Q &A at UTEP with Dr. Michael Mason – Director, Smithsonian Center for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage


As director of the Smithsonian Center for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage in Washington, D.C., Michael Mason helped facilitate the donation to UTEP of an authentic Lhakhang, a former Bhutanese temple now located at the center of campus.

Michael Mason, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folk life and Cultural Heritage spoke at UT El Paso on how to keep alive global cultures that are in danger of disappearing.

Michael Mason, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folk life and Cultural Heritage spoke at UT El Paso on how to keep alive global cultures that are in danger of disappearing.

Mason visited the University of Texas at El Paso campus Nov. 17 to present the last Centennial Lecture of 2015 at the Undergraduate Learning Center.  His talk was titled, “Cultural Sustainability,” and touched on how to keep alive global cultures that are in danger of disappearing.

Mason described different organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that help countries manage the increase of visitors to culturally endangered sites and handle their shift into becoming tourism destinations. Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) like UNESCO help the cultures in these culturally endangered regions survive despite the many challenges they may face while becoming tourist sites. The NGO’s gather research on “Intangible Cultural Heritage,” (ICH). These intangibles are knowledge, habits, customs, and ideas passed on to future generations usually informally.

Related: Bhutanese visitor sees home in unique Texas university architecture

As director of the Folk Life Festival, an annual event filled with cultural dances, songs and crafts, he also orchestrates the once-a-year event begun in 1967 held on the National Mall. “The life of other people is what really animates me,” said Mason.

During his recent visit to campus, he sat down with UTEP multimedia journalism student Melynda Venegas for a heart to heart about his work and life.

Mason was born in McCook, Nebraska in June 1966 but moved to Washington D.C. as an infant. He grew up in the nation’s capital and earned his master’s degree in Folklore and a PhD at Indiana University Bloomington.

MV: Is there a certain moment or event from your life that influenced your career today?

Mason: I went to St. John’s College and studied folklore there. I was able to see how passionate people were and I wanted to be a part of making culture with people that wanted to share it with the world.

MV: You have published numerous articles on the culture and religion of the African Diaspora. Can you explain in a bit more detail what the African Diaspora actually is?

Mason: The African Diaspora is the large movement of people out of Africa by force into America.

MV: What makes you so interested in these communities?

Mason: Growing up, my parents were constantly involved in the U.S Civil Rights Movement. I was brought up around the belief of people getting the rights they deserved so when I found out about this movement of Africans (removed from their homelands) by force, I wanted to help. In my research, I have been focused on how African American traditions, like Santeria, have been able to flourish in places such as Cuba where it hasn’t always been easy to practice your faith.

MV: Does Santeria influence your work at the Smithsonian?

Mason:  At this time, no it doesn’t. However, a Brazilian version of Santeria known as Candomblé has been shown in several exhibits at the Smithsonian.

MV: Why did you pick the University of Texas at El Paso to donate the temple to?

Mason: The center decided to donate it to UTEP to really connect the campus to Bhutan seeing how the architecture (here) was inspired by the country. We felt the university was a prime place to put it to show that the relationship between the United States and Bhutan was strong.

MV: Was the festival already in existence when you came to work at the Smithsonian? If yes, why did you want to take on the task of directing it?

Mason: Yes, the festival had been created prior to my arrival at the Smithsonian. It actually started in 1967. I wanted to take the project under my wing because I am so passionate about working with communities that aren’t afraid to share their culture and knowledge with the rest of the world.

MV: How has the Mexican-American culture influenced the Smithsonian?

Mason: I believe in the 90’s, don’t hold me to that date, there was a whole program on the borderlands. Not just the United States-Mexico border but the other borders around the world. It was designed to show that the U.S-Mexico border was just one of the hundreds of borderlands and why each one was so important. The Smithsonian also has a “Tradicioñes” music series that showcases traditional music of the Latin culture.

MV: Are there specific cultures that are particularly highlighted at the festival?

Mason: We love highlighting the diversity of the U.S. so we tend to have more of the cultures that are here in the states. Those include but aren’t limited to Native American, African American, Latino, and Asian American cultures.

MV: At the festival, has there ever been an event that made you proud to have put the festival together?

Mason: Wow, I guess when it came down to it there were a few significant memories that made me feel that way. At my first festival in 1992, we had a group of Hawaiians that were there to share the revival of their culture. The part of Hawaii where they come from is very dry and lacked flowers so they made these beautiful leis out of shells. They were so intricate and detailed that I was shocked when a man gave me one. I just felt so welcomed into his life that I knew I was doing these people well. Another instance occurred this past summer while I was at a Peruvian music concert. I was introduced before the concert so I stood up and waved to the crowd then enjoyed the concert with my family. When it ended, a Peruvian man approached me and thanked me for bringing his culture to the National Mall for the festival. He was so happy to have his culture showcased in such a proper way and it made me think how amazing it was to provide these people with the appropriate environment for their culture. I have also seen the festival’s impact in my 7-year-old daughter Natalie. She tells me, ‘Daddy I love history!’ which aren’t your average 7-year-old’s thoughts. Seeing how the cultures and peoples at the festival have been able to make an imprint on such a young girl shows how valued and important this festival truly is.

MV: Describe a certain struggle you have had to overcome during your career as director.

Mason: Unfortunately history, art, and culture are underfunded. We have had to advocate for better funds and representation in recent years but we have luckily been able to raise the funds. With various exhibitions at the Anacostia Museum and the Museum of Natural History (in Washington, D.C.) we have been able to quadruple our campaign goal of $1 million. We now have been able to raise $4 million. Think big, dream, and articulate good ideas and people will help you act on those ideas, I always say.

MV: What do you hope the people who attend the festival will take away from it?

Mason: I hope that people will be reminded of the diversity and creativity of the United States and be open to learning about new cultures that may be either extremely different from their own or more like their own than they thought.

MV: What do you think the people sharing their culture at the festival get out of it?

Mason: I want them to gain communication skills, which they do because they converse with hundreds of thousands of people on a daily basis at the festival. I believe they will get a richer sense of understanding their own cultural traditions and a sense of shared common humanity. I want them to feel that they are sharing their culture and traditions in their own way, on their own terms.

MV: You have a wife and young daughter. Is there anything outside your life at the Smithsonian you like to do with them? Any hobbies?

Mason: Oh, this is going to make me sound really boring but I love to cook. It’s my favorite. But I also love to garden, go on walks with my dog, and spend time with my family.


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