made the festival possible. This arrangement, Butvin said, “gave us the intellectual freedom to do representation in a way that really suits the communities that we are trying to represent. I think that is a really beautiful thing.”

In contrast, most other festivals, like that of Catalonia this year which accompanied Armenia, are sponsored through the governments of the relevant people or region. The Smithsonian knew the Armenian government did not have the resources necessary, so it found this workaround. In addition to everything on the Mall, it had to pay for all the costs of the visiting artisans and performers for their two-week stay starting from their trip from their home village to their hotel, food and equipment costs.

The Smithsonian brought 82 artisans, presenters, performers and experts from Armenia. There were another 12 diasporan Armenian participants along with 100 Armenian dancers from the US and Canada who came for a dance summit.

Butvin previously had been working on the My Armenia project with the Armenian researchers from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, including Levon Abrahamyan, Satenik Mkrtchyan and Ruzanna Tsaturyan, so when the Smithsonian decided on the festival Butvin served as the lead curator on the Smithsonian side. The festival built on the knowledge of the Armenian researchers, and together the group decided what narratives they wanted to tell about Armenia.

Armenian Folklife Festival curators, from left, Satenik Mkrtchyan, Halle Butvin, Ruzanna Tsaturyan, and Levon Abrahamian

Motley had already fixed the research theme of community-based cultural enterprise for the festival projects of 2018, so both Armenia and Catalonia had to reflect this theme. Butvin said, “what kept resurfacing over and over again was the idea of the importance of the home. Everything we talked about seemed to center on the home. That is where we came up with the program of “creating home.” Catalonia differed from Armenia in that its cultural life was centered about the plaza, a public space, not in the home.

Part of what the Smithsonian wanted to show is that people are multidimensional. So the cross-stone or khachkar maker, for example, also cooks or sings. More importantly, Butvin stressed that the festival is about connecting people and building understanding. She said, “Armenian culture is incredible in the way that it can be inclusive and bring people together around the table, for example, and never exclude a guest.” Consequently, she continued, “that warmth and hospitality is going to shine through and make it a really incredible experience both for the public and the participants who are here.”

There were approximately 300 different programmed Armenian events happening over the two weeks of the festival at the end of June and beginning of July. The Smithsonian archives did audio recordings of everything at all stages. Furthermore, a photo and video team covers many events, and content will continue to be posted about the festival for months after it is over.

The My Armenia project also is continuing and eventually the Smithsonian may issue an updated book on Armenian folk culture. The Smithsonian, Butvin said, would love to have small versions of the Armenian festival in other American cities, but would need financial support.

Butvin said that in general, she was impressed when she worked with young people in Yerevan. She declared, “I think that Armenia has a lot more going for it than other places in terms of the next generation being interested.” She couldn’t believe the number of young people who have learned skills like needlework or traditional cooking from their grandmothers.

On the other hand, some things are being lost, such as clay tonir (oven) makers since electric ovens are being used more now due to convenience. Yet there are new restaurants for tourists which prefer clay ovens since people like watching lavash bread being made with the latter.  The future of Armenian carpet weaving remains to be seen, she said, due to commercialization and competition from China and India.

Some ten days after the end of the festival, Butvin reported that there was overwhelmingly positive feedback about it from both the Armenian-American community and non-Armenians on social media and emails. She noted that many Armenian families used the festival as a place of reunion and holiday, which contributed to its success.

One exciting unexpected development, she said, was that the Armenian dance participants were going to demonstrate wedding dances as a staged performance but decided on their own to do a spontaneous wedding procession. The ladies who made lavash came and draped lavash on the bride’s shoulders. All the Armenian festival participants made up the procession, as if they were a family, and it turned out very exciting, with the public vying to take selfies.

The signage for the festival has been sent back to Armenia in hopes that it can be used in 2019 if a similar event is staged there with the support of the Armenian government. Meanwhile, talks are underway with the city of Alexandria to see if the metal arch prepared by the blacksmiths of Gyumri might be installed there to commemorate the festival. There is also a large fountain which may be installed somewhere in the Washington area as another memento.

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