Our Universes, Our People, Our Lives


of an Exhibition

by Hannah Hamill

Published on April 01, 2011

  • Description:

    Part of the mission statement at the National Museum of the American Indian reads,“The museum works to support the continuance of culture, traditional values, and transitions in contemporary Native life.” I felt like the color scheme in each of NMAI’s exhibits really fit well with this statement in terms of evoking a sense of Native cultures and representing the values in the mission statement. The museum as a whole is united by using earthy tones (like browns and grays) and natural metals and materials (like copper and wood) in the building’s overall color palette. The permanent exhibits—“Our Universes,” “Our Peoples,” and “Our Lives”—all utilize a color scheme that complements the theme in each section.

    The color scheme of “Our Universes” especially evoked a sense of atmosphere, which was an important element because the exhibit was about Native cosmologies. The designer achieved this sense of atmosphere by using a cool palette (including dark blues and purples) that evoked the feeling of the night sky for the central part of the exhibit. Within the larger exhibit there were smaller sections talking about individual tribes’ relationships with the universe, which were displayed with contrasting brighter colors (and brighter lighting) for emphasis.

    “Our Peoples,” which told the lesser-known history of Native peoples in the Americas, utilized more of a neutral color scheme to emphasize a history theme in the exhibit. Earthy tones like sepia were heavily utilized in this section, which felt like the designer was trying to emulate the feeling of an old photograph. Even before I knew what the exhibit was about, I could tell by the muted colors that the designer was trying to give the visitor a sense of the time period.

    The most interesting of the three permanent exhibits (color-wise, at least) was “Our Lives,” which tells the story of the contemporary lives of the Native peoples in the Americas. This exhibit utilized every color in the spectrum, with rich text panels of purples, pinks, blues, and greens at the beginning of the exhibit. Another interesting use of color was in each of the subsections, which told of the lives of tribe members in contemporary times. These sections still incorporated earthy colors and colors that fit the landscape and gave the visitor a sense of place (i.e., green for the tree-lined streets of Chicago, lush greens and blues for the Kalinago tribe in the Caribbean, and icy whites and cool colors for the St. Laurent tribe in French Canada), which tied in with the museum’s overall color scheme. A nice touch at the end of the exhibit was a panel of portraits that were tinted with different colors to show the diversity of contemporary Native peoples and evoke a sense of identity.

    One seemingly random addition to the museum’s color scheme was the temporary exhibit “Up Where We Belong,” which was about Native peoples in popular music. In a stark contrast to the rest of the exhibits, this exhibit’s main color palette mainly consisted of black, white, and bright yellow. Presumably the difference was due to the show being a temporary exhibit, and because the exhibit dealt with contemporary topics.

    Overall, the museum’s use of color to evoke a sense of atmosphere, time period, and cultural context was very successful.

    *Editor’s note: This review was written for a course in exhibition design.

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