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Goats, gripes, and grasping for greatness
National Museum of the American Indian 
15th-Feb-2012 04:11 pm
On Monday, Achaosofkittens and I played hooky from work to spend the day together. Not only did the goats do us the courtesy of not kidding on Monday, but the weather and traffic also conspired with us. We spent a somewhat leisurely morning at home, then went downtown to visit the new-to-us National Museum of the American Indian.

"Did you like it?" Um, well, actually... no. Most of the museum displays were designed, built, and populated in heavy consultation with various native groups. Each section - approximately 20'x20' - was designed, written, and populated according to that native group's preferences and unique story. It was obvious from all of the space, photographs, and words dedicated to crediting and thanking various people that there were many individuals who were strongly influential in each area. Unfortunately, that individuality of displays gave the museum more of a zoo or a science fair feeling, where observers were left to both extract our own information and judge the experience based on our own context.

The contrast between the native-built/contributed exhibits and the professional museum portions were glaringly obvious when it came to uniformity of depth of information. I didn't realize what was missing at first, because we started with one of the native exhibits, "Our Universe." We wandered through those exhibits with interest but I also suffered a vague sense of disquiet. It was in the beginning of "Our Peoples" that we saw the video presentation that explained how and why the museum was designed and presented the way it was. The video made me feel a little better, in that at least the designers and collaborators had some concept that their museum was going to be erratic and confusing.

Then, when we saw the sections where some of the artifacts were displayed in historical order, such as the wall of statues that flowed into the wall of gold pieces that flowed into the wall of weapons, I realized what was missing. When I go to a museum, I'm expecting each item to have a tag next to it that says what the item is, when the item was made/discovered/attributed, how or from what the item was made, who made/owned/used the item, and why the item is significant. All of the "native voices" areas of the museum were missing at least one and usually multiples of that list for every single thing on display.

The A Song for the Horse Nation exhibit was the one exception to this erratic and shallow presentation. The horses exhibit started with a quick history of when and how horses became a part of the Native American lifestyle. It then went through some of the major areas where horses had impacted tribes or historical events, and went up through President Obama's inauguration. The artifacts were sparse, but the presentations were both explicative and informative in very accessible ways.

There was a lot of wasted space in the museum. I'm not just talking about the four-story atrium that took a third of the building. There was a lot of empty space inside of the exhibits, too. The Horse Nation exhibit looked almost like a modern art gallery at times, with three or four pieces sitting in the center of a nearly empty room. It certainly gave us plenty of room for perspective, but it also made the gallery seem less rich in content and history than it might otherwise be.

The lack of corners in all of the exhibits (and the building) was a design decision. I expect it was to make a psychological point about how most natives think in circles and flow with nature. Unfortunately, it also made the physical flow through the rooms more confusing as we tried to navigate through exhibits that had neither obvious signage nor obvious connections from one area to the next.

For a museum that has been open for over a year, this one still had a lot of physical presentation issues, too. The most irritating two were with regards to light-levels and conflicting audio stimulation. There were many places, particularly in the "Our Universe" exhibit, where it was too dark to read the signage. And all over the museum, there were places where the various audio tracks were either loud enough to be heard at the wrong portion of the display, or conflicted/overlapped with another audio presentation. I consider my hearing to be rather good, and I had a lot of trouble isolating what I was supposed to hear from everything else that was playing around me. I can certainly imagine that a younger person with good hearing and poor focus skills would suffer from the cacophony.

It was a pity about the lights - both lack and glare - because the photographs and physical presentations of the materials were certainly up to Smithsonian standards. There were interactive and child-friendly displays sprinkled throughout all of the exhibits, and there was lots of "multimedia" going on. I don't think I've been in any other place where videos were so plentiful. I give the designers and contributors plenty of credit for ensuring that the displays were low enough for children and wheelchairs, that they had visually accessible comparatives on display (such as a dog-travois vs. a horse travois), and that non-English-speakers/readers could still extrapolate meanings from most of the groupings of artifacts in at least the "Our Universe" and "Horses" exhibits.

I told my Dad about our visit, and how I would love to drag a group of high-performing high-schoolers through the American History museum and then the NMAI, and tell them to pick any three attributes about the two museums to compare and contrast. Anything. They could talk about the physical differences (architecture, layout, lighting) or about the presentation differences, or about the treatment of the various subjects. I'd be interested to read what they saw (or didn't notice) in the differences between a more "mainstream" museum and the NMAI.

Regardless of my many criticisms about NMAI, I'm glad I went. It was an educational, interesting, and enjoyable experience. I got to do something new, learn something new, and see something new. And I got to do all of those things with Achaosofkittens. That's a total win.

And hey, they are doing an exhibition based on Twilight next. It's all about wolves!
15th-Feb-2012 09:21 pm (UTC)
Had a couple minutes to duck in and out of NMAI the other day, and happened upon the Twilight exhibit, which amused and surprised me.

Horse Nation's around most of the year, right?

I'm not particularly enamored of NMAI, but I very much do like their cafe, which has (to my understanding) representative foods from each of the regions.

Edit: I've liked the temporary exhibits, but the permanent space is confusing to navigate and involves a lot of "here, open this draawer" or "punch something into a computer if you want to know what that thing there is" which makes the flow even worse.

Edited at 2012-02-15 09:24 pm (UTC)
15th-Feb-2012 09:25 pm (UTC)
Agreed about the cafe. Best food in the Smithsonian Museum system.

I left the NMAI feeling discomfited. Like reedrover, I'm glad that I went but I most likely won't visit again.

Edited at 2012-02-15 09:26 pm (UTC)
15th-Feb-2012 11:29 pm (UTC)
I went to the NMAI once to see the exhibits, and have been back 3-4 times for lunch (with varying amounts of time (from none through about an hour) accompanying friends/family around the exhibits they wanted to see).

I do very much enjoy their food and love that they made that portion of the museum eductational(ish) as well.
16th-Feb-2012 02:20 am (UTC)
The food was lovely. Mmm pulled buffalo!
15th-Feb-2012 09:25 pm (UTC)
That was precisely my complaint about NMAI - lack of context. I'm thrilled that all the different groups are represented, and there are a lot of really neat things on display, but I found the viewing experience incredibly frustrating. It was even more frustrating for Dave, who didn't have the benefit of knowing some of the (for lack of a better term) major historical plot points and was even more lost. As I recall, he described it as "a stunning example of organization by committee."
15th-Feb-2012 10:13 pm (UTC)
a stunning example of organization by committee

HA! Yes, it was definitely rule by committee. I'm not sure, though, that the presentation implies "organization." I think a better word would be "federalist system." There was one overarching law of presentation space allocation, and then everyone established their own style within the borders.
16th-Feb-2012 12:16 am (UTC)
god, yes. the one time I ventured through the main exhibiy it felt like a whole bunch of minimally related sections.
16th-Feb-2012 02:23 am (UTC)
One of the issues with this style was that the same sorts of things were said over and over. Everyone needed to tell their story from the beginning, which meant we got a bunch of high level overviews and very little meat.
16th-Feb-2012 01:40 pm (UTC)
It doesn't help that I work at an institution that puts particular emphasis on historical context in exhibits, so it colors my view a little. Still, some would have been nice. And I agree about the n-iterations of the stories from the beginning; there was enough shared history that *somebody* could have stepped back and said, "Okay, here are the commonalities - let's put the framework/timeline up at the start of the exhibit spaces so we don't all have to rehash it."
16th-Feb-2012 01:48 pm (UTC)
I totally agree. One basic introduction and then branches of the story might have made for a more cohesive exhibit, but I'm not sure. The "Our Lives" section is all recent-to-current events, so might not have any commonality to offer.

That common-framework approach was what they did for the horses exhibit. "Look, horses showed up mostly due to the Spanish, and appeared here-here-here-and-here at these times. From there, horses spread across the entire continent from this time period to this time period. Their period of highest historical significance was X." It made the branches very easy to follow.
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