I made the picture above in the National Museum of the American Indian on a sunny Saturday morning recently, at an hour when many of the museums on the Mall in Washington were crowded. As it suggests, there were not many people in the Indian museum. It wasn't because the museum is striving to evoke the lonesome openness of the prairie. There haven't been many visitors in the decade since the museum opened. As this recent article in the Washington Post reported, the NMAI gets about a fourth as many visitors as the Air and Space Museum a few blocks up the Mall. The figure might be lower were it not for the NMAI's excellent cafeteria.
There may be a lot of reasons for this, but my own opinion is that the NMAI suffers from a modern misconception about what a museum is supposed to be. Washington of late has a plague of museums that were conceived as propaganda devices. The worst example is probably the Newseum, on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was established by the same genius who gave us the mediocrity that is USA Today. Its mission is to tell all who enter its portals that America is just so gosh darn lucky to have a free press, and don't the big media corporations do a great job?
But the Newseum is only the worst because it has the gall to charge the rubes who visit a $20 entry fee for the privilege of being propagandized. The NMAI is free, in a sense. We pay for it with tax dollars--$35 million in operating expenses in the most recent year reported on by the Post. But you can walk in without a fee.
In an older, unenlightened era, a National Museum of the American Indian would have been curated by white people, which I understand would have been scandalous. They would have displayed what they considered the best of their collection of Native American artifacts. They would, assuming they were your normal guilty liberal type of white folks, have included exhibits on the shameful history of genocide and broken treaties between the United States and the Indian nations. They might have included exhibits on the environmental disasters that wiped out the Anasazi in the Southwest, and what they might tell us about our own environmental issues. They might have included exhibits on the living conditions of Native Americans today, touching on everything from poverty and alcoholism to casinos.
But that wouldn't do in the 21st Century. Native Americans were given the major role in determining what would be in their presence on the National Mall. They decided that the various tribes would be given the opportunity to present their stories in displays. The displays had the predictably upbeat, sanitized tone that you might see in brochures handed out by the Detroit chamber of commerce: "We're still here! Respect us!" The Native Americans also really wanted to sell stuff, so the museum is full of places to buy Indian handicrafts, which is great if you happen to be in the market for a genuine, hand-carved Muscogee flute like the guy at left was selling. I don't blame the Native Americans for wanting to make a little money and amplify a positive message about themselves. I might want the same thing if I were an Indian.
But, as a result, a walk through the NMAI when it first opened felt a little bit like walking through one of those college fairs where institutions of higher learning set up booths to tell prospective students what idyllic places they are. It also felt a little bit like one of those itinerant art markets that feature painters and artisans who pitch a tent, peddle their wares for a weekend, and move on to the next festival. People stayed away.
The NMAI reacted this year to the sparse crowds by installing a new exhibit on its fourth floor. It's about the history of treaties between the United States and the various tribes, and it's pretty good. But to get to it, a visitor must still pass through three floors of the old stuff. When I was there most recently, the Muscogee nation from Oklahoma was being featured in the museum's ground floor showcase space, the Potomac Atrium. The Muscogee chose to open their presentation by emphasizing their American patriotism and their service in the American military. The photo shows the Muscogee honor guard presenting the colors to an array of empty seats.
I know. The old-fashioned museum to which I am comparing the NMAI also has a political subtext. If you go to the National Gallery of Art, the curators there may purport to be presenting the best works they could collect. But they're also presenting the notion that certain countries, and artists of a certain sort, produce the greatest human cultural achievements. If you go to the Air and Space Museum and touch the rocks that American astronauts brought back from the moon, you're also touching a message of American technological supremacy and exceptionalism that may or may not have anything to do with the actual quality of American life.
But it seems to me there is a line, on one side of which are museums that try to be about science, or art, or history, in an unbiased way, however imperfectly. And on the other side are those that make no pretense of being unbiased. They exist to sell a message. I don't care for that concept, and judging by the wide open spaces at the NMAI, neither does the public.
Nevertheless, it appears to be the wave of the future. Construction is underway across the Mall from the NMAI on a museum for African-Americans. And the guy who owns the Hobby Lobby stores (yes, the same guy that attacked Obamacare for requiring companies to include contraception coverage in their employees' medical insurance) has bought an enormous building a couple of blocks from the Mall, in which he intends to build a museum of the Bible.
Just what we need. Can't wait to see the gift shop.