From: Subject: The New York Times > Arts > Art & Design > Museum Review: Museum With an American Indian Voice Date: Mon, 20 Sep 2004 19:25:14 -0400 MIME-Version: 1.0 Content-Type: multipart/related; boundary="----=_NextPart_000_0000_01C49F47.8DF8BE40"; type="text/html" X-MimeOLE: Produced By Microsoft MimeOLE V6.00.2800.1441 This is a multi-part message in MIME format. ------=_NextPart_000_0000_01C49F47.8DF8BE40 Content-Type: text/html; charset="iso-8859-1" Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable Content-Location: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/21/arts/design/21muse.html?pagewanted=print&position= The New York Times > Arts > Art & Design > Museum = Review: Museum With an American Indian Voice
3D"The 3D""

September 21, 2004
MUSEUM REVIEW =

Museum With an American Indian = Voice

By EDWARD=20 ROTHSTEIN

3DW=20ASHINGTON - Early Tuesday morning, 20,000 = members of=20 more than 500 Indian tribes from all over the American hemisphere = are=20 expected to gather on the Mall to begin a ceremonial march toward = the=20 National Museum of the American Indian. But they will not just be=20 celebrating the opening of the Smithsonian's new building. This = Native=20 Nations Procession, organized by the museum and forming, perhaps, = the=20 largest assembly of America's native peoples in modern times, will = also be=20 a self-celebration.

That will be perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the = museum. The=20 celebration is echoed in the museum's exhibitions. It is even = asserted in=20 the way the museum's mesa-like structure of Kasota limestone = thrusts=20 itself eastward toward the Capitol building, as if declaring - = after=20 centuries of battle, disruption, compromise, betrayal, defeat and=20 reinvention - "We are still here."

In fact, that kind of assertion, along with a six-day First = Americans=20 Festival of music, dance and storytelling that the museum predicts = will=20 attract 600,000 people, is not unrelated to the museum's project. = The=20 museum will, of course, mount exhibitions that draw on the 800,000 = objects=20 that the Smithsonian acquired from George Gustav Heye's famed = historical=20 collection of what he called "aboriginal art." But its mission = statement=20 also asserts another "special responsibility": to "protect, = support and=20 enhance the development, maintenance and perpetuation of native = culture=20 and community."

In other words, the museum will advocate not just for artifacts = but=20 also for the living cultures that once created them. Most museums = invoke=20 the past to give shape to the present; here the interests of the = present=20 will be used to shape the past. And that makes all the difference. =

So it is probably no accident that Tuesday's procession begins = in front=20 of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, which = still has a=20 major collection of Indian artifacts, and heads toward the new = museum.=20 Because that is precisely the path the Indian museum's director, = W.=20 Richard West Jr. (who is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho = tribes of=20 Oklahoma), has had in mind. In public statements he rejected "the = older=20 image of the museum as a temple with its superior, self-governing=20 priesthood." Instead, he said, he would create a "museum = different."=20 Indians would tell their own stories; no outside anthropologists = would=20 intrude. The objects would even be available for ritual tribal = use.

Unfortunately, the result proves that a genuinely celebratory = march=20 should really be heading in the other direction.

The Museum of the American Indian has much to boast of: raising = $100=20 million of its $219 million from private sources (a third of that = from=20 Indian tribes made wealthy from gambling casinos), a building = whose=20 initial design - by the Canadian architect (and Blackfoot) Douglas = Cardinal - hints at what might have been, a collection of = surpassing=20 aesthetic and cultural value. And with its verve and theatricality = it=20 could easily wind up welcoming the 4 million visitors a year it=20 anticipates.

But the ambition of creating a "museum different" - the goal of = making=20 that museum answer to the needs, tastes and traditions of perhaps = 600=20 diverse tribes, ranging from the Tapirape of the Brazilian jungles = to the=20 Yupik of Alaska - results in so many constituencies that the = museum often=20 ends up filtering away detail rather than displaying it, and = minimizing=20 difference even while it claims to be discovering it.

On top of that, the studious avoidance of scholarship makes one = wish=20 that the National Museum of Natural History's American Indian = Program,=20 with its scholarly staff (directed by an anthropologist, JoAllyn=20 Archambault, herself a Standing Rock Sioux), could have proceeded = with its=20 once-planned revision of its aging exhibits instead of having to = close=20 them down, scuttle hopes of renewal and slink into insignificance = in=20 response to its new competition.

Some of these problems seem palpable in the Indian museum's = building=20 itself, which fills the last open spot on the Mall. In 1998 Mr. = Cardinal=20 was fired from the architect job and multiple voices came into = play; he=20 called the result a "forgery" and refuses to take credit. His = vision of a=20 sweeping earth-form, shaped by nature's force fields, can still be = sensed.=20 But the northwest corner of the building is leaden, its = Mall-facing facade=20 only half-heartedly awakening as it leads toward the east-facing = front.=20 The landscaping, which includes 33,000 plants of 150 species along = with=20 various invocations of Native American elements - a boulder from = Hawaii,=20 growing stalks of corn and a recreated Chesapeake wetlands - is = marred by=20 fussiness.

But the exhibits are where the problems begin in earnest. The = display=20 for the Santa Clara Pueblo of New Mexico, for example, explains: = "We are=20 made up of two major clans, Summer and Winter people." But, the = Pueblo=20 curator writes: "There is no dividing line. There is just a = sense." The=20 exhibit's commentary is limited to comments like "Respect and = sharing of=20 your self is very important." One does not learn what daily life = is like=20 or even what the tribe's religious ceremonies consist of.

Similarly with the Anishinaabe, who are 200,000 strong in the = Great=20 Lakes region. The explanatory panel reads: "Everything has a = spirit and=20 everything is interconnected." The central image is a "teaching = lodge" in=20 which the tribe learns seven teachings: "honesty, love, courage, = truth,=20 wisdom, humility and respect." A diorama with life-size mannequins = shows=20 various tribe members, including children, in the lodge. They use = a bowl=20 from 1880 and a dress made in 1920, but no information is given = about=20 whether or not these objects are like the ones currently used or = precisely=20 what the "clan system" is that one comment refers to.

Such detail, apparently, was not what the tribal curators = thought=20 important. In fact, there is an astonishing uniformity in the = exhibits'=20 accounts of religious beliefs, which may have been homogenized by = subtle=20 forces within the museum itself. The building emphasizes a kind of = warm,=20 earthy mysticism with comforting homilies behind every facade, = reviving an=20 old pastoral romance about the Indian.

But these were communities that at least at one time were = vastly=20 different, which farmed or hunted, engaged in war, suffered = indignity,=20 inspired outrage. The notion that tribal voices should "be heard" = becomes=20 a problem when the selected voices have so little to say. = Moreover, since=20 American Indians largely had no detailed written languages and = since so=20 much trauma had decimated the tribes, the need for scholarship and = analysis of secondary sources is all the more crucial.

But the museum almost seems afraid of distinctions. There are = display=20 cases of objects made with beads, organized with no particular = logic; a=20 beaded horse-head cover from 1900 North Dakota appears near a=20 mid-19th-century sea-otter hat from the Aleutian Islands. One wall = holds=20 "star" objects, whose only connection is that they have pictures = of stars=20 on them. Some tribes are asked to present 10 crucial moments in = their=20 history; the Tohono Oodham in Arizona choose, as their first, = "Birds teach=20 people to call for rain." Their last is in the year 2000, a = "desert walk=20 for health."

The result is that a monotony sets in; every tribe is equal, = and so is=20 every idea. No unified intelligence has been applied. Moreover, = with a net=20 cast so wide, including South and Central America as well as = Alaska, the=20 only commonality may be the encounter with colonizers - and even = this must=20 be simplified. The accidental epidemics that killed perhaps 75 to = 90=20 percent of North American Indians is made far less central than = the wars=20 and forced migrations that followed. Internecine tribal wars such = as those=20 mentioned in the exhibit of the Brazilian tribe, the Tapirape, = don't fit=20 the model, either.

The focal point becomes a series of displays called "The = Storm," which=20 reflect three forces most terrible: "guns, churches and = government." There=20 are hundreds of guns and rifles on display, ranging from a = 17th-century=20 pistol to a 1985 Uzi. The church display includes nearly 200 = Bibles=20 translated into 175 languages. The government's assaults are in = documents:=20 laws, land deeds, violated treaties.

From this apocalypse one is meant to pass to an anthology of=20 current-day tribal life, which includes examples of casinos, ice = fishing,=20 social clubs and platitudes.

But a great opportunity was missed in this museum. Individual = tribes=20 could have been explored in depth. Even the "storm" could have = been=20 illuminated with more detail rather than by just invoking the = forces=20 involved.

The museum, though, seems satisfied with serving a sociological = function for Indians of the Americas. It may indeed succeed, = because it=20 has packaged a self-celebratory romance. Understanding though, = requires=20 something more. It is not a matter of whose voice is heard. It is = a matter=20 of detail, qualification, nuance and context. It is a matter of=20 scholarship.


Copy= right=20 2004 The = New York=20 Times Company | Home | Privac= y=20 Policy | Search | Corrections | = RSS | Help | Back=20 to Top =
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