Brief, Productive Love Affair With ‘Big Dog’
By Ken Johnson
As the exhibition’s many different sorts of artifacts show, the horse was much more than just a beast of burden. It was a highly efficient form of transportation, and it enabled Plains Indians to hunt buffalo, a primary source of food and material for clothing and shelter. So Navajo, Crow, Comanche, Pawnee and other tribes were able to expand their territories and flourish.
The exhibition’s general ambiance, however, is regrettably aggressive. With loud graphics, interactive videos, mural-scale reproductions of old photographs papering the walls and the sound of clip-clopping piped in throughout, it seems as if the designers didn’t trust that the objects would be interesting enough by themselves. The show looks as if it were conceived with an audience of attention-challenged children in mind. The modern paraphernalia threatens to overwhelm the historical materials, inadvertently recreating the collision of worlds that ended traditional Indian ways more than a century ago.
The typical museum exhibit, like the history it chronicles, is a dry catalog of facts and artifacts. These facts and artifacts are divorced from human emotions, motives, needs, and desires. They're not much different from random passages in a dictionary or random objects in a junkyard.
Anything a museum can do to counteract history's abstract nature--to make it relevant to today's viewers--is good. It's possible this exhibit's designers went too far, but it doesn't sound like it. If the graphics and videos and so forth attract more patrons than they repel, they've done their job.
For more on the subject, see Preview of A Song for the Horse Nation.
Below: "A Piikuni Blackfoot horse mask, made of hide, beads, hair locks, porcupine quills, brass tacks, buttons and more."