Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian

Architect, Douglas Cardinal

Opened 2004

Is a museum a monument? Well, it does everything a monument does (and more besides).  So how could it not be?  Plenty of monuments have affiliated museums and others directly include displays of artifacts, curios and artworks.  Even more, the two museums discussed in this website, both designated units of the Smithsonian, have a specific monumentalizing function for particular American cultural groups.  (The other is NMAAHC, by the way.) The Smithsonian Institution, after all, is the closest thing we have to a national museum complex.  Its exhibits are as closely scrutinized by everyone from politicians to tourists as the monuments on the other side of the Mall.  Often on the same days’ visit.

Thus the Smithsonian’s all-public museums have faced as much political controversy as the nearby public monuments.  It is hardly clear that the American public even sees much of a distinction between the two. So placing a new museum on the rapidly shrinking spaces of the Mall is a considerable undertaking, financially, materially and, maybe most of all, monumentally.  In the past couple decades, two new buildings have been erected that pretty much exhaust the complex of museum spaces between the Capitol and Washington Monument.

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened to the public fifteen years ago.  It was a singular project, struggled for over decades, to give a degree of public visibility and belonging to the many native American peoples long denigrated, deceived and written out of the narrative of modern America. Giving them a specific, permanent place in “America’s Museum” is a salutary move to ameliorate, diversify and enrich the American story.  Yet it is also one replete with ironies and contradictions, and quite difficult to describe as a success in any conventional terms

The building itself is a case in point.  Designed with specific Native American principles in mind, it is a dazzling rock-clad exterior, contrasting with (or maybe “putting to shame”) the far more conventional structures nearby of official Washington.  It is light where they are dark, curved where they are straight, rough-edged where they are smooth.  It is also genuinely contextual, snuggling areas of native plants and signifying rocks in its spaces, orienting itself to the heavens and four cardinal points of the compass: a genuinely edifying edifice.

Even more, the higher, longer expanses at its front are reminiscent of a wind-sculpted rock formation, but one pointed directly toward the center of the nearby Capitol dome.  But while this (serious but polite) confrontation of colonizer and colonized is dramatically evident from across the street, one enters the museum with no such conception.  Instead, thick tree plantings by the museum’s entrance cleverly block out the nearby, and suggest an earlier, more wild world before Western contact.  It also conjures the Mall’s own earlier existence in the 19thcentury, before it was orchestrated into a single grand vista.  You have to angle a certain very particular way just to see the Capitol dome at all.

And yet, on entering into the museum one is bewildered to find a conventional, white-walled, industrial/office space much like any one nearby.  This discordance is a permanent reminder of the building’s genesis.  The architect Douglas Cardinal, of Blackfoot heritage, was hired to design the building.  Cardinal’s organic, almost metaphyscial vision of architectural design is deeply collaborative.  It begins by asking stakeholders (in this case representatives of the vast range of Native American tribes) to join in a “vision session” to assess the “empirical, practical, emotional and spiritual needs of a building.”  This kind of process, with its own evolving logic and metaphysical basis, proved to be impossible to work with for the Smithsonian’s federal, bureaucratic processes.  Cardinal was formally removed from the project before interior work was much advanced. So NMAI is really two different buildings reflecting two different cultures, only one of them Indian.

The museum as a whole is as split and paradoxical as the building itself.  The NMAI actually embaces a vast collection housed in two different cities.  Most of it was collected in the early 20thcentury, constituting the vast George Heye collection, with its own building in downtown Manhattan.  Heye collected with little nuance, in a way admittedly destructive to Native American communities, part of the now discredited paradigm of “salvage” anthropology. The Heye collection consists of many objects largely taken out of context and often with no proper provenance.  This is a flashing red light in museum terms, since it may include objects looted, stolen or otherwise appropriated.   But even if this were not true, there are still two other conceptual barriers to the project of the museum.  First, there is considerable emphasis in many Native American cultures to keep the most important things from view, and particularly to keep them from Western scholars and scientists (and museum visitors) when stripped of their proper ritual significance. Many Native Americans today are working to take back their rightful artifacts, despite its effect on museum holdings.  To its credit, the NMAI is part of this repatriation effort, another paradox in the museum’s existence.  But there is an even bigger bar.  The inherited Western concept of museum, particularly the “survey” museum of which the NMAI (and Smithsonian as a whole) embodies, is difficult to disentangle from the colonialist/imperialist age in which it was born and fostered.  Assembling all the types of butterflies or minerals, as the natural history museum does, is one thing.  Treating the variety of Native Americans in the same way is another. Which leads to another puzzle about this museum: its name.  It is striking that it is not The National Museum of Native Americans.  Instead of indicating the diversity of cultures with a plural, NMAI sticks with a more 19th-century “essentialist” singular.  It also, of course, uses the term “Indian” despite its many detractors.  In my experience, Native Americans do not speak of anything in the museum as “Indian” nor indeed do they have much to say about it as whole.  They are a lot more likely to focus on particular mentions and artifacts of their own tribe in their own name, be it Ojibwe or Lakota or Cherokee.

At the same time, I have never heard any Native American speak of this museum with anything but pride at being represented, at belonging to the grand assembly of Smithsonian museums on the Mall.  Surely those who founded NMAI knew of the inherent difficulties in creating it and steadfastly moved ahead, determined to find a place for their people.  Indeed, they deliberately set out to change traditional museum practices.  Thus the NMAI opened with few, if any, traditional curators.   Instead, it entrusted its exhibits to “community curators” in which members of a particular tribe would tell their own story.  This is an admirable, empowering ideal, particularly for peoples traditionally defined from outsiders, with languages and criteria not their own.  But in practice the results were appalling, shallow and incoherent for the external viewer.  

While the museum has worked to move away from this disastrous model, a review ten years after its opening describes NMAI as “still trying to find its way.”  In the meantime, it remains strikingly empty inside, while its attendance has plummeted.  But if NMAI has not been the most successful museum of the Smithsonian on conventional terms, despite the many efforts and innovations of its management, in the process it perhaps speaks even more forcefully than intended about the contemporary place of Native Americans in modern America, in all their complexity.