American Indians Redefine Museums

Oct. 3, 2004
Inside the new National Museum of the American Indian, nextdoor to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., is an exhibit about an exhibit in which an American Indian lay on a display case surprising visitors by being alive and observing them. Visitors to the new NMAI may be surprised to find an entire museum alive. There is very little of the past here, much of current culture.

The American Indian Movement (AIM) has complained, in fact, that this museum does not tell the story of a holocaust. And indeed, it should. Or a separate museum should. There is a museum in Washington for a German holocaust, but nothing for our own, and nothing for slavery; even Hiroshima is off limits. For that matter, there is no Southeast Asia museum or Middle Eastern museum or Central American museum for victims of U.S. violence. But if there were all of these museums, they could begin to look like triumphant arches falling in line with the war memorials that are devouring the National Mall. And for a government to destroy the native people of its territory and then build a museum about it would be obscene without the surprising act performed by this new museum.

The new museum does not make up for what was done, and it should not be seen as an attempt to. This museum is not a gift to American Indians, but a gift from American Indians to all Americans. The important step our government has taken is to allow Indians to participate. But nothing within this building could have been dreamed up by mainstream American culture or by Congress.

As with the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, across the Mall, one of the greatest works of art in the new museum may be the architecture of the building. Sadly, the architect, an American Indian, was fired partway through the process and does not acknowledge the fnished project as his own. But it is a stunning creation full of artistic inspiration, from the detail of the stone work, to the undulations of the towering cavern walls, the fountains flowing out of and back into the mountainlike building, and the precarious but not threatening cantelevering of the upper levels out over the entrance in the East.

When you enter the museum, you find yourself in a towering cylindrical space with levels of exhibit spaces visible on the far side, and prisms in a window painting rainbows across the walls and floor. On the circular base of this space, native Hawaiians are demonstrating traditional techniques used in building sea-going canoes.

Throughout the museum, live Indians tell their stories in person or on video screens. Three of the four exhibit spaces are devoted to contemporary Indian art and culture. While history plays a role here, it is not central. The fourth space focuses more on historical objects and tells more of the history of this land, but does not do so in a way to satisfy AIM.

The art and culture exhibited here are more powerful than much of what can be found in either wing of the National Gallery of Art. What we have been given is a redefinition of the museum, not as a memorial to untouchable sterile greatness, but as a living self-conscious display of a culture able to view itself from the outside even while insisting on its own importance.

The Museum of Natural History a few blocks away (filled mainly with dinosaurs and animals) still includes anthropological exhibits on non-white homo sapiens, but I notice that it has added an exhibit on baseball – an ongoing activity engaged in by lots of white people. This is the direction the new NMAI moves us in. The NMAI tells us more about the natural environment and how humans live in it than does the Museum of Natural History. It also tells us about some of the destruction going on right now and the efforts to prevent it.

In other words, this new museum makes itself more a part of a democracy than do any of the others. And the need is great. The fragments of territory still belonging to American Indians are in many cases being polluted in ways that more powerful neighborhoods would not tolerate. For that matter, much of this museum was funded by private dollars, and there have been complaints that poorer tribes have been left out.

Our current president, when asked two months ago at the UNITY Journalists of Color convention, what he would do for Native American sovereignty, appeared to have at best a very limited idea of what the word meant, although he repeated it a number of times as the audience openly laughed at him. Maybe someday soon he’ll have time to visit museums and educate himself.