How Much Darkness is Enough? An Evaluation of the National Museum of the American Indian

Note: I originally wrote this article for a course on public/digital history. As it touches upon righteous anger, that most powerful of Internet emotions, I thought I’d share it here as well.

From its inception, the National Museum of the American Indian had as its core objective to be a “museum different.” While previous museums had presented the stories of American Indians, it was always from the perspective of the United States government. Since the United States was an explicit conquering force, responsible for the death, disenfranchisement, and dislocation of millions of American Indians, its perspective is a bit fraught. American Indians are often presented as primeval, as if the clock stopped the moment Columbus set foot in the “New World.” What’s more, as the historian Steven Conn has pointed out, exhibits featuring American Indians have often been in museums of natural history, cementing their place in the American imagination as separate and not fully human. All of this is to say that the United States has long produced museums about American Indians.

The NMAI aims to present the other side of the story. It claims to be a museum by American Indians, dedicated to presenting their perspective. Many exhibits are produced by curators hailing from American Indian communities, drawn from tribes in South, Central, and North America. Everything in the museum would be developed in close conversation with its subjects.

This emphasis on the involvement of the American Indian community is laudable, and is perhaps the greatest achievement of the NMAI. This integration was by no means perfect. Jacki Thompson Rand, a historian who worked with the NMAI in its early stages, has specifically pointed out that while the curators may have been (mostly male) tribe members, the administration was made up of whites with little to no knowledge of American Indian culture. Still, it is far greater than any project attempted so far. The most significant outcome of this decision is that American Indians are not presented as an undifferentiated mass. The sheer number of tribes gathered and represented does a wonderful job of emphasizing the diversity inherent in the American Indian experience, helping visitors push past whatever stereotypical preconceptions they may have held.

Another particular point of emphasis for the NMAI is the resiliency and survival of Native culture. This is undoubtedly an important part of the story. Visitors should not leave with the impression that American Indians and their ways of living are relics of the past. However, the resiliency of Native peoples is emphasized at the expense of their history. Other museums may fix the American Indian in a pre-Columbian timeframe, but the NMAI skips over almost everything between then and now. It’s as if 500 years of conquest and systematic marginalization never happened, or, rather, happend only in the abstract. The American Indian has survived, but we don’t get a clear, honest portrayal of what s/he has survived.

The directors of the NMAI have stated repeatedly that they did not want the NMAI to become a “Holocaust museum.” They were not focused on reliving past tragedies. And they do make the point that the numerous actions taken by Europeans and Americans against American Indians have a place in the NMAI. At one point a massive display of guns, bibles, treaties, and other tools of colonization confronts the visitor. But, in a perverse echo of the old canard that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, these are presented as an abstraction. At the NMAI, we see only the guns, not the people who wielded them. This is undoubtedly an uncomfortable thing to acknowledge for all parties, but it is the thing that makes the survival and resilience of Native peoples meaningful. The museum can still achieve its goal of celebrating American Indians without becoming a glum exercise in self-flagellation and despair.

The NMAI, like all public history projects, aims ultimately to tell a story and to convey an idea. By all accounts, the NMAI does this well, portraying the diversity of American Indians and their continued presence in today’s world. It is a hopeful message. But does the pursuit of a hopeful takeaway message excuse doing a disservice to history and, ultimately, to the subjects and authors of that history? This is the ultimate question raised by the NMAI. We cannot forget history when it is convenient to do so. As Douglas Evelyn and Mark Hirsch, two staff members at the NMAI ask, how much darkness is enough? However much the story requires.

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