Skip to main content


  • Author:
  • Updated:

Gabrielle Tayac came to NMAI with a specialty in Native identity in social
movements - not a conventional background for museums, which are more
associated with still life than with movement. But as a consultant before
she took a staff position, Tayac had learned that NMAI is no conventional

"Because it focuses so much ... on living people ... it was something I
wanted to be part of ... What are the choices people have to make to stay
Native today? Frequently it's a conscious choice and it takes a lot of work
... How do we achieve this today?"

By emphasizing both all there is to learn about Native peoples and all the
cultural baggage there is to unlearn about them, the museum will help.
Tayac's research into what can be presented at the museum, and how it can
be presented properly, had a role in framing the museum's educational role.
Well before the museum building arose on the National Mall, she worked on a
boat-building project, a school curriculum presenting Native peoples
through the eyes of children, intellectual property issues, and materials
and protocols that accompanied panel presentations, traveling exhibits, and
cultural exchanges - activities that didn't need a museum to house them.

"Every place you go has some [Native] presence," she said, and it was her
job to bring it out - or not. For a question often before her has been "How
to tell something without a lot of words ... Where is it that
interpretation would be needed, and where do we need to let people immerse

The museum partially answers these questions through its floor plan, which
provides "welcome spaces" at periodic intervals, places where people can
begin to absorb the cultural experiences within the walls - or if needed,
begin to unlearn some of the cultural baggage they brought with them.

But there is no perfect answer, only varied approaches to the task at hand:
"How do we keep people receptive to this information?" As a practical
example, how will the museum reach an anticipated 400 school children every

As the museum took physical shape, Tayac moved from research and
development on what has become a full-blown education department within the
division of public programs to the curation of exhibits. Here too, NMAI is
not a conventional museum. Curating may mean cataloging and analyzing
objects in their contexts, but it will never mean only that at NMAI. It
also means talking with people about their experience, the experience of
Aboriginality in different regions.

Tayac took that approach in co-curating "Our Lives: Contemporary Life and
Identity" one of three permanent inaugural exhibits.

As a Piscataway from southern Maryland, she is the sole curator of an
exhibit expected to open in 2005, "Return to a Native Place", focusing on
tribes from the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, specifically the
Piscataway, the Powhatan and the Nanticoke, representing the
"Aboriginality" of the Mall locale. Sure enough, Native presence is
everywhere, not least in the deep history of the nation's capital.