Thursday, April 28, 2011

Trip to the National Museum of the American Indian, DC

Photos by L. Chippeaux.
"There is a design in living things; their shapes, forms, the ability to live, all have meaning." -Popovi Da from San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico

The NMAI is one of the many museums along Washington, D.C.'s National Mall, but it stands out. It is not only a curvilinear building with a shape akin to the The Getty located in Los Angles. This building stands unique against museums of a more classic architectural styling. The building uses sandstone rather than the gleaming marble and glass of the other Smithsonian Museums. Additionally, it stands at an angle to the geometric alignment of the area. The building and its grounds reflect the amount of native influence in the creation of the Museum. The front doors open to the east, and there is an emphasis on the natural landscaping and the alignment with the cardinal directions. These doors not only open towards the sun, which is an important cultural tradition in many groups, but are also etched with sun symbols.
Sun symbols are especially important in a traditional context because the sun acts as a life-giver and a calendar, telling people when to plant, harvest or even when to conduct special ceremonies. This use of native symbols and cultural beliefs is extended within the museum with the repetitive use of symbols such as the spiral, divisions of four, etc.

The museum is not simply an ethnographic museum, but is also a history and art museum, yet it is none of those at the same time. It is a museological experiment in visual sovereignty. One part of the curatorial process is unique, it is the use of community curators in which there is community control over aspects of an object' s display. This not only changes how native nations participate in a national museum, but allows them to speak and organize their cultures in ways that are not precisely linear as is a western traditions. Furthermore, the organization of the museum is not arranged geographically, there seems to be no "proper" path, but is a place of cultural balance and varying of experiences. It allows for the different understanding of interaction and knowledge, as well as the inappropriateness of items and other types of knowledge.

After visiting this museum, several questions came to me:
How do we place a museum's architectural/design features within the context of a "Native" museum? How does this context differ when compared to museums such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York City?

Are there any inherent problem with the use of community curators? (I personally am happy that the Smithsonian is bringing in people who have the native education and understanding of tradition to present objects with a variety of meanings some of which can only be understood in a single tradition)?

What educational aspects would you expect to differ in such a museum? As a comparison, looking at the Bard Graduate Center in which we saw the labels were the results of an academic seminar and thus very fact based. How would you expect the description of objects to change according to whether the exhibit was the result of academic or cultural curation?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. After thinking about this Museum more in the weeks following my trip, I started does one present a culture when its understanding of time and space is different than our (western) own, it seems like trying to make one code artificially equal to the other. Is something inherently lost in our inability to comprehend cultural knowledge, whether it be indigenous or otherwise. Are there any ways that you think the design and conception of curation would change if a museum was native, ethnic, colonial, historical, etc?

  3. Yes, for the meaning of all is that all is meaningless.