The NMAI has an aggressive agenda. Those who imagined that walking through it would be an experience akin to the American Indian galleries of some mid-level midwestern museum, perhaps coupled with a touring exhibit of woven baskets, are in for something different altogether. Everything about the museum is gathered around one idea – that American Indians are here now, a vibrant 21st century conglomeration of cultures, that are bonded together by the iniquities of the past but are determined to come out of the shadow in which they’ve been relegated and take their rightful place among the many ethnicities making up this mulicultural world.
The exhibits of “old stuff” – dolls, and projectile points, and beaded objects and all – are in wall cases near the corridors; lots of objects, crammed into the cases, making an eerie echo of the kinds of anthropological displays of yesteryear. While the objects in them may be delightful and exemplary in themselves, the display makes an ironic statement about the way those objects have always been shown. The themed exhibits, designed with considerable input from the tribes represented, are very Smithsonian in style – obsessed with their educational mission, and their “all objects are of equal interest” approach to the minutiae of daily life. The crowds were so thick that is was difficult to judge how effective they are. And since I come to this with considerably more background knowledge and awareness than most people, it’s impossible for me to adequately gauge the impact that it might have on someone whose awareness of Indians is shaped only by the movies (where the only Indians are 19th century Comanche, Apache, Kiowa and Sioux), and television (where they are simply absent).
I think they’ve done a fine job. If there are a few rough edges, that’s to be expected. Over the next decades, they’ll shift and adapt and learn different ways to tell the same and more stories. The most important thing, is that they are invisible no more.