There are two kinds of Museums on the Mall (and just off of it). The first are the “draws”: high density ones that draw people from all over and are hip deep in school kids half the year. Natural History, Air and Space, and American History, Archives, the Castle, Holocaust Memorial Museum, and National Gallery of Art (kind of), all are in that first category. These are museums my visitors know about, are primed to see, and will be upset with me if I skip.
And then there are the rest. The forgotten step-children of the Mall that no matter how worthy can’t seem to attract or connect with visitors. Sometimes, in my rarely humble opinion, I can get a group to connect with one of these (I had good luck with the Nun exhibit from earlier this year), but all to often either a group doesn’t want to visit these. That’s OK with me, these museums are often undiscovered gems and/or great places for me to take a nap.
Keeping this in mind, I’ve been keeping an eye on where the National Museum of the American Indian is heading since it opened in 2004, and I have to say it tends to be falling into both categories. That’s right, it’s both a draw and an “also on the Mall”.
How, you may ask?
Well, the Museum does a pretty good job of getting you in the door. The grounds are intriguing; with fountains, wetlands, intriguing sculpture, and gardens with Native American crops adding interest from the street and sidewalk level. The main entrance is to the East, culturally significant to many Native Americans as it is in the direction of the rising sun, and faces the Capitol. This allows for a meaningful and significant interplay with the statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome, where visitors can contemplate the concept of Freedom and how it has changed and developed from the time the first Europeans (and Africans, while we’re on the topic), through the development of the United States, to the present day. What it doesn’t do, is allow you to get to and from the Museum easily from the Air and Space Museum, which is where most visitors are coming from.
We’re going to see this interplay elsewhere in the Museum: deep, introspective, and thoughtful design intertwined with frustrating little details that make the visitor’s experience just a tad bit more difficult.
Moving inside, you come to what is now one of the really great spaces in Washington, DC. In a town with no shortage of grand rotundas, the NMAI really knocks it out of the park. Much attention is placed to orienting yourself to the outside world; I particularly like the placement of the kayak, outrigger canoe, and reed boat to the north, west, and south, reinforcing the cardinal directions with cultural significance. Besides being a welcoming and inspiring space on its own, the Potomac Rotunda, as it’s called, can serve as an intriguing public forum, as it did recently for the Makiykumanta Peruvian folklife festival (especially useful in DC’s crappy winters and wretched summers). On the downside, the Rotunda takes up a fair amount of the Museum’s floor space, for all four floors, constraining the available exhibit space.
Moving on, we come to the Museum’s store (or at least one floor of it, go upstairs for more). I’ll be frank, the Smithsonian can be hit or miss on museum shops, but this one is a hit, at least for quality. Great selection of items, but, as always, if you’re a bargain hunter, a museum shop is not for you.
And now we come to what is hands down, no questions, commonly agreed upon, the highlight of a National Museum of the American Indian visit: the food court. I am not kidding. Known as the Mitsitam Cafe, it boasts one of the best places to get quality food on the Mall. Instead of your standard pizza, burgers, tacos, etc. at, say the Natural History Museum, or worse yet, the Air and Space Museum (which just mails it in with McDonald's), you get food that reinforces the theme of the American Indian Museum. Heck the Cafe even has a Cookbook coming out; take that crappy Air and Space food!
Instead of catering to middle America’s standardized food tastes, the Museum breaks it’s choices down geographically based themes: Northern Woodlands, South America, Northwest Coast, Mesoamerica, and Great Plains. In each, you have a selection of items inspired by and indicative of the Native peoples who live there. The selection changes periodically, so scope out all the stations before you decide. If you have kids (or reluctant spouses) who remain skeptical, I recommend the Great Plains selections. Just don’t tell ‘em it came from a buffalo (yes, I know the correct term is bison. I don’t care). Now, be ready: the prices are not cheap. You’re paying for some pretty decent food and a unique experience; it’s not a place to just fill up.
Astute readers may have noticed something at this point. We’re 800-some words into this thing and we’ve not left the first floor nor seen a single exhibit. And this is where we hit the brakes. For as much as I admire the architecture of the Museum, revel in it’s glorious use of space and light, purchase gifts in the shop, and dine in the food court (yeah, that sounds weird), I don’t have much use for the exhibitions.
Fundamentally, my problem is that the Museum is not for me. This Museum is very much built as the National Museum of the American Indian, with an inwardly looking focus and emphasis upon the American Indian. This is a wonderful thing, in that it allows a people, or more precisely, a group of peoples, who have been historically disenfranchised to have a voice, literally within footsteps of the halls of power in their Nation’s Capital. It’s problematic for the casual visitor, the person who wants to learn a bit about the American Indian without turning it into a pilgrimage.
Here I am, a reasonably intelligent (shut up, don’t even start with me), educated guy with not a whole lot of direct knowledge of American Indian affairs. I show up, ready to partake in the experience, but I don’t know how to do it. Heck, I can’t even really find the exhibit halls. Eventually, someone will point me to the elevator, and I’ll take it to the third and fourth floors where the exhibits are, but it’s not intuitive. It’s not a good sign when you have to hunt down the exhibits.
But when you get there, the exhibits remain distant and aloof. The exhibit halls are broken down into three main thematic sections (disregarding temporary exhibits, etc.): Our Universes discusses “indigenous cosmologies—worldviews and philosophies related to the creation and order of the universe—and the spiritual relationship between humankind and the natural world”; Our Peoples “focuses on the last 500 years of Native history and shows how the arrival of newcomers in the Western Hemisphere set the stage for one of the most momentous events in human history”; and Our Lives teach visitors “about the deliberate and often difficult choices indigenous people make in order to survive economically, save their languages from extinction, preserve their cultural integrity, and keep their traditional arts alive.” To grossly oversymplify, Our Universes fills the box we label “religion”, Our Peoples covers history, and Our Lives talks about where indigenous people are today. Each of these exhibitions highlights eight tribes, which periodically rotate.
Great stock is given in having each group tell their stories in their own voice, which sounds great until you realise three exhibitions with eight tribes a piece comes to 24 different voices. It’s not a narrative, it’s a cacophony. It’s ironic that just last week I took the Park Service to task for imposing the “one true voice” idea of interpretation and this week I’m bothered by the lack of a unifying thread, but it helps to have someone point you in the right direction. Great care and thought go into the layout of these exhibits, but it’s wasted without interpretation, especially for those on the outside of the Native experience. I strongly, strongly recommend a docent led tour to help you tease out the nuances of the experience.
The plus side of visiting the exhibits: you’ll probably have them to yourself. A fair number of visitors make it to Our Universes, but past that relatively few venture. Don't’ be fooled by the crowded Cafe downstairs, the exhibit halls may very well be empty upstairs.