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AFS Review: Featured Folklorist

Featured Folklorist: Betty Belanus (Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Evangeline Mee
Betty Belanus holds a M.A. and Ph.D. in Folklore from Indiana University. She served as the Indiana State Folk Arts Coordinator for two years early in her career, but has spent the past 31 years as a Curator and Education Specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She joined AFS in the late 1970s as a graduate student, served on the AFS Board 2001–3, and has recently served as convener of the Folklore and Education Section. She has only missed four AFS annual meetings since 1976. 


Photo Left:  During a day at the rural Bengali village of Naya, Betty Belanus and other US-based participants learned about the tradition of painting patachitra scrolls. February 2018. Photo courtesy of Betty Belanus.


What is your current job, and how does it relate to the field of folklore? What kinds of things do you do day-to-day in this position?

I am a Curator and Education Specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Every day is different, but mostly I answer emails and go to meetings it seems!


Briefly describe your career history, paying special attention to how you got from your very first folklore job to your current position. Did you expect to be doing what you are now doing when you entered the field? 

My first regular job (not counting summer contract jobs) was as the State Folk Arts Coordinator for Indiana. That was invaluable entry into both the world of the “state folklorist” and the world of arts administration. After some more contract work, I moved to Washington, DC in 1987 and have been here ever since at the Smithsonian. In the same office (which is in on its third name since I started) but not in the same “job” as my position has evolved and changed over the years and never seems to be the same job from year to year. Curating a Smithsonian Folklife Festival program is a different experience every time you do it, and I have curated or co-curated ten of them. Different partners, different parts of the country or world, different funding sources, different political circumstances. (For instance, we used New Hampshire National Guard unit trucks to bring large items to the Mall in 1999. After 9/11 that would never happen again.) Running a large children’s area for the Festival is a different job than curating a whole program, but sometimes even more work it seems!


What goals drive your work? What kinds of impact do you hope to achieve?

I like to interact with younger colleagues (or “colleagues in the making”) in a mentorship role, but also just to find out what they are learning and thinking and how they approach the world differently. Our interns at the Center come from many different regions and backgrounds as well as being their own individual, sometimes quirky, selves. I have averaged at least six, sometimes more, interns each year in the past thirty years. I learn from each one of them and I hope they learn from me. I really enjoy working with them and giving them advice on what to do next in their lives (if they ask me!). A number have gone on to folklore or related graduate school, others are doing amazing things at non-profits or educational settings. It gives me hope for the future of folklore and cultural work in general.


Photo Right: Betty Belanus at the sacred river of the Ganges during a cultural exchange to West Bengal, India this past February 2018. Photo Courtesy of  Betty Belanus.


What is the most challenging part of your work?

Time and money, never enough of either it seems, but I imagine this is the response of most people. In the terms of the educational portions of my position, the most challenging part is connecting educators to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival as a training opportunity. Different strategies have worked over the years, but often something changes and new strategies must be discovered. For instance, we had a very well-planned and well-attended teacher workshop during the Festival for seven years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There was, at the time, a Smithsonian-wide structure for summer teacher workshops which helped in all the ways we needed help: teacher recruitment, arranging for credit for participants, handling registration and fees. Then, Smithsonian-wide education was restructured and we lost this valuable support. Without this support, it has been much harder to plan teacher workshops as we do not have the funding/personnel/expertise that was offered through the pan-Smithsonian system.


If you had unlimited time and resources available to develop a research project or public program, how would you use them? What would you hope to accomplish?

I would find the best way to infiltrate the public school system with folklife so that every kid in the US would know how fun and meaningful the field is, and how they can use its skills in any career they care to pursue. I have not found this magic portal as yet; none of us working in Folklore and Education have.


How did you come to reside where you now live? What are your favorite aspects of the area or of your local community?

I came to DC from Indianapolis, where I had been living for a couple of years after attending graduate school at Indiana University, to work at the Smithsonian in 1987. I love the DC area because it is so diverse; you can get food and see art from just about anywhere in the world here. I especially love working on the Smithsonian Folklife Festival because I have had the privilege of meeting so many folk artists, fellow folklorists, anthropologists, and community scholars, and sometimes also getting to visit their communities.


What do you most wish outsiders knew about your community? What are some common stereotypes or misconceptions that you often find yourself trying to disprove?

Many outsiders think that Washington, DC is all about politics and government. Tourists come to DC and visit the monuments and marvel at the public spaces (and, yes, the Smithsonian museums) but there are so many interesting neighborhoods (and in some cases, disappearing due to genrification). This past fall I worked with a colleague on a foodways demonstration featuring a Trinidadian family bakery and cafe. I never knew it was there or what a rich community it is part of, so I feel as though I am still learning about DC after all these years of living here.


What question(s) would you like us to ask of other “featured folklorists”? Please provide your own answer to the question.

My question for others: What makes folklore unique as a discipline?

My answer: For one thing, it is small and therefore easy to get to know many people in the field and see the variety of what they do (instead of being “tracked” as in the huge field of anthropology for instance —even if you just look at “cultural anthropology”). For another thing, friendly and helpful people seem to gravitate to the field of folklore. For the most part, we are naturally curious, and we like to talk and learn people’s stories and find them fascinating. Perhaps I am biased, but I think the women in our field are among the strongest and most supportive people I know, and I feel as though I am a better person for having them in my life.



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