Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Psychology and Special Education

First Advisor

Ann Cale Kruger - Chair

Second Advisor

Susan C. McClendon

Third Advisor

Miles A. Irving

Fourth Advisor

Karen M. Zabrucky


Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in the role of museums and cultural festivals in adult learning. Once considered the keepers of physical and cultural history, there was only limited concern for if and how adults learned from these settings. The conventional view held that museums provided knowledge, and it was an individual’s prerogative whether or not to seek it out. The past few decades, however, have seen both a resurgence of interest in visiting museums and festivals and a more concerted effort to understand their value in a rapidly evolving society. This study considers visitor experiences at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a free two-week festival held each summer in Washington, D.C. Specific research questions addressed are: (a) what are study participants’ perceptions of their experiences during their festival visit? and (b) what do study participants perceive as outcomes of their visit? Data for this phenomenological study were gathered through in-depth interviews with five participants and researcher observations. Participants were asked to take photographs during their visit and these images were used to stimulate post visit interview recall and discussion. Study participants’ experiences and researcher observations are presented through individual and social themes. Individual themes include the role of sensory perceptions and of participant-specific characteristics and autobiography in visit behavior and meaning-making. Socially-oriented themes include the role of official festival demonstrators, fellow visitors, and the voice of the museum as communicated through interpretive signage. Comparisons are drawn to current museum visit theory with analysis suggesting that the Smithsonian Folklife Festival offers more than museum visits; it provides dynamic and authentic opportunities for cultural contact and socially situated cognition.