Our Peoples and Our Lives


of an Exhibition

by Mara Kurlandsky

Published on March 04, 2011, Modified on March 15, 2011

  • Description:

    Many people have written many negative reviews of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and there are certainly aspects to critique. However, the mere fact that the museum was established, funded and built on such an important piece of real estate—and given the tumultuous history of Native peoples in the Americas—is inspiring. NMAI has tremendous potential. The most common critique of NMAI is that it is overwhelming, incoherent and hard to engage with. Even for a museum lover such as myself, there is a certain anxiety upon entering the museum, a sense that one must see everything, read everything and understand everything in order to pay tribute to such a difficult history. But despite this anxiety, and despite the fact that both times I have visited I didn’t manage to see or read everything, NMAI communicated its most important message clearly: Native peoples are still here. Colonization is not the only story to tell. Native lives and concerns are contemporary and not merely a footnote in history. This message alone is powerful enough and the rest is detail.

    However, since this is a review, I’d like to compare and contrast two of the permanent exhibitions to reveal strengths and weaknesses that could be improved upon. Upon entering Our Peoples, the visitor is presented with a visually arresting and well-designed display of clay and stone statues and gold artifacts excavated from across the Americas to show the historical presence of Native peoples. The display is aesthetically pleasing but lacking context. If a visitor wants to know the information on a particular piece, they must consult a small booklet off to the side which gives only the very basics. I believe the curators wanted to use the objects to show the diversity and number of Native communities pre-Columbus, but the display combined with the eight community curated “pods” conveys a confusing contradiction that I think characterizes the museum as a whole. Native peoples are both universalized and particularized—are they a people united by their ‘Nativeness’ or are they different communities with distinct histories? I think the exhibit Our Lives does a better job of walking the line between these two views. By including thematic panels such as “Tough Choices,” “Technology,” and “Body and Soul,” Our Lives deals with topics that affect many different communities while allowing space for individual stories. By utilizing themes (‘Body and Soul’ is particularly well done) these panels avoid the repetition of issues that can cause the visitor to lose interest.

    Another aspect that I found difficult is the way that stories are told. In Our Peoples, much use is made of mythology and fables to convey the stories of individual communities. Amanda Cobb explains that these exhibits may be difficult for visitors because they are part of a “new museological paradigm” (Cobb, 374) that positions the viewer as a kind of co-curator who actively takes part in the creation of the message by synthesizing all the elements. I think this approach is innovative and admirable, but if the visitor is unprepared, such as I was, it can easily feel confusing and not worth the effort. She (and other commenters) point out that this approach is meant to challenge the historical narratives usually found in museums, however there is something to be said for the fact that the vast majority of visitors are used to the historical narrative. Cobb argues that NMAI should not back down from this approach but rather focus on better preparing visitors through utilization of tools like the video written by Paul Chaat Smith. In it he asks visitors to consider what history is and who writes it. The video is excellent, and it should be placed at the entrance to the exhibit instead of tucked away in a corner to the left of the entrance. Many visitors approached it after going through the gallery. Our Lives allows a bit more room for the historical narrative by highlighting Native presence in American history (as ironworkers for instance) and Native activism—though I wish there had been more than one case highlighting Native participation in the civil rights movement. Particularly interesting were objects from Native schools that are both relatable to the viewer (hats, sweatshirts, parade ephemera) and also illustrate how Native communities teach their own histories. I admire the challenge NMAI has issued to the standard telling of history, but I think allowing for more historical events (many are alluded to but not explained, such as the Ghost Dance movement in 1890) will spark interest in visitors used to this approach and better prepare them to consider other stories.

    There are minor critiques I could make (videos are too loud, layout is somewhat confusing) that no doubt others have taken up. But I want to stress that despite problems I had in NMAI, I do think it’s an incredibly important and vibrant museum. It has much to offer for viewers willing to invest the time but even for those who can’t, its very presence is important enough. It is a declaration that Native peoples are still here, still active, and now have a beautiful space in which to celebrate, perform and contest their own culture on the national stage.

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