Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Mediation of Museums




The National Museum of the American Indian, located in Bowling Green.

            Museums take on a sacred notion in today’s society.  They are places of learning, of knowledge, and of “culture”.  But too often we go into museums expecting to soak up some wisdom from this objective pool of knowledge and consequently fail to recognize the many biases and subjective decisions that go into a museum’s presentation.  Keeping this in mind, I took a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this past weekend, hoping to gain not only insight to American Indians’ cultures past and present, but to see what conscious decisions went into the museum’s design and how that may influence a visitor.
            The first thing one notices upon entering New York’s NMAI is that it is located within the former U.S. Custom’s House.  The architecture of this building harkens back to the classics, with over 40 Roman columns depicting Mercury, the God of Commerce, and 12 statues representing the sea powers of Europe and the Mediterranean. 
            But the most breathtaking element is the rotunda, which immediately greets visitors upon their entrance, and surrounding it are elaborate murals depicting both early American explorers, such as Columbus, and the course of a ship entering the New York Harbor.  This art is elaborate and stunning, but seems inherently off in a museum dedicated to the one group of peoples who did not come through the U.S. Customs House on their journey to America, but in fact preceded it.  It quickly became clear to me that although this is a museum dedicated to Native Americans, the presentation of their culture would be mediated through a European lens.

A portrait of Columbus in the main rotunda of NMAI.
            But aside from the questionable building choice for the NMAI, the exhibits themselves were quite enjoyable.  The ongoing exhibit, Infinity of Nations, held most of the archaeological material.  It had a somewhat confused layout, but its disregard for a strict linearity and rigidity was refreshing, with smooth transitions between different tribes and societies that had been near neighbors or inhabitants of the same area at different times.  While most of the labels and explanations were basic, there were some additional plaques I appreciated.  One such plaque was found under a bow and arrows from Tierra del Fuego Province, it said:

In the old days there lived an evil and powerful woman named Taita. She controlled the whole area and was selfish, giving nobody any water to drink. Only she hunted in those days, sharing only a small part of her catch with others. Without her permission, no one was allowed to work or undertake anything; lacking weapons, nobody killed animals. Many of the people were weak, dying of hunger and thirst. Finally a wise and able young man named Taiyin killed Taita with his slingshot. He took the evil woman’s bows and arrows and showed them to his people, for until that moment they had not known of such weapons. The men copied these weapons and made these bows and arrows for themselves and went hunting, successfully killing guanacos.

This plaque was great because it did not try to justify the story of the bow and arrows by labeling it as a native myth or legend, but simply presented it in the same manner as any Western “fact” found on other plaques.  I took this to be a promising sign of NMAI trying to incorporate various sources of truth and knowledge into their exhibits.
            Overall the NMAI was a beautiful museum, with a variety of contemporary art alongside older, archaeological remains.  Special exhibits currently on display include C. Maxx Stevens: House of Memory, Julie Buffalohead: Let the Show Begin, and Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture.  Check out these exhibits for a sample of the current identity of Native Americans, and remember the next time you visit a museum to think twice before accepting everything as an objective presentation.
“Hostage” by Julie Buffalohead, on display at the NMAI alongside more of her work until April 28, 2013.



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