The Michigan State University Museum has a long history of producing outdoor festivals of traditional culture. In 1983, the MSU Museum produced its first series of outdoor showcases of Michigan’s folk traditions at the annual 4-H Exploration Days in East Lansing. The “Michigan Whosestory?” Festival was presented over a weekend in 1987 and brought together over 75 musicians, storytellers, and crafts demonstrators.
As part of Michigan’s 1987 sesquicentennial celebration of statehood, the MSU Museum staff worked closely with The Smithsonian Institution for the presentation of Michigan’s cultural traditions in the national Festival of American Folklife. Through presentations by cooks, storytellers, musicians, craftspeople and others who represented the state’s diverse regional, ethnic, and occupational heritage, over 1,000,000 visitors in Washington, D.C. were introduced to Michigan’s folklife. The MSU Museum then brought the festival program to East Lansing as the centerpiece of the first Michigan Festival – a showcase of the state’s performing and creative arts. Renamed the Festival of Michigan Folklife (FMF), the event became the largest annual museum exhibition of the state’s traditional cultural contributions. Over its twelve-year history, the Festival of Michigan Folklife provided a platform for presentation of over 1,400 artists–the vast majority had never been presented by any other arts organization in the state.
In 1999, the MSU Museum began a new three-year partnership – this time with the City of East Lansing and the National Council for Traditional Arts (NCTA) to produce the National Folk Festival. NCTA took primary responsibility for coordinating music programming, East Lansing provided infrastructure and marketing support and the MSU Museum was responsible for all other programming, including foodways, children, crafts, games, storytelling, and occupational arts.
After hosting three successful National Folk Festivals, both the City of East Lansing and the MSU Museum were committed to continue the festival tradition. The Great Lakes Folk Festival, a fusion of both the model provided by the National Folk Festival and the Smithsonian Festival model that had been the hallmark of the Festival of Michigan Folklife, was launched in 2002.