I still have not been to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, but took some time last week to check out the “main branch,” as it were, on the National Mall in Washington DC.
Discussing the National Museum of the American Indian means discussing complex and controversial issues. It’s the sort of thing that should take up a lot of space, as one negotiates, or struggles, with the material, or at least, as one covers one’s bases and includes tons of disclaimers. Once, not so long ago, as I’m sure you can tell by some of my past posts, I would have been that guy. I would have gone on for pages and pages criticizing or questioning, getting involved in other issues, big issues, of race and history, of colonialism, of progress and identity. But, today, I find that I feel I have argued these things with myself enough. Have I fully worked out precisely how I feel on this complex set of topics? No. But, I find myself more open-minded and accepting than ever before, more appreciative of native cultures and native struggles, and more willing to accept these issues without taking them personally, as attacks upon my country, or upon myself as a white person. I’m not saying I’ve necessarily made a decision exactly where or how I stand, or that I’ve “switched sides”, or that I think the sides should be so clearly defined. But, I do think that I’ve managed to obtain a certain emotional distance that allows me to see descriptions of circumstances and events without thinking them to be attacks.
I went into NMAI expecting to find something disorganized, or something otherwise misguided or failing from an exhibit design point of view (not that I’m a design expert or anything), or failing in terms of my experience as a visitor. I expected to find something very politically charged, and perhaps inappropriately unbalanced, in either one direction or another. Since many sections of the exhibits are curated by disparate groups of amateur curators representing their respective Nations, each with particular political goals and complex personal issues of identity, I had been told by others who have visited the museum that the end result is a rather disorganized and disoriented mish-mash of content. That many of the areas overlap, that many contradict one another, and that there is no clean, single narrative for the visitor to follow through the exhibit, i.e. from beginning to end, or entrance to exit. But, honestly, who needs such a simple narrative anyway? Life is complicated. History is complicated. And if we pretend it’s clean and simple, cut and dry, who are we fooling but ourselves?
In the end, I really don’t think that I can say that the museum is too disorganized, nor too politically charged. Yes, it’s true that it is way too easy to walk in the exit of each exhibit, thinking it to be the entrance, and to then find yourself experiencing the whole exhibit backwards. And it is true that by leaving much of the curation to amateurs, and to multiple different groups of people, the exhibits do lose some degree of cohesion and consistency, that they do get repetitive, and that they do at times reflect a group’s political motives or their particular identity politics in ways that an exhibit designed by a professional and ostensibly objective (though we know that doesn’t exist) curator, even a sympathetic one, would not. Still, I think that all one really needs to do to understand and appreciate NMAI is to understand where these people are coming from – their goals and motives, what the museum represents for them, in terms of historical precedents, symbolic recognition, the opportunity to have a voice and to present themselves rather than being presented, for a change. If you come into NMAI thinking about what the Native American curators and administrators are trying to do, what they want to accomplish, and why it is important and significant, and take it within that context, I think the whole thing will make a lot more sense. It is a very different museum in that way from the other museums on the Mall, and it must be visited in a different way, or with a different mindset.
That said, I can’t deny that I have some constructive criticisms. For one, while the museum does a fine job of showing the great diversity of native peoples, including not only exhibits on Sioux, Cherokee, and Iroquois, but also displays on the Aymara of South America and Inuits of Nunavut, there is still a strong idea within the museum that all of these different peoples are merely examples or aspects of “Native” or “Indigenous” (or whatever you wish to call it) identity and culture. Many of the exhibits tell a single narrative, applied in an umbrella sort of way to all native peoples of the Americas, citing examples from a range of different cultures as if they’re all examples of the same thing; as if one could choose different examples, from different tribes, and still prove the same point. The “break-out” exhibits that focus on individual tribes certainly bring some individual, distinct identity to each tribe, and show diversity both in their content and in the very style of the exhibit, but, nevertheless, I think one comes out feeling they have learned something about Native American culture, as if it were a single, cohesive thing, rather than an artificial umbrella term incorporating a wide variety of very different peoples. I found myself thinking, what if we had a museum of [East] Asia which spoke about Asian issues and Asian history and Asian culture and identity, making points about East Asia in general and citing examples from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, to back them up? “As you can see from this Japanese artifact, in Asian cultures they do XYZ. For example, in China they do such-and-such. Insert quote from a Korean historian here.” Imagine if there were a museum describing all European/Western history and culture as if it were a single entity. “All European cultures are like XYZ, as you can see from these examples from Scotland, Holland, Bulgaria, and Spain.”
Are all indigenous cultures of the Americas really that similar to one another? Or is this just something that we teach ourselves, to make it easier to understand?