S. Dillon Ripley (1913-2001) came to the Smithsonian as Secretary in 1964. He had worked at the Smithsonian briefly earlier in his career and found it, like most museums of the day, to be staid and stodgy. He said visiting it “was essentially very dull. You did it on Sunday afternoon after a big lunch.” He termed the National Mall, the symbolic center of national life, “Forest Lawn on the Potomac,” saddened by its lack of vitality. Dillon was determined to change it, and he did, most dramatically with the Folklife Festival.
Dillon had built a successful career as an ornithologist and director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. He conducted fieldwork in Indonesia, the South Pacific, and South Asia. He authored numerous works including his ten-volume magnum opus along with Salim Ali, Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan.
Dillon believed that learning should be joyous and engaging. As a child, he played in the Tuileries in Paris, taking special delight in the carousel. At the age of thirteen, he went on a walking tour of Tibet. He summered on a family estate that included a pristine nature preserve. As expressed in his seminal book on museums, The Sacred Grove, Dillon wanted to instill in the museum visitor that sense of awe and wonder that had enthralled him as a child. His vision was to “make the place a living experience.”
Dillon also believed that the National Museum belonged to all people. During the anti-war and civil rights marches of the 1960s he insisted that the museums stay open so that marchers, needing to use the facilities, might also have access to the exhibitions.
To “liven up” the Smithsonian, Dillon hired Jim Morris, first as director of Museum Services and then as the head of a new Division of Performing Arts. Dillon thought of having a gazebo on the Mall and organizing summer concerts, much like occurs on New England town commons. Morris, knowing the popularity of folk festivals and having produced his own, suggested one for the Mall. Dillon agreed. Ralph Rinzler and Henry Glassie were hired to help plan the Festival. Dillon allocated an initial $4,900 and placed the project in a museum context. “Although it has the world’s largest collection of American folk artifacts, the Smithsonian, like all museums in our nation, fails to present folk culture fully adequately.” The aim was, as the New York Times reported, “to let fresh air into the Nation’s Attic.”
The first Festival was held on the Mall in 1967 to popular, media, and Congressional acclaim and mixed reviews in the museum world. The idea of living museum presentations was new, and the emphasis on the interpretive voice of the tradition bearers rather than the curators was threatening to some. But it worked, and the Festival grew and flourished under Dillon’s protection. He personally enjoyed many of the Festival’s presentations. He made the Festival the centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial.
Over time Dillon saw the Festival as an effective tool in the struggle for cultural preservation. “Traditions and cultures alien to the massive onslaughts of mechanistic technology are fragile indeed. They are being eroded every day just as the forests of the tropics disappear.” By drawing attention to valuable traditions, the Festival could help the cultural preservation effort.
Dillon brought a patrician style to the Smithsonian, an enthusiasm and determination that changed it forever. The modern Smithsonian was built under his twenty-year stewardship, with the addition of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, the National Air and Space Museum, the Renwick Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Collection of Fine Arts, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the National Museum of African Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian Institution Press, The Smithsonian Associates, the Museum Shops, Smithsonian Magazine, the Tropical Research Institute, the Environmental Research Center, the Astrophysical Observatory, the carousel, and more.
Dillon provided the crucial support for the development of the Office of Folklife Programs that grew out of the Festival in 1976. He continued to support the Festival even after his retirement, serving as the chairman of the Festival of India and the Festival of Indonesia.