June 09, 2010

NMAI not "comfortable" with negativity?

Paul Chaat Smith takes a stab at explaining the mission of the National Museum of the American Indian:

MUSEUM:  Windows into Indian Country, a Q&A with Paul Chaat SmithBriggs:  When the museum opened in 2004, there was a message that we are still here. Some people took that as not intellectual or missing the point, but you’ve said that was a very particular and important message, considering that there are people today who think that Indians are extinct.

Smith:  Some scholars think that the missing component is that visitors do not get the depth of what happened and how singular it was in human history, that the level of the biological catastrophe is greater than anything else that’s happened in recorded history. For that reason, it’s really a singular event, the two halves of the world coming together. There are a lot of scholars who really talk about how that Columbus contact created the world we live in now. The problem, though, is that this isn’t a story that Indians are comfortable with, or even think about in a personal way—the loss of an estimated 30 million people from North and South America to epidemics brought by Europeans in those 150 years after 1492. The last 200 years is a story that is part of our historical memory, when we talk about boarding schools and other particular stories that are authentically true, because we get them through our relatives. The first 150 years after European contact, we don’t. It’s not part of our collective history in an emotional way or in a personal way.
Comment:  I've posted on the NMAI's approach before. Its mission is supposedly to let tribes tell their own stories. Funded by their own money. Without interference from curators, scholars, or anyone else.

There isn't much that's critical or negative. Which means the NMAI is telling only half the story. If the Indians are shading or hiding the truth, who knows?

The museum's focus on "celebration" is akin to a government's focus on propaganda. This may make sense for a tribal museum on a reservation, but the NMAI is a taxpayer-funded institution intended for everyone. Should it really be emphasizing the good and deemphasizing the bad?

For more on the subject, see Museums as Ethnic Advertising and The Feel-Good National Museum:  Reviews of the National Museum of the American Indian.

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