I went to DC to visit friends and take in spring. The Cherry Blossoms were still short of full glory, but the weather was perfect and the National Mall bustling. I was interested in visiting the National Museum of the American Indian, the inverted mass of swirling sandstone that occupies the triangle between the National Air and Space Museum and the Capitol so we ducked out of the sun for a few hours to explore.
NAMI’s exterior landscape is intricate and varied; the interior atrium, a kiva blown up to Pantheon proportion, is impressive; the grand stairs and extensive gift shops are integral parts of any contemporary museum experience. NAMI’s exhibits are contextual and dense with text. Since we did not want to spend the entire day indoors, we focused on the fourth floor – one gallery called Universes highlighted the spiritual and social constructs of several tribes strung along the entire Western Hemisphere, while another titled Experiences was rich in artifacts and commentary about the Indian / European encounter – money, disease, weapons, bibles, and treaties.
When NAMI opened it came under criticism, and it is easy to see why. Indian heritage is presented selectively; some tribes receive extensive space while others are absent. The curators created cultural groups from each tribe presented; the materials are filtered through the lens of contemporary descendants. Most of the museum’s commentaries are quotes from these coordinators which reinforce the idea that we are getting a specific, likely biased, point of view circa 2000 rather than a presentation based on more objective criteria. The result does not seem wrong so much as arbitrary and incomplete. Perhaps that is appropriate, for our view of American Indians is not objective.
Between NAMI’s exhibit halls is a large window facing the National Air and Space Museum directly across 4th Street, opened 27 years earlier and a mere hundred feet away. Yet the Air and Space Museum might as well as exist in another country, in another era. I remember going there when it first opened, thrilled by the incredible rockets, the majestic wings, the museum’s unrivaled confidence in technology, and by extension its unrivaled confidence in us.
There is nothing confident about the National Museum of the American Indian. It is an exercise in sentimentality, a monument to assuage guilt, a building cozy to the Capitol that celebrates the cultures we trampled over; cultures too slow moving, too much rooted in the earth to suit our frenzied drive to explore, expand, and conquer.
These are odd neighbors on our National Mall, but they serve a useful duality. We have countered the bravado of conquering air and space with reflections of the remnants of those who predate us. I was tired when we left the Museum of the American Indian, it is a challenging place. We strolled along the Mall under the glorious spring sun. I stopped and looked back at the two structures, one all cubes and right angles, one all precarious curves. Each is carefully considered, with its own internal logic, but they don’t look well together. Yet they are each part of us, each an important part of the American experience. I wondered if perhaps the next generation might create a museum on the Mall that celebrates the intersection of technical prowess and human dignity. I have no idea where it would fit or what it might look like, but it is a monument that we truly need.