Native American Museum

Originally posted on May 04, 2005

The story goes that the military, when serving in the nation’s capital, got hazardous duty pay due to the malarial swamp on which DC was built. That’s all been filled in, and the lawns are completely artificial, all trees are planned, and each water rivulet contained.

I was particularly touched by the restored wetland in front of the Native American Museum. It wasn’t original, but it did resemble a self contained ecosystem.

The building itself is made of stone and has few straight lines, resembling the sandstone bluffs from the Midwest, and is a stark contrast to the stately colonnaded marble structures around it. Everyone enjoys the exterior waterfall, which splashes across the boulders to a black stone river that flows along the base of the building.

Inside, a large circular lobby resembles the southwestern Kiva, wooden ladder replaced with a stairway that climbs up to the fourth floor. I assume the other museums were each purpose built, with IMAX technology and ceiling heights appropriate for their cruise missiles, tyrannosaurs, or sculptures, but this building really seems to be a part of the exhibit rather then just a place to house it.

The theater on the upper floor was definitely purpose built. A three-sided screen made of woven rugs sits in the center of circular seating, with a curved ceiling overhead and a large, somewhat fake looking boulder below. The lights go down and the presentation includes projections planetarium-like above, on the flat weavings in front, and from within the boulder below – each different image synced and relevant to the show. The effect was technologically cool, as well as a great introduction to the rest of the museum.

In the large exhibit room spaces, the no-straight-lines theme continued, which like modern housing development, curved around to make as many nooks and crannies, often one per nation or region for the exhibition theme. For instance, in the “Our Universe” area we saw colors, critters, myths and societal roles for something like 25 different tribes, from the Arctic to the Andes.

I particularly liked the introduction to the “Our Peoples” exhibit, in which you stand surrounded by oil painted portraits of native americans from the 1800s while a video message extols you to remember that one generation’s unthinkable is another’s fact, and visa versa, and to be skeptical about what one sees within the museum – it reminded me of a high school lecture from Mr. Helm on mindset that I’d then-translated to “the victor writes the history”, but now view as a pleasant invitation to think for myself. Following this was a historical perspective – little blame, no accusations – of what happened as the Europeans invaded, from the decimation by Eurasian diseases, to the conversions to Christianity via persuasion, assimilation, and force, to the Trail of Tears, to finally winning court battles. Again densely packed, the exhibit included not only text descriptions, but also objects like a wall of intricate gold jewelry decorations and the lump-like bar that similar items had been melted into before being shipped to Spain, beaded and translated bibles, and weapons from various era and numerous tribes.

The spiral path through this museum was story based, all the way to the typical museum basement cafeteria, which was atypical in that it was not overpriced mcFood, but instead overpriced Native American treats – salmon and fry bread, local greens, and buffalo.  The experience was definitely more educational than many other museums at the Smithonian.