Our Universes

Part of Exhibition: Our Universes

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Reema Ghazi

Published on February 27, 2011 , Modified on March 01, 2011

  • Museum: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

  • Visit Date: February, 2011

  • Description:

    How may a museum communicate the beliefs and traditions of cultures alien to our own? It is a task embarked upon daily by myriad institutions, presenting challenges in how to reflect philosophies without biased perspectives, and how to encourage audiences to engage with these philosophies on their own terms. In its ongoing Our Universes exhibition, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) aims to connect a broad population of visitors to native cosmologies and spiritual understandings of the world— no simple task. Through the exhibition’s two focal video stations, NMAI cleverly adapts the technique of the native populations discussed—storytelling— to impart of an understanding of their beliefs. In this review I will examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of the storytelling video stations in contributing to the exhibition’s aim, to communicate the philosophies and relationships of indigenous American populations to the natural world.

    The layout of Our Universes separates the eight populations’ cultural philosophies into separate areas, the design of each reflecting that community’s beliefs regarding its relationship to the universe. At the center of the exhibition is semi-circular path which encases a “Starfield Canopy,” complete with fiber optic lights, above a three-dimensional mountain landscape intended to simulate an outdoor, nighttime setting. Along the mountain landscape (at adult eye level) are various artifacts relating to cosmological traditions. Beneath the object cases are what I would contend to be the most attention-grabbing aspect of the exhibition: storytelling video stations intended for a child audience, based on its proximity to the ground.

    At each of the stations, a series of animated stories tell the passed-down tales of several communities’ understanding of the world. For example, a fox steals a bag of stars from the sleeping Ojishonda and runs with it across the sky, forming what we see as the nighttime sky.

    Each station circulates through a handful of stories, ranging in length from 2-5 minutes to counter the short attention span of young children and to encourage visitor turn-over. As each story ends, the Starfield Canopy above lights up a constellation related to that tale, effectively tying together the technology of the simulated environment with the audiovisual technology. In my time in the exhibition, I observed several young children (ages 2-5) watching the video stations, all seated on the intimately designed benches which serve to block out distractions from other elements of the exhibit, thus directing focus onto the stories. While many watched with their families, several children of different families gathered to watch together, indicating that this aspect of the exhibition successfully fostered social interaction. The inclusion of this technology, specifically intended for children, reflects the thoughtful audience-focus of the museum, which regularly draws many family visitors. In addition to being a success with the intended audience, I observed several adults drawn to the storytelling stations over other aspects of the exhibition, revealing its effectiveness in engaging the visitor and connecting him or her to the greater story being told throughout Our Universes. Also, lest we ignore an unspoken role of museums— the storytelling video stations were highly entertaining, capturing the attention of children with vivid graphics in order to infuse learning that would be difficult to achieve in the more text-based aspects of the exhibition.

    The storytelling video stations’ clear success in engaging the visitor inspired me to explore further and learn more— and unfortunately this is where my desire was left unfulfilled. For example, one may observe the objects in cases above the two video stations, but it is unclear how or if the objects relate to the stories told below. Even basic information for the objects was placed relatively far, at the back of the benches— presumably for an adult to read while his or her child watches the stories. Further interpretive materials or text connecting the stories to the objects above, or to the constellation lit in the canopy above, could have expanded my understanding of the themes of the exhibition. After my visit to the museum, I so enjoyed the stories through the video technology that I searched on the NMAI website in vain for further information, or perhaps to view them again in an online venue. In both cases, there was a dearth of related information beyond a basic description of Our Universes. There exists an opportunity for NMAI to capitalize on the effectiveness of this aspect of the exhibition by extending the visitor’s experience at home through further web-based offerings, and ultimately encourage further exploration of the site.

    While the Our Universes storytelling video stations successfully foster engagement and conversation among visitors, they raise unmet hopes for further opportunities to learn more about the native communities’ understanding of the universe. At the museum, however, they serve as an excellent example of how the common language of the audiovisual medium may be used to foster connections with philosophies and beliefs foreign to our own.

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