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A glimpse of glory

Media preview surpasses expectations

WASHINGTON - Well, have you ever?

Words falter before the National Museum of the American Indian, which
opened its doors briefly Sept. 15 to give almost 300 media professionals a
glimpse of the glories within. At this five-and-a-half-hour first glance,
the museum seems a fulfillment of all the vision, thought, planning,
passion, hope and action that has gone into it since the day George Gustav
Heye took fire from Native hands.

And of course, it could not be so much if it were not much more - the works
on display now are a fraction of the museum's holdings, and they in turn
are a fraction of the cultural life and spirit they harbor. But those
fractions are enough to throw new light on Heye, who tends to be maligned
for a perceived indifference to living Indian culture. The charge is
justifiable. But the 800,000 works in the Heye Collection are the basis of
the museum, and their power to move suggests the collector was more than a
money-bag with a half-grown passion. He must have been touched by a genius
of human appreciation, however inscrutable.

If the NMAI displays can change one's view of Heye the collector, what will
they do for the national view of the creators - Native people and cultures?
Surely they must come into their own in American culture, on their own
terms, as the museum impresses their proud testimony on millions of
visitors a year. Native treasures have become a national treasure,
accessible as never before.

Much has been made of the many fine details that make the museum a Native
place through and through - the special storage conditions required by the
items of each different Native culture, the practice of "feeding" some
items that are considered beings and of protecting others from overhead
footsteps or water, the need to express proper reverence for the powers
found in certain dolls, masks, pipes, shirts and shields. These details,
along with other arcana of artistic interpretation and museum presentation,
can't be stated too often of a Native oasis at the heart of American
culture, on the National Mall, within an easy walk of the Capitol.

But it's good to note too that the museum works as a museum - a place for
the curious, for the uninitiated, for the soaking up of beauty and
knowledge and ambiguity, for shaking off doubt, for the discovery of a
future or the finding of a patch from the past.

The first art is the museum itself, a quiet architectural flourish of
wind-carved walls and recessed windows, the whole sheathed in treated
limestone to evoke time-shorn cliffs. A patch of wetlands landscaping,
harking back to original conditions in what is now Washington, D.C.,
appears to be less successful right now - but just wait until next spring.
Within, a screen says "welcome" in 200 Native languages, and a Potomac Room
or hall (museum staff have taken to calling it simply The Potomac, "where
the goods are brought in" in Algonquian/Powhatan) opens out under a high
dome. It is great space, half-encircled by copper-banded panels with a
basketry theme and fronted (on this day) by a Polynesian canoe.

The displays on four levels are the museum's core; they more than live up
to their surroundings. Beadwork, pottery, carved animals, basketry, points
(generations of rural Americans called them arrowheads) and peace medals
all come with touch-screens that enlarge a digital image of individual
items, permitting the viewer to zoom in on detail. A caption provides basic
information but no explanation - throughout the museum, items have to be
experienced. No telling what young people will make of a beaver figure from
the Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl) of British Columbia, or a bear mask from the
Mad River Yurok of Oregon, among a multitude of equally compelling works.

Many of the displays are mounted with artistic touches that border on art
in their own right. Those erstwhile "arrowheads" are a case in "point" -
arranged in swirling flocks, like flights of birds on a wind current, they
appeal to the eye independently of the single items. Likewise with the gold
display: Sun-burnished masks of beaten metal throw off circles of satellite
gold.

The museum's three permanent displays will feature a rotating cast of 12
U.S., eight Latin American and Caribbean, and four Canadian peoples. The
exhibitions are entitled Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our
World; Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories; and Our Lives:
Contemporary Life and Identities. Native Modernism is a temporary exhibit,
but contemporary art will always have a place. Windows on Collections: Many
Hands, ManyVoices, is the collective name given the touch-screen cases.
Commissioned pieces and wall-niche displays show up throughout the museum
in key places.

The beauty here should be experienced, but there seems no limiting the
knowledge that saturates this Native place. For Native peoples, it will
come as confirmation, at least in part. For others, pure revelation is in
store. A couple of small examples: Music aficionados give the tune "Red
River Valley" a high place in the American musical pantheon. It is often
associated with the Southwest, probably as an echo of the cattle drives,
but at NMAI we learn that it came from a Native place - Manitoba, where a
fiddle jig of the Metis probably wound up following the Missouri River
south. As for the European tradition of All Souls and All Saints Day - that
too comes from a Native place and custom, the Days of the Dead after
harvest, when a festival of rites was felt to bring back the ancestors.

But it would be pointless to pile on examples. So much dwells here. Come
one, come all. A vacation worth saving for - say five days in Washington,
spending six hours a day in the National Museum of the American Indian,
with a different Native-cuisine meal each day in the reasonably priced
Mitsitam (Piscataway for "Let's Eat") Cafe, as well possibly as an
afternoon visit to the museum's Suitland, Md., storage and study facility,
the Cultural Resources Center. That would be a good start on these "true
beginnings of the cultural tapestry that is America," in the words of W.
Richard West Jr., NMAI director since 1990.