WASHINGTON - After a spectacular week of opening ceremonies, critics are
beginning to render their verdict on the new National Museum of the
American Indian - and they don't like it.
Reviewers in major national newspapers and Web sites have uniformly panned
the opening exhibits in the newest Smithsonian Institution museum on the
National Mall, although one or two grudgingly praised at least one faade
of the building. They complained that the exhibits presented an unevaluated
hodge-podge, with little or no attempt to explain the meaning of the
objects, or even to label them.
Paul Richard of The Washington Post gave the consensus reaction:
"Well, the new museum that opens to the public today is better from the
outside than it is from the in. Its exhibits are disheartening, their
installations misproportioned, here too sparse and there too cramped. Eight
thousand varied objects, some spectacular, are offered to the eye. What's
missing is the glue of thought that might connect one to another."
Others were less charitable. Timothy Noah, columnist for the online
magazine Slate, called it "the museum world's gaudiest belly flop since the
disastrous 1964 debut of Huntington Hartford's anti-modernist Gallery of
Several writers criticized the empty space of the entrance, complaining
that they had to climb to the third floor, past the museum stores, to
encounter the first exhibits. Andrew Ferguson, columnist for the Bloomberg
newswire, wrote that the "cavernous domed atrium ... looks as if it were
designed to be the sumptuous setting for candle-lit fundraisers. You can
almost hear the clink of highball glasses and the jing-a-ling of jewelry.
"No, wait. That jing-a-ling of jewelry must be coming from just beyond the
atrium, where the Chesapeake Museum Store sells bracelets and earrings and
necklaces of silver and jade for $950 and up. The Chesapeake store is not
to be confused with the Roanoke Museum Store, which is on the mezzanine
"Follow the path past the Chesapeake store, past the Mitsitam restaurant
(Piscataway for "Let's eat"), and you'll find an ATM, right next to the
elevators. And not a moment too soon, either. Lunch at the Mitsitam can
easily run $20 or more per head.
"By this time, having circumnavigated the entire first floor of the museum,
one of the largest on the national mall, you still won't have seen a single
museum exhibit; all the exhibits are far above you, on the third and fourth
floor, an elevator ride away. But you will have had multiple opportunities
to spend money."
The architectural writer Lisa Rochon of Canada's Globe and Mail put her
critique of the rotunda in the context of the original vision of the first
NMAI architect Douglas Cardinal, Canadian Meti and Blackfoot, who was fired
from the job in 1998 in a contractual dispute. "There are egregious errors,
such as the misalignment of the oculus with the highlighted centre of the
wooden floor. There is evidence of unfortunate cost-cutting measures, such
as the patchwork of stone that creeps along the lower edge of the rotunda
wall before giving way to whitewashed drywall.
"Clad in wood and stone, as Cardinal's office had started to imagine it
before being tossed out, the rotunda might have been a place of warmth and
humanity. There have been attempts to warm it up with boat-making displays
and an overwrought circular copper wall that curves around the space.
Still, it looks sterile."
But the reviewers turned again and again to the exhibits. As Ferguson
recounted his odyssey, "Once you make it to the upper floors and wander the
museum's high-concept exhibits - "Our Universes", "Our Peoples", "Our
Lives" - you find a jumble of displays designed to reflect the lives
Indians lead today, giving off an unmistakable air of ethnic boosterism.
Almost all the exhibits have been designed by Native peoples themselves,
with a minimum of curatorial oversight, and it shows."
The better-informed critique from the Post's Richard put the blame on the
museum's application of its consultation process. "Hundreds of curatorial
minds, those of Indians mostly, were consulted on its contents. Director W.
Richard West Jr. says his museum 'in a systematic, consistent, rigorous and
scholarly way,' has attempted 'to put Native peoples themselves, in their
first-person voices, at the table of conversation.' But 'systematic,
consistent, rigorous and scholarly' are not words that well describe the
shows that have resulted. Too many cooks. The eye should have been offered
a feast of many courses. Instead it's served a stew."
Edward Rothstein of the New York Times hit on a basic problem, what he saw
as the homogenization of the highly diverse and very long Native experience
in the Americas: "The ambition of creating a 'museum different' - the goal
of making that museum answer to the needs, tastes and traditions of perhaps
600 diverse tribes, ranging from the Tapirape of the Brazilian jungles to
the Yupik of Alaska - results in so many constituencies that the museum
often ends up filtering away detail rather than displaying it, and
minimizing difference even while it claims to be discovering it."
After describing a range of exhibits, he continues: "There is an
astonishing uniformity in the exhibits' accounts of religious beliefs,
which may have been homogenized by subtle forces within the museum itself.
The building emphasizes a kind of warm, earthy mysticism with comforting
homilies behind every facade, reviving an old pastoral romance about the
"But these were communities that at least at one time were vastly
different, which farmed or hunted, engaged in war, suffered indignity,
inspired outrage. The notion that tribal voices should 'be heard' becomes a
problem when the selected voices have so little to say. Moreover, since
American Indians largely had no detailed written languages and since so
much trauma had decimated the tribes, the need for scholarship and analysis
of secondary sources is all the more crucial.
"But the museum almost seems afraid of distinctions."
Rothstein continues, "The result is that a monotony sets in; every tribe is
equal, and so is every idea. No unified intelligence has been applied." He
concludes, "It is not a matter of whose voice is heard. It is a matter of
detail, qualification, nuance and context. It is a matter of scholarship."
The reviews themselves reflect a range of scholarship and intelligence,
from Rothstein and Richard at the high end to the reaction of a Washington
Post city columnist named Marc Fisher, who criticized the NMAI as part of a
"deconstruction of American history into ethnically separate stories told
in separate buildings" and took a swipe at the Holocaust Museum as well.
Several writers predicted that the negative reaction would eventually
produce a change in NMAI policy, or personnel. Said Noah, the Slate
columnist, "I have to believe that those responsible for the museum's
botched debut have felt the sting of public opprobrium and will make
changes that encourage the public to take it more seriously." Richard, the
Post reviewer who described the "vapidness" of the exhibits said it could
take years for the museum to find its way. Director W. Richard West Jr.
likely faces his biggest challenge in applying tangible experience and a
synthesizing intelligence to make sense of the museum's voluminous content
of American Indian historical and cultural realities.
But the universal immediate reaction was summed up by Ferguson. "The
experience is enough to make a visitor glum. And when an American gets
glum, there's only one thing for him to do: Shop. Luckily, he'll be in the