Last week’s opening of the National Museum of the American Indian is shaping up to be the museum world’s gaudiest belly flop since the disastrous 1964 debut of Huntington Hartford’s antimodernist Gallery of Modern Art. Edward Rothstein of the New York Times scorned its “self-celebratory romance.” Paul Richard of the Washington Post lamented, “The museum doesn’t nourish thought.”Post city columnist Marc Fisher was blunter, calling the museum“an exercise in intellectual timidity and a sorry abrogation of the Smithsonian’s obligation to explore America’s history and culture.”
The mere fact that Washington, D.C., persists in calling its favorite sports team the Redskins is reason enough to put a National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall. The case becomes overwhelming when you note further that the monuments and museums of Washington, collectively, presume to tell a reasonably complete story about this country; that the Native Americans settled this continent long before anyone else; that they were subjected by later arrivals to mistreatment that we can plausibly label genocide; and that most Americans today have little or no familiarity with the various Native American cultures. I’m glad we finally have a National Museum of the American Indian. But why did it have to be this one?
The new museum stubbornly refuses to impose any recognizable standard of scholarship, or even value, on the items in its galleries. Precious artifacts are mingled with present-day kitsch, with few if any clues provided about what makes them significant. The museum’s curators regard the very notion of a Native American cultural heritage as anathema because it clashes with the museum’s boosterish message that Native American culture is as vibrant today as it ever was. This isn’t a museum; it’s a public service announcement.
Among the inaugural exhibitions is “The Jewelry of Ben Nighthorse.” If the name sounds familiar, that’s because the artist is a Republican senator from Colorado, where they call him Ben Nighthorse Campbell. In 1989, Campbell, who was then a House member (and a Democrat), sponsored the legislation that created the National Museum of the American Indian; he later helped provide necessary federal funds as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. The exhibit itself is laughably amateurish. There is a 2004 portrait of Campbell in Cheyenne tribal dress and a glass case full of ribbons and trophies that Campbell has won for his jewelry. The rings, bracelets, tie clasps, and other tchotchkes displayed reverently are indistinguishable from anything you might buy at a roadside stand in Boulder. What establishes Campbell’s bona fides as an artist of national renown? An informational pillar explains that “Nighthorse was among 20 artists selected by Arizona Highways magazine for a contemporary jewelry issue.”
The exhibit has caused a minor ethical stink for Campbell back in Colorado, but it ought to cause a bigger one in Washington. It’s a straightforward declaration that the National Museum of the American Indian will sell gallery space to the highest bidder. For this alone, the museum’s Native American director, W. Richard West Jr., ought to be fired immediately.
I don’t pretend to know anything about Native American jewelry; you couldn’t fill a thimble with my more general knowledge of Native American culture and history. But museums are supposed to impart knowledge. They’re supposed to grab you by the lapel and say, Here is something you must see, and here is why it’s important. The National Museum of the American Indian is so indifferent to this imperative that it doesn’t even bother to label many of the objects on display. Here is a beautiful curved display case full of various forms of beadwork. What am I looking at? To find out, I have to wait my turn at one of the display case’s four electronic touch screens. Clicking from one menu to the next, I learn that this bear-claw necklace was made in Iowa in 1860 while that breastplate and choker were made in Oklahoma in 1972. What are the marks of fine craftsmanship that led to their display? None of my business, apparently. Does each have a particular ceremonial role? Nothing on that, either. If an item described on one of the touch screen menus sounds intriguing, I can, in theory, look up at the display case and find it. But to locate one item, Where’s Waldo?-style, inside this crowded panorama is too much like helping my 8-year-old find the socks she tossed onto the floor or the jacket she forgot to hang up. No thank you.
Underneath the glass case are several rows of drawers, most of which are marked, “Temporarily locked.” I open one that isn’t and see, behind a glass case, a brightly illuminated head garment of some sort—identifiable as such because there’s a photograph beside it of a woman wearing one. But what is it? Maybe I can go back to the touch screen and find out. But now somebody else is using it. Oh, the hell with it.
Granted, the task of the National Museum of the American Indian is not easy. The term “Native American” describes not one culture but a multitude of cultures that share the superficial connection of having evolved in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The disciplines necessary to understand these cultures include art, history, and anthropology. Most people visiting the museum can be expected to have little or no background knowledge of the topics explored therein. The challenge is a large one.
But there are ways to overcome such challenges. On a family trip to England a few weeks ago, I happened to visit the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, whose principle task is to explain to hordes of scientifically illiterate tourists how Britons used timekeeping and celestial navigation to establish the international standard for measuring longitude during the 18th century. Talk about challenges! But the museum did a splendid job of walking you through each step of the problem and its solution, displaying the tools used along the way. That’s what great museums do. (For an interactive tour of the Royal Observatory, click here.)
The National Museum of the American Indian has no apparent desire to do anything like this. Thomas Sweeney, a museum spokesman, actually boasted to the Washington Post that nowhere in the museum will you learn the prevailing scientific theory that Native Americans migrated from Asia to North America by crossing a strip of land that later gave way to the Bering Strait. Instead, visitors learn a legend from Arizona’s Tohono O’odham: When time began, two gods named Earth Medicine Man and I’itoi created the world pretty much the way it is now and plopped the Tohono O’odham into it. Folkore and religious beliefs are certainly legitimate topics for a museum to explore, but to present such beliefs in a vacuum constitutes Native American creationism. It’s like visiting Salem’s Witch Museum and being told that Bridget Bishop, hanged in June 1692, had it coming.
The National Museum of the American Indian is backed into this corner by its mission of “survivance,” a term (invented 10 years ago by an Anishinaabe scholar named Gerald Vizenor) that elevates the survival of ancient culture from the realm of fact to that of dogma. Survivance, as defined in the museum’s exhibit, “Our Lives: Contemporary Lives and Identities,” requires “doing what is necessary to keep our cultures alive.” At the museum, that means willing into being an unchanging continuum between past and present that doesn’t really exist. Yes, many beliefs and practices of these tribal cultures survive to this day. But it’s absurd to suggest that, even with recent improvements in tribal economies—many of them achieved without building casinos—Native Americans live the same way in the 21st century as they did in the 16th. I’m not aware that any aboriginal culture in the world can plausibly make that claim at this late date. The continuum message is also condescending to the many Native Americans who revere their cultural inheritance but nonetheless live the way the rest of us do, surfing the Web, shopping at Wal-Mart, and so on. Modernity is no longer the “white man’s ways.” It’s multicultural, and I can’t imagine any Native American responding kindly if told he didn’t belong.
The museum didn’t have to be like this. Its satellite branch in Lower Manhattan, which opened in 1994, labels its artifacts conscientiously. The permanent collection on which the new museum draws is apparently quite vast and impressive, and the building itself is a beauty. (Regrettably, its distinguished Native American architect, Douglas Cardinal, was fired before he completed the job, and today he says the Smithsonian treated him like “Tonto.”) One wishes that the curators would treat the older work with the same ease and frankness they treat recent work, like its exhibit on Native Modernism, which takes the trouble to provide some context for sculptures by two bona fide artists, George Morrison and Alan Houser.
I have to believe that those responsible for the museum’s botched debut have felt the sting of public opprobrium and will make changes that encourage the public to take it more seriously. Experienced museum directors (West is not one; previously, he was a law partner in the Washington office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson) seek legitimacy among scholars, and we can probably expect quiet changes in that direction over the next few years. Native Americans, too, will likely chafe over the museum’s amateurishness—if not now, then after the achievement of getting it built fades into memory. But why should we have to wait? The Smithsonian should have gotten it right the first time.
Slate intern Louisa Herron Thomas provided research assistance for this article.