Chelsea Trujillo, Smithsonian Institute’s Center for Folklife and Culture Heritage

In the summer of 2016, I had the opportunity to intern with the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage during their annual Folklife Festival.  This was my first time in Washington D.C., and an opportunity of a lifetime.  Although I was notified of the internship that I had been accepted for last minute, I accepted the offer and made my way to Washington D.C. This internship report will mention my experiences working the Folklife Festival as an accountant for the festival, the experiences I had working directly with performers from around the world, and I will explore the idea of the Folklife Festival as a cultural ritual.

Folklife Festival

The festival highlights different living cultures around the world, in different regions of the United States, and social issues encountered throughout the world (Smithsonian Institution 2016).  The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage was established in 1966 and the first Folklife Festival was exhibited in 1967 by Ralph Rinzler.

Each year the festival has a different theme.  The cultures of various Native American tribes, Hungary, Hawaii, Appalachia, the Great Lakes Region, El Rio (US-Mexico border towns), Kenya, China, Peru, Haiti have been shared with the public since the inception of the Folklife Festival  (Smithsonian Institution 2016).  The festival takes place on the National Mall and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.  Much like the Smithsonian-affiliated museums, the festival is free and has many hands-on activities for children and adults alike.

2016 Folklife Festival:  Basque Country

The theme of the festival this year focused on the Basque culture in northern Spain, near the border of France.  Much like the Catalonia area of Spain, the Basque region is autonomous from the country itself with a different language and culture from the rest of the country.  Sports and artisan specialties are a big part of the Basque culture (Basque Country 2016). As such, the main aspects of the festival surrounded sports, music and dance, and artisan specialties.

Tents for this year’s particular festival covered a children’s area over Basque culture, a dialogue tent where visitors could learn Euskara (the language of Basque people); cooking demonstrations; salt harvesting; artisan demonstrations such as cheese making, stone carving, woodworking, espadrille making, instrument making; smaller stages for musicians and dance groups to perform; an immigration activity tent for children to understand the concept of migration, and a dialogue stage for musicians to talk about their specific cultures, migration, and prejudices they may have experienced based on their culture.  


My internship was with the administration department.  Ultimately, what I learned from the administration aspect of the festival was that red tape from the federal government causes all purchases and expenses to come to the administration department to be approved before anything was bought.  This meant that the administration department—controlled by the federal government—had most of the control surrounding the execution of the festival. 

Upon first working at the festival, it seemed as if my internship was more business or accounting based, but with hard work comes more opportunities.  Week one of the two week festival kept me in the administration trailer organizing data into spreadsheets, processing credit card payments, and tracking revenue and expenses in the CFCH main bank account.

Usually my first task of the day was to update the marketplace sales spreadsheet.  This spreadsheet tracked the sales in the marketplace based on payment type.  Although it didn’t seem like this task was too important, in the end, the spreadsheet helped with tasks I encountered later. I think the tracking also helped to determine whether the marketplace being in the Arts and Industries Building was a success.

During the festival, my coworker, Mandy, and I would work on counting meal tickets food vendors brought to us from the previous day in order to track how each food vendor fared during the festival.  The vendors were given a check for the total amount of the meal tickets received.  Added together with the total amount made for the previous day, the food vendors paid a percentage of their sales to the Smithsonian.  At the conclusion of the festival, the vendor would pay 30% of their total sales—after taxes—in escrow.  By the end of the festival, the checks from the vendors for escrow and settlement (i.e. reimbursement for cash register rental, golf cart rental, ice) were deposited into the CFCH main bank account for me to update and track for the final project.  

Once I had receipts for the marketplace sales, food vendors’ settlements and escrow, and hotel payments, I made Cash Receipt Vouchers (CRVs) for all of the revenue posted on the main account.  When making CRVs, the revenue had to be designated to a certain fund within the CFCH.  The revenue can therefore be tracked on the system according to fund, source, and class.  Tracking revenue by class better enables the administration department to allocate a certain amount of money to different departments working at the festival, as well as how much was spent on different kinds of services and materials.  Some expenses did not have much detail in order to separate expenses by class—marketplace.

After I made CRVs, they were sent to the accounting department.  Once approved, the revenue and expense amounts posted on the general ledger to determine whether the festival made or lost money.  The expense and revenue tracking was my final project I worked on for the last week of my internship.  In a spreadsheet, I had a tab for purchase orders, income, and expenses.  In addition to tracking income and expenses, I had to go back and sort through CRVs to determine which income and expenses had not posted yet in order to gain a better understanding of the estimated profit/loss.  

Profit considered the marketplace sales, food vendors’ escrow payments and settlements.  I had all the information for these amounts from previous tasks, but tracking expenses was much more difficult.  For instance, the original general ledger I was given did not have expenses for signage and banners, but the updated copy I received a few days later did.  concessions, and other miscellaneous costs.  With four packets full of numbers and various spreadsheets on my computer, the reconciliation spreadsheet was like a giant puzzle.  

All of the revenue and expenses were not posted by the time my internship was concluded, but I taught Mandy the method to my madness and how I organized the spreadsheet.  It took almost a whole day to explain to Mandy how to make CRVs and update the reconciliation spreadsheet.  I spent so much time on the reconciliation sheet, I wish I could have been able to complete it all before I left.  

Exciting Adventures

Although my internship duties centered on accounting, as described later, my favorite part of the festival was spent outside of the trailer helping the internship coordinator/Rinzler Memorial concert organizer, the festival director, and the evening concert stage manager. I was able to interact with both visitors and participants.  It became apparent that I was not the only person completely lost in this new environment known as Washington, D.C.

For instance, when I helped the festival director load instruments and take them to the evening concert stage, I met with Kepa, a famous Basque accordionist.  Upon meeting him, I went to shake his hand and introduce myself, but instead, he slapped my hand away, and took my nametag to look at my name before shaking my hand.  As this may seem rude in our culture, I attributed the action to being out of his element and my way of introduction as vastly different from the traditional Basque introduction.  Additionally, in our culture, we acknowledge leaving plenty of personal space as a social norm.  With Kepa, he admired my nose ring and pointed to it with his finger only inches away.  I know in the U.S. we value greater amounts of personal space in contrast to Europe where everyone is close to each other.

I was very excited to round up Los Texmaniacs and take them to sign paperwork and get paid.  The band was from the San Antonio area and it felt nice to be able to interact with a group that has the same social norms as my Texan self.  The band consisted of about six people and the one golf cart I was driving would not fit all of them and myself with the driver.  However, all six of them somehow fit in the golf cart with the driver.  I’m sure other groups would have wanted a couple of trips to be made or for some band members to walk, but they all exerted agency independent of liminality, and squeezed into the golf cart together.  Everyone they drove by were in shock, but also very amused.

A Successful Ending

The end of the festival was bittersweet for all of us.  Rather than morning production meetings focusing on how to solve small issues and going over the new feelings arriving at the festival, the focus was on how happy and appreciative all participants were with showcasing their culture at the festival.  The final night of the festival was followed by a gathering of all of the staff and interns at the hotel reserved for participants to stay for the duration of the festival.  The gathering brought food, drinks, dancing and music.  

All participants were conversing and with such a large group of staff, I was able to converse and network myself.  One person in particular I talked with often was a woman who was temporarily given a name tag with my name on it—such a convenient way to be introduced to someone.  I told her my goal of a graduate degree in public health and all of my previous research on reproductive health.  She has one friend in DC who provides reproductive health services for low-income minority women and another friend who teaches public health at Johns Hopkins University.  She seemed eager to introduce me to her friends whenever the opportunity arises.

The most memorable aspect of my trip was how laidback and interesting all of the employees were.  We all had subjects in which we were particularly interested—and slightly obsessed.  Here in Texas, I would be given weird looks if I talked about geology, minerals, and women’s reproductive health.  In the Smithsonian office, everyone looked and listened with genuine curiosity.  A very liberal participant liaison—also from Texas—and I talked about reproductive health and gun laws on campus in Texas.  One of the linguists stopped by and spoke to us all about linguistics for an extended period of time because we were all fascinated.  Even a talk about movies pertaining to Colombia and Pablo Escobar led a group of us into talks about movies not explaining the culture of people to give a backstory and understanding of the dilemmas the people of Colombia endured.  

We all may have been stuck doing office work, but we had a lot of fun interacting with each other, talking about current issues and our interests.  The Smithsonian was no doubt somewhere I felt like I finally fit in with the people around me.  Despite my nose ring and tattoos, in the office, no one cared about personal appearance; they valued work ethic and hard work instead.  One employee had blue hair; most of us interns had tattoos and a handful of us had facial piercings.  Not once did I hear negativity about appearance; even Kepa admired my nose ring when first meeting him!  All-in-all, I had an extremely positive experience and I offered to help with next year’s festival on Cuba and the American Circus Arts.  The administration department seemed ecstatic that I volunteered to come back next year.  I was given a $1200 stipend for 10 days of work after the festival due to my excellence during the festival and my administration work being worth a paid position; another sign I’m hoping I will be back in DC again next summer.


Basque Country.  2016.  Culture.

Smithsonian Institution.  2016.  Mission and History.

Smithsonian Institution.  2016.  Programs by Year.