Mixed Reviews for Museum of American Indian

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Critics have praised the building and mostly panned the exhibitions. Do they not get it? Or is the museum just not intended for them? Is there another way to present history and culture in a museum? The National Museum of the American Indian nears its first anniversary.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

More than three million people have visited the National Museum of the American Indian since it opened last September. That opening was quite an event. Thousands of Native Americans from all over the country converged on the nation's capital for a celebration of Indian culture. But along with the celebration there was some harsh criticism of the museum's scholarship. NPR's Lynn Neary has a look at the institution as it approaches its first anniversary.

LYNN NEARY reporting:

There's tobacco growing outside the National Museum of the American Indian, corn, too, and a number of other crops you don't expect to see in the shadow of the nation's Capitol. Most museums on the National Mall are landscaped with seasonal flowers and plants. These crops, representing some of the agricultural traditions of Native Americans, are just one indication of how this museum sets out to be and is different.

(Soundbite of museum activity)

Unidentified Woman #1: Welcome.

NEARY: Inside a video greets visitors in English and tribal languages. Nearby is a gift shop and, down the hall from it, a restaurant. To view the exhibitions, visitors have to go up to the third and fourth floors. There the first things they'll see are display cases that include arrowheads, dolls and animals. Though beautifully arranged, the objects are presented in no obvious order. The very old and the very new are mixed together. Visitors must consult a nearby computer to get more information.

(Soundbite of computer recording)

Unidentified Woman #2: This beautiful object is a wooden hunting hat from the Aleutian Islands.

NEARY: Some early reviews of the museum objected to these displays as frustrating and confusing, but the museum says the arrangements are meant to be aesthetically pleasing, and extensive information on each object is easily accessible on the computer. Museum director Richard West says the museum wants to show off as many of the 800,000 objects in its collection as possible, but, he says, that is not its most important mission.

Mr. RICHARD WEST (Director, National Museum of the American Indian): This is not simply a palace of collectibles. This is about the associations between those magnificent collections and the peoples who made them from a deep and distant past that goes back thousands of years in this hemisphere right up to the present and on into the future.

NEARY: This museum, says West, is meant to affirm what he calls the `profound survivance' of Indian culture in spite of the destructive effects of colonialism. According to West, this is a marked departure from the past, when museums portrayed Native Americans as members of a vanishing race. Museums also routinely displayed objects that are considered sacred and even human remains. As a result, many Native Americans developed a profound mistrust of these institutions.

Mr. WEST: Native peoples, on the one hand, loved museums because they held our stuff. And on the other hand, they could sometimes hate museums because they held our stuff. It was this kind of conflict that needed to be resolved. So what we did was to reach out and include, on a collaborative basis, Native communities themselves in the presentation of themselves in this institution.

NEARY: The museum consulted with members of 24 different tribes in creating the three main exhibitions. Tribal curators chose which objects from the museum's collection should be included in their tribe's displays and how they should be interpreted.

(Soundbite of museum activity)

Unidentified Woman #3: This is 1800 and this is 1870.

Unidentified Man #1: This is the starting point so it's the winter of 1800 and 1801.

NEARY: In addition, the museum employs Native American interpreters to answer visitors' questions. In this case, a Crow interpreter explains what is known as the winter count using a replica of a buffalo hide on which time and events are recorded symbolically.

(Soundbite of museum activity)

Unidentified Man #1: Now I know this symbol because I am Crow.

Unidentified Woman #3: Oh, OK. So, well, tell us talk about this one.

Unidentified Man #1: All right. Well, there are different groups of different bands of Crow and Dakota and this is a symbol that represents that there was conflict with...

Unidentified Woman #3: Between them.

Unidentified Man #1: ...between the two tribes.

NEARY: But the exhibitions do not present history in a traditional way. Dates and historical facts give way to stories and events important to individual tribes. Some obvious and painful aspects of Native American history, such as the Trail of Tears, are not even mentioned. New York Times critic at large Edward Rothstein says instead of substance and scholarship, there is self-celebration.

Mr. EDWARD ROTHSTEIN (The New York Times): It does no good to respond to something that one feels is inadequate, which I imagine is the response to traditional museum exhibitions, with something that is pure pap.

NEARY: Rothstein is one of several critics who wrote scathing reviews of the National Museum of the American Indian when it opened a year ago. Rothstein says he likes the museum even less now. While curators intend to show the great diversity of tribes, Rothstein feels they present a homogenous view of tribal life tinged with New Age ideas.

Mr. ROTHSTEIN: I would wager that there are any number of scholars of American Indian history who know far more about these tribes than the elders of the tribe. The point isn't that a museum should allow American Indian tribes to tell their own story. The point is that the museum should be able to give a complete portrait of the tribes and their history so that you actually know something of the truth.

NEARY: While not exactly inviting such criticism, the museum has left itself open to debate. In the section that deals with Native American history a video explicitly tells museum-goers to challenge what the see.

(Soundbite of museum video)

Unidentified Man #2: So view what's offered with respect but also skepticism. Explore this gallery, encounter it, reflect on it, argue with it.

NEARY: But to do that, says Amy Lonetree, an assistant professor of Native American studies at Portland State University, visitors may need more information. Lonetree is editing an upcoming edition of The American Indian Quarterly, which is devoted to the museum. A variety of scholars including museum specialists, historians and anthropologists are among the contributors. Lonetree says while some scholars are critical, many applaud the museum's emphasis on the story of Native American survival.

Professor AMY LONETREE (Portland State University): Clearly that tackles head-on the vanishing race stereotype that many museums of the past had reinforced. However, they don't provide enough context on what native people were fighting to survive in the first place. And their failure to discuss the colonization process in a clear and coherent manner just, I think, makes those stories of survivance lose their power.

NEARY: The museum, says director Richard West, has heard the critics and as it looks toward the future it will look for ways to improve. But, he also says, some people may never fully accept the museum's underlying philosophy.

Mr. WEST: Some people have a particular experience that is the basis for their review and they're not departing at this point in their lives. And I don't begrudge them that, but let me be self-critical about the National Museum of the American Indian, too. I think that we have an obligation--and we have not done it absolutely correctly yet--of being more self-revealing about what it is we're doing as a matter of preparing our audiences for the different kind of experience they're going to get here.

NEARY: And, says Amy Lonetree, it is also crucial that the museum remains willing to listen to and engage the many people who have a stake in its future.

Ms. LONETREE: Because there is no underestimating the importance of this site. It is on the National Mall. It's a site that indigenous people have fought for, and it is a tremendous accomplishment. And its importance to being able to educate the public about who we are can't be emphasized enough.

NEARY: And for those who just don't get it, well, the invitation to encounter, reflect and argue still stands. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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