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West reviews museum's first year

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National Museum of the American Indian Director W. Richard West Jr. spoke
with Indian Country Today during a visit to the mountains of northern New
Mexico and Colorado. The following are excerpts:

ICT: How would you summarize the first year?

West: I'm really very pleased with the progress of the National Museum of
the American Indian on the National Mall, in the first year. We will have
had several million visitors, probably upwards of three million, hopefully
even somewhere between three and three-and-a-half million visitors, at the
Mall alone. And of course, one thing I should preface any remark like this
with is that the museum has been open at the Cultural Resource Center [in Suitland, Md.] and the Gustav Heye Center in New York much longer. So in a
way, the Mall museum is simply the capstone of that whole train of openings
and public facilities and offerings that the NMAI has.

The NMAI, I think, took a very different step in interpreting and
representing Native communities and peoples from a couple of standpoints.
First of all, it is very much about their experience through an entire time
continuum and it focuses as much on their experience as a contemporary
Native community as on historic Native communities. Secondly, in doing so,
on a systematic basis it evokes the Native voice itself in interpreting and
representing Native peoples and cultures.

It's an ambitious undertaking, and I would be the first to say that the
NMAI should always be open to how we can make that unique experience even
better. But we have made a major step in opening the NMAI on the National
Mall. We've been consistent with the mission I have just described. And we
look forward to coming years when we will continue to pursue the mission of
the NMAI within that philosophical framework.

ICT: Do you have any response to the critical articles after the museum
opening?

West: I don't want to get too swept up in the fact that museum arrived,
only opened to criticism. That is not the case. For every commentary in the
way of a critic's review, there is one that could be brought up that lauded
the work of the museum.

I don't want to let the impression sort of grow out there that that is what
the balance of the initial response was. It really wasn't. If you look at
the media and how it treated the museum when it opened, it was vastly
positive. Overwhelmingly so, in fact. That said, I think the NMAI needs
always to be open to critical commentary. We are a work in progress.

Ours is a museum that basically combines people with objects; and both of
those things, if you will, in the communal life of the community both past
and present [have] always been the foundation of Native peoples and
cultures. The museum is not simply about collections and probably will
never be simply a palace of collectibles. Instead, it is place that is
about Native peoples and cultures.

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I was really quite taken with the review of our opening exhibit that came
out of The Wall Street Journal about a month and a half after our museum
opened. And one wouldn't necessarily expect a favorable review to fall off
the lips of The Wall Street Journal, but what it said was very interesting.
It said that if the NMAI is to be looked at as an art museum, it fails. But
on the other hand, if it is to be looked at as a museum of broad scope that
is of cultures of Native peoples past and present, it is, in his words, "a
substantial success." The point is, this is a case where you need to be
sure ... that the museum is measured against itself, that it is taken on
its own terms and critically evaluated in that respect, rather than being
reviewed from the standpoint of what somebody wished they saw or expected
to see when they got there.

So this is really a much longer conversation that will occur over the life
of the museum as it articulates itself more clearly, as it works through in
a positive and constructive way to try to remain honest to the mission of
the museum and at the same time to be clear that we are communicating
effectively with our audiences about that mission.

One of the other elements of criticism actually came to us after we'd
opened from the Native community itself: the notion that some people would
have been happier ... [if] the NMAI had actually been the 'Museum of the
Native American Holocaust,' if you will.

I really believe that as significant and horrifying as the last 500 years
were, we have to remember two things that are a very important collateral
to that and even transcend it. That is, we've been here far longer than
that, and there's been great achievement and accomplishment during the
period we've been here preceding our Holocaust. And second, we are still
here, and we need to concentrate sufficient energy on that.

So, others may do it differently. After me, after my directorship, others
may do it differently. But I have always wanted and was committed to the
mission of the museum - not just as defined by me, but by the board of
trustees - that this was really a museum that should speak to the totality
of our experience as Native people in the Americas; and that includes more
than only talking about the Holocaust, even though I feel that first and
foremost we must address that question, too.

ICT: Where do you see yourself in five years?

West: [laughs] Given that I'm in Chamas, N.M., how about a mountaintop in
New Mexico somewhere?

I have no present intentions of leaving the museum any time soon, and I
will tell you the reason for that is I survived "day one"; that is, up to
the opening of the NMAI. I realize much more than I did before the
importance of "day two." That is, an opening is just that, an opening; and
then there is significant life after the opening ... and that includes
strategic planning for the NMAI over the next three to five years - the
restructuring of the museum to make sure that we are put together in a way
that allows us to achieve our mission and our unique set of strategies most
effectively ... We will think of things afresh and anew and not be afraid
to pursue them as the NMAI even though they may depart from certain
precedents in the museum world.

And 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. I do not expect to leave quietly in my
sleep. I hope to be elsewhere when that happens, but I look forward to some
very exciting next few years at the NMAI.