Reporting from Washington DC. Checked out the newest addition to the Smithsonian's museums on the Mall: the National Museum of the American Indian. Dramatic yellow adobe modernist building with the obligatory giant atrium, nice for the architect's portfolio but hogging much of what could have been exhibit space. Some wonderful collections of objects such as a show of women's apparel with intricate beadwork and concentric rings of elks' teeth (only two of such teeth per elk, so the more rings the mightier the woman's husband's hunting prowess, according to the video). Unfortunately most floors gave prominence to exhibition design over artwork, presenting crowded mazes of computer-generated text-and-photo spreads and interactive video terminals. Actual artifacts, darkly lit against darker backgrounds, tended to be swallowed up in these seas of typography. Other problems: vague and blandly worded themes ("our people," "our universes"), no clear timelines or sense of geography, avoidance of any kind of overall narrative history. Haven't researched the politics of how the museum came together and what kinds of compromises had to be made (either among tribal interests or to sidestep the U.S.'s sordid past of mass native American disenfranchisement), but the murkiness of the design seemed purposeful. Not to overlook the simple problem of "too many cooks" in the layout or the ever-ascendant tendency of designers to think they're artists and overwhelm the actual artwork on display.

Belatedly posted photos here.

- tom moody 6-01-2007 6:40 pm

"no clear timelines or sense of geography, avoidance of any kind of overall narrative history"

Just a guess, but this may be intentional. An attempt at presenting the people/culture as ongoing and thriving. Trying to avoid the antrhopologist model of compartmentalization and the before/after genocide theme.

They're up against that old museum/mosolium meme.
- steve 6-05-2007 7:23 am

How much of that is "desire to present the people/culture as ongoing and thriving" and how much is to spare the US embarrassment?

Would discussion of the before/after genocide theme be allowed under Bush?

Facts are facts, but here they're obscured in a cloud of Photoshop, Illustrator, and Quark. Not saying photos are altered, just that the design tells no story.
- tom moody 6-05-2007 7:41 am

The Antimuseum

The museum has a different way of presenting objects. Instead of being used to represent particular cultures, eras or events, the objects are shown in their own right, as art rather than anthropology or history. Throughout, the interpretation overtly recognizes the relativistic nature of any process of sorting or presenting: labels simply declare that the presentation offered is only one of the possible interpretations, which visitors are encouraged to mull over in order to produce their own understandings. History is not "a single definitive immutable work but . . . a collection of subjective tellings by different authors with different points of view." No account is authoritative.

The US government and the Native people of this continent may well want to avoid the genocidal theme for different reasons.

I've never been to the museum so I'm not defending the exhibitons or curitorial choices.

- steve 6-05-2007 7:37 pm

Thanks. I guessed that's what they thought they were doing.

But this is not true:

"Instead of being used to represent particular cultures, eras or events, the objects are shown in their own right, as art rather than anthropology or history"

The art is underlit, and buried in an overwhelming sea of contemporary graphics and signage. A simple white box presentation would have made the art pop but that is emphatically not what this is.

Also, it's convenient how the postmodern "cloud of information" approach often protects the "oppressor class"--in this case, the Bush administration, which, as we all know, thinks genocide accusations are the province of whiny liberals. They have interfered before with shows on the Mall that they think show "liberal bias."
- tom moody 6-05-2007 7:52 pm

The museum in lower Manhattan, created in the mid-1990's, has a similar curatorial approach.
- steve 6-05-2007 7:56 pm

a lot in the article seems to support your view.

In its passionate desire to avoid imposing a Western framework upon the material, Museum authorities themselves exemplify a profoundly Western theory of the past, namely a postmodernism that rejects all master narratives, In trying to avoid the academic Euro-American mold, the museum proclaims itself absolutely a product of American academic theory, as much a child of its time as the great world’s expositions were in their day.

- steve 6-05-2007 8:05 pm

I suppose they have to use low lighting to preserve the art but the presentation could be a lot more sparing. The curators also did funky things like arrange statuettes and jewelry in starburst patterns on the wall--that had some visual impact but sometimes seemed like the curators were crossing the line and playing artist (competing with the Native artisans).
- tom moody 6-05-2007 8:05 pm

like grandpa's arrowhead displays.
- steve 6-05-2007 8:05 pm

Right--it's one thing to see elk teeth in a concentric pattern on a ceremonial dress and another to see such arrangements on the museum wall. It's tricky being a curator, you want the objects to be noticed, but I'd try to "get out of the way" as much as possible.
- tom moody 6-05-2007 8:12 pm

Throughout the museum, objects are juxtaposed with little sense of chronological connection. The materials that make up the 1491 exhibit are dazzling in their profusion and, who knows, their historical importance, but they are given no more significance than a papier-mach6 mask from a contemporary school project.

Equally unsorted are the (literally) hundreds of gold objects assembled nearby in a wheel pattern to illustrate ‘The Prize," the material treasures that drew conquistadors to the Americas

- steve 6-05-2007 8:18 pm

Yeah, those. As I recall, they have fake gold chunks mixed in with stone statuettes.
- tom moody 6-05-2007 8:30 pm

Precursor to the "jungle whimsy" of Musée du Quai Branly?
- sally mckay 6-06-2007 1:24 am

I got to go to the Woodland Cultural Centre this spring. It's local (near the Six Nations Reserve) and small, owned and operated by native people (as opposed to curated "in consultation" with them). There is a historical display that runs in a linear fashion showing the chronology of the Six Nations in the area. The artefacts are lit dimly but they are labelled and historical. There are immersive areas, like the room with the model of the old church with a window with an owl sitting outside and a moon behind the trees. Later, as you walk around you pass through the space with the moon and the trees and the owl and some other plants and animals. Some of the finest diorama work I've seen. There are clearly written didactic panels telling the history straight out in plain english, teasing the colonists, angry when appropriate, but always focussed on the future and the strength of the people. It's great!
- sally mckay 6-06-2007 1:34 am

The Musée du Quai Branly is a similar but a different set of issues from the Smithsonian's museum. There is no uproar about whether the Native (North American, by the way) objects are art or not. (And I think that British author is condescending a bit with all that fighting Gauls rhetoric.)

In fact there is no uproar--the museum is about avoiding an uproar.

But the potential issues are tribe vs tribe (who invented what; who lived where; what style is characteristic of what tribe) and US vs Natives (solution: present 500 rifles hanging in space but don't say who they belonged to).
- tom moody 6-06-2007 3:29 am

The Woodland displays you described were possible because it's one people (or six who cooperated) who ran their own show. The Smithsonian has no dioramas and no clear histories. There are didactic text panels but they are hard to follow, with no clear overall structure.
- tom moody 6-06-2007 3:38 am

Part of the context around my enthusiasm for the Woodland museum is that the Canadian government recently did a drastic funding cut to small local museums, which is, to my mind, a more functional level where the museum structure really gets to shine.
- sally mckay 6-07-2007 11:12 pm

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