Museum of the American Indian

Submitted by Ben on Sun, 04/03/2005 - 08:54

Late this morning I rode the Metro to the National Mall.  I checked on the cherry blossoms, but most of the trees are still a day or two from full bloom.

After a visit to the Smithsonian Castle, I settled in at the new Museum of the American Indian.  As long overdue as this tribute is, I have to say it was worth the wait.  It sidesteps any pretense of "objective" anthropology or sociology by exclusively using the first person... that is to say, *all* of the narration on the walls is attributed to whomever said it, rather than belonging to the faceless Smithsonian institution.  Since I'm a bit of a stickler for citations, I was impressed.

And each nation that's represented got to design its own part of the museum, from the carpet to the rafters.  A dozen or so nations present their "Universes" -- their mythological understanding of how the world works, and when you step into their alcoves, you enter their worlds.  Between the alcoves are little storytelling niches where creation myths are illustrated with tasteful (I thought) animation.  I was disappointed to learn that these animations are not available on video; you have to travel to the museum if you want to see them.  Maybe in a few years they'll change their minds about that.

The section of the museum that deals with the centuries of "Contact" between Native Americans and Europeans doesn't pull any punches -- in fact, I recognized a number of presentation strategies that were borrowed from the Holocaust Museum.  But then the final section shows how tribes are picking themselves up and moving beyond survival to what they call "survivance."

I had read about the well-used Bombardier ice-fishing vehicle that was brought into the museum for the Métis nation's exhibit.  I not only agree that it was an appropriate expense, I think more of the nations should have contributed modern artifacts like that.  In the context of the exhibit, the big beloved workhorse really says more about their lifestyle than any number of words or pictures could have done.

The museum's cafeteria is another tour de force.  McDonald's and Pizza Hut reportedly tried to sneak in, as they did in all the other museum cafes, but in this case they were kept out.  Each counter has relatively healthy, often organic or fair-traded food inspired by the Native American cuisine of a different region of North or South America.  I expected it to be overpriced like all other museum food, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and quantity I got for my money.

Before heading back to the hostel, I stopped in at the Air and Space Museum and caught the 3-D IMAX film about the International Space Station.  Like most of the Air and Space Museum, it's a few years out of date and more than a little jingoistic, but I like 3-D movies and I like the ISS, so I was happy.