Sunday, February 15, 2009

National Museum of the American Indian

There is an exhibit of Fritz Scholder's work at the The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)in Washington D.C. The title of Scholder's show is "indian/not indian". His work is provocative and startling. He caused a major ruckus in the Indian world and the Indian/notIndian art world when he first surfaced and began expressing himself...beginning at age 14. In many ways, this exhibit and his life's work describes the tension surrounding the beginnings of this museum and continues to be felt while wandering through the permanent exhibits. Beginning with the design of the building (looks very much like a building Gaudi might have designed in Barcelona!) through to the choice of what/how Indian life (not death or the past) is portrayed, is the question of what is this museum, what does it/should it say, who is the targeted audience, what is it's place in the larger world. The purported goal of NMAI: "works in collaboration with the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere and Hawai‘i to protect and foster indigenous cultures, reaffirm traditions and beliefs, encourage contemporary artistic expression, and provide a forum for Native voice". While housing some of the world's most extensive collections of objects, artifacts, photographic record of Indian life and history in the Western Hemisphere, little of this is on display. The permanent exhibits offer the visitor views of contemporary lives of Indians, mostly those in North America; only one group each of people in Brazil, the Caribbean, and central America are featured. I don't doubt that for researchers, professional or amateur, there is a wealth of information to be found. And I am sure that one of the goals is that NMAI not be another forum for old school geography of "funny people, funny places". But the sense I left with was very beautiful presentation, not much depth. There is a cafeteria with foods from five geographic regions in North/Central America: while there were tasty offerings and interesting dishes to be sampled, all of them had buffalo meat on offer....a surprising offering for the Pacific Northwest, the Southeast......
Thinking about this museum and the questions it raised for me, is the larger issue of how the past (and the present with all its problems and delights) belongs to all humanity and that we all need to take ownership of cultural preservation and appreciation and that defining who we are and choose to be, cannot be imposed.

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