A hatful of anecdotal indications suggests that for some non-Indians, the museum falters as "a framework of further meanings," identified by an aesthetician of the last century as the key to meaning itself; if true, this would mean at a minimum that Americans are not taking the NMAI experience home with them, talking it up to their friends and neighbors, connecting it with their daily preoccupations, modifying their mental models about the national Indian myths based on the museum visit.
The offhand phrases used by separate people (not looking for a quarrel, they requested anonymity) to describe the Potomac room in recent months seem too much alike to be coincidence: "Antiseptic." "Like a hospital waiting room." "Sterile."
It's doubtful most of them have any idea that this is deep water, that the museum's material objects are considered the secondary outcomes, artistic or artifactual as the case may be, of the cultural processes that produced them. There are about 800,000 of them in the NMAI collection, but unless you're interested in eating (the Mitsitam Cafe at the back is pretty much above criticism) or dropping a fair sum at the gift store (critics suggest the typical Washington tourist tends to go for less pricey trinkets as mementos to take back home), or taking in a performance or lecture and discussion (Rasmuson Theater), the ground floor doesn't have a lot to offer as the usual museum goes. A few display cases, a few scattered showpieces--that's it.
Upon returning to the Potomac in search of "stuff," the NMAI visitor is apt to absorb the museum's most topsy-turvy item of information: the museum begins on the fourth floor.
A more subtle problem:
The NMAI's original emphasis was on an uplifting celebration of the beauty and joy of Indian cultures. It was the institutional equivalent of a flute melody, a soaring hawk, or a wise elder in a Native-themed movie. It may have been respectful, even authentic, but it was also stereotypical. Whether positive or negative, a stereotype obscures the truth by flattening it into one dimension.
The things Gover mentioned--attention to detail, outreach efforts, temporary exhibits--don't seem to address this problem. What would address it is a change in the museum's philosophy or vision. Don't portray the good while ignoring the bad. Portray it all instead.
P.S. Those who aren't "modifying their mental models about the national Indian myths" should read Newspaper Rock. We'll modify your mental models for you. ;-)