Skip to main content

National museum plans for future

  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

WASHINGTON - After a year of triumph and criticism, W. Richard West Jr. is
looking forward to "day two" as director of the National Museum of the
American Indian.

Coming months will include some restructuring of museum operations, he told
Indian Country Today, although he declined to discuss details. The museum
will further its unique approach toward representing Native peoples, he
said. But in response to some of the critiques that followed its opening,
it will try to explain itself better to visitors.

On the positive side, however, the new building on the National Mall is
living up to expectations as a popular attraction. West said that he
expected it would attract "somewhere between three and three-and-a-half
million visitors" by its first anniversary.

"But at the same time," he said, "I want the NMAI to have a specific space,
if you will: not just a stop on the tour bus route in Washington, D.C." He
said it would expand its role as a "cultural crossroads" for the Native
community both in D.C. and through the Americas, acting as a forum for live
events, discussions and "even controversies."

"This place is not just a palace of collectibles," he said, "but is a
cultural center, crossroads if you will, in looking at the Native
community, learning about the Native community, letting the people
communicate about the Native community."

The museum has undeniably established itself as a Native presence within
hailing distance of the U.S. Capitol. The week of festivities around its
opening last year brought the largest influx of Native leaders and cultural
activities probably ever seen in the nation's seat of government. Although
the political reception may be less extravagant this year, West said the
National Pow Wow would be even larger, with hundreds of dancers.

Although the initial response to the museum was "overwhelmingly positive,"
said West, some columnists and architecture critics found fault with the
building and the eclectic array of exhibits. Some of the complaints, West
said, came from a lack of understanding of the newness of the museum's
mission. "We are a rather marked departure in museology," he said, "from
the way in which Native people are interpreted and represented in museums.
That is ambitious, and because of the ambition there is a certain amount of
risk to it."

But the museum, he said, "should not be defensive. One should take in the
criticism and do our job even better." One improvement, he said, could be
that "we need to communicate more clearly to the visitor upon arrival what
the unique slant and cant of the museum is in looking at Native peoples and
cultures."

One simple step, he said, would be to direct visitors to start at the top
of the museum, on the fourth floor where exhibits are concentrated. Many of
the critiques complained about the emptiness of the four-story-high foyer
and the long walk up past levels of shops and restaurants. West said the
staff had discussed giving visitors better directions through audio
technology and signage.

These complaints had no connection with the ongoing plans for
restructuring, West said. Although the museum is advertising positions in
four new departments, West said the board of trustees was still going
through a "planning exercise" and would not be ready to make public
announcements for two or three months "toward the end of our fiscal year."

"We're trying to figure out how best to put the museum together in a way
that best achieves our mission," he said.

This planning, he said, constituted "day two" of the museum's existence.
"That is, an opening is just that - an opening - and then there is
significant life after the opening." This life, he said, includes strategic
planning for the NMAI over the next three to five years.

"That kind of outlook gives me a certain energy and focus in what I call
the incredibly important day two in the life of the NMAI. So I have no
plans for leaving any time soon."

For additional information, visit www.AmericanIndian.si.edu.