It is ironic but it seems to me in our digital age elements of the real have taken on an increased significance. In a world in which so much can be experienced on a screen, the act of holding, feeling, smelling, listening, sharing experiences can have increased appeal. It is like making that first batch of hand-cranked ice cream in the late June heat. People line up for their turn to crank the handle and wait with expectation and patience for the fruits of their labor. Homemade ice cream just cannot be bested by an app.
It is this this in mind that I headed back to the National Museum of the American Indian after many years. It was a relatively warm January weekday. The sidewalks around the national mall were bustling with people, especially families with children. I recall that a college professor once told me that more people visit museums each year than go to the movies. I do not know if that is still true, but it does underline how important history and museums are to understanding ourselves and our world, both past and present.
Make no mistake, a museum with the mission of advancing native cultures should be an important place. With recent media headlines highlighting the controversy around a certain NFL mascot and with many of my students requesting this museum as part of an extra credit assignment because of genuine interest, this is a place that holds the promise of discovery and new insights. Too often in my experience, it has also been a place where most people tend to talk about the food cafe and a string of unconnect artifacts. Disappointing in a word. A review in the New York Times about the exhibit “Nation to Nation” seemed to promise something more calling the exhibit the “first historically serious chronicle to be mounted at this museum.” That caught my attention. In general my time at the museum did not disappoint.
The architecture and space of the museum is still interesting to my eyes a decade after it opened its doors. Lounging in the Potomac Atrium watching the sunlight move across the walls is very pleasant. The language of the building is unique in the Washington area and still provocative. I was cheered to see that the museum is LEED certified and had signage about conserving natural resources. There are so many ways and things to learn, and this museum seems to take the chance to do it. My first stop was at the Lelawi Theater to watch the short film “Who We Are”. Projecting images on ceiling, screens, and artifacts felt new to me. Content wise I was pleased to see diverse native cultures from the entire hemisphere (this place is not constrained by the National in its name) and to see their evolution and continued development. My students need to see the range of native people and culture and their continued evolution of native people to counteract some of the shortcomings of my course standards. James Loewen writes about seeing history “through red eyes” and this museum can help students do that. I saw much of the same in the “Nation to Nation” exhibit as well. As a bonus, my daughter and I spent some time at the activity center making a craft and connections between native culture and nature. She left the museum smiling.
Not everything brought a smile to my face. As with all the museums on the Mall, getting there can be a difficult and tiring, particularly for families with children. Even though the security upon entering the building is no where as difficult as other Mall museums (yes I am talking about you National Archives), I still see many tired and stressed families trudging about. There has got to be a better way to do this. One would think the Smithsonian could help make it offering more family-friendly and give guidance on how to make it a more positive experience.
In the end, I will be encouraging friends and students to visit (or revisit) the National Museum of the American Indian. It is a chance at an intellectual, cultural, and physical level to experience something new, something that will impact your perspective in a potentially lasting way. It is hard to do better than that on a sunny January afternoon.