March 15, 2011

NMAI plans "complete reinstallation"

Shows That Defy Stereotypes

By Lee RosenbaumEveryone who visits a museum display about American Indians "wants to see feathers, tepees and horses," Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, lamented recently in his Washington office. But new installations at NMAI's New York facility, as well as at the Denver Art Museum and Brooklyn Museum, are out to prove, in Mr. Gover's words, that "Indians are not what you think they are."

The effect of these stereotype-busting displays is sometimes jarring, especially because the canon now includes contemporary art. Today's curators want visitors to view Indian artworks not as quaint ethnographic artifacts, but as vital expressions of a living culture, spanning prehistory to the present.
And:Unlike the offerings in Brooklyn and Denver, the permanent-collection displays at the NMAI, part of the Smithsonian Institution, don't indulge the public's appetite for fully assembled painted tepees. The introductory gallery in the definitive "Infinity of Nations," a 10-year permanent-collection installation that recently opened at the NMAI's New York outpost, also defies public expectations about headgear: It omits the resplendently feathered, full-length warrior bonnet in favor of an array of 10 fanciful examples of headgear—everything from a conical wooden Yu'pik (Alaska) hunting hat decorated with carved-ivory sea mammals to a Yoeme (Mexico) dance headdress topped by a realistically rendered deer's head with antlers.

Curated by C├ęcile Ganteaume, with multimedia commentary by tribe members and scholars, "Infinity of Nations" takes visitors on an in-depth journey from South America to the Arctic, with engagingly presented information about objects, cultures, individual artists and historical figures. It ends with a contemporary section featuring 18 artists. Washington's NMAI also accords prominence to contemporary art in curator Rebecca Head Trautmann's wide-ranging, thematically organized "Vantage Point" show (to Aug. 7), displaying 31 works it acquired over the past seven years.
I haven't seen the "Infinity of Nations" display, but it sounds like the right approach. Display a variety of headdresses to show that Indians didn't wear only the Plains chief's warbonnet. Showcase Native cultures from the length and breadth of the Americas to make people aware how diverse they were and are.Unlike other museums that are ramping up their consultations with tribal communities, the NMAI plans to rely more strongly on its own expertise. (It is already largely staffed by American Indians, including its director, a member of the Pawnee and Comanche tribes.) The objective is to make its presentations "more consistent in voice and more cogent in narrative," Mr. Gover explained.

For the first time, he disclosed plans for a complete reinstallation of the Washington museum, beginning in 2014. The new approach he described may deflect the harshest attack directed at the inaugural displays by some American Indians—that the depredations and atrocities suffered by indigenous people at the hands of white invaders were soft-pedaled. New displays will likely focus on several provocative themes, according to Mr. Gover, a lawyer with scant background in art or museums. Among them: the devastation of the indigenous population "on the order of 90% to 95%"; the role of contact with Europeans as "the definitional event that shaped the modern world."

References to "massacre" and "genocide" may be included, if deemed appropriate by the curators, said Mr. Gover, who succeeded director W. Richard West Jr. three years ago. "You don't have an American Indian museum without discussion of dispossession and death on a scale unknown in human history," he declared.

This approach may put the Washington museum even more at odds with those art lovers who found the inaugural installation too political and polemical. And it would move the museum even further from its origins as a showcase for the trove assembled by Heye.

Perhaps more critically, it is not certain how a heightened focus on injustice and grievances will be viewed by the amateur art critics who meet just down the road—members of Congress who oversee the Smithsonian and currently appropriate some 60% of the NMAI's operating budget.

"I don't think it is controversial," Mr. Gover said of his new approach. "Two years ago, Congress passed an apology resolution. . . . I think the country has never been more ready for this."
I don't know which critics "found the inaugural installation too political and polemical." I read a lot of reviews and most people thought the NMAI was too positive, bland, and uncontroversial. You can read what they said in The Feel-Good National Museum of the American Indian.

I agree with the critics, so I support the "complete reinstallation" of the NMAI's exhibits. I think they should talk about massacres and genocide and even (gasp!) use those words. You don't have to hit people over the heads with these subjects, but to ignore them isn't good either.

True, conservative politicians won't like this approach. They've proved they can't handle the truth about America's history. Liberals may have to fight for the NMAI, but if I were in charge, I'd do it. It's long past time for Americans to deal with their ancestors' crimes against Indians.

For more on the subject, see Rothstein:  Ethnic Stories Cry "Me"! and NMAI = Greatest Story Never Told.

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