Indian Museum plans major changes in exhibits

February 16, 2012

The National Museum of the American Indian projects a light show, portraits of Native Americans, on the exterior wall of the east side of the building. (By Richard A. Lipski/The Washington Post)

He expects the new exhibits to be installed by 2016 or 2017.

The current exhibits “are starting to feel a little stale,” Gover said. He called the new plans “major replacements.”

“It will be a whole new look. We will not do the individual tribal pods” in any of the galleries, he said. The new focus “will be about stories and narrative, and we’ll pick communities based on how we’ll pick this broad narrative we want to achieve.”

Since its opening in 2004, the American Indian museum has been faulted for showcasing individual tribes in niches — the “tribal pods” — without unifying them in some way or presenting the broader Colonial history.

(Read more about the lessons this museum has to offer the forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture in Sunday Arts).

Gover, who replaced the museum’s founding director W. Richard West Jr. in 2007, said the replacements will address that issue. “One of the criticisms we take to heart is, it is confusing to visitors,” he said. “We don’t want to confuse visitors. We think it’s our responsibility to be much more deliberate in stitching those stories together.

“In our future exhibits, we’re going to take much more responsibility for mediating between the communities and the public” in coming up with ways to present new themes, he said. “While we’ll be collaborating with the communities in the telling of the stories,” he said, the goal will be “to make it more coherent to the public.”

Though the planning is ongoing, Gover described two themes he wants to deliver in the new exhibits.

“First, we want to get across in a deep and comprehensive way that the Americas were not a wilderness” when Europeans first came over. Rather, it was “a thriving place where civilizations had risen and fallen for millennia.”

The second theme will trace the roots of globalization back to that point of contact between Europeans and the Americas. “We all have been largely misled or under-educated about the influence that native American achievements have had, both on the history of the Americas and on the entire world,” Gover said. As a result of European contact with native Americans, “the world changed dramatically.”

But past glory will not be the only focus. “We’ve been taught that the Indians sort of disappeared, that they no longer play a role in the modern world,” he continued. “We’re out to show that’s just not the case.”

In another effort to dispel myths about native Americans, Gover said the museum will address the real story behind the popular conceptions of Pilgrims and Indian relations.

Squanto, the legendary Patuxet who in the 1600s helped the Pilgrims survive on these shores, “spoke English when the Pilgrims arrived,” said Gover. “This was not Indians being stunned at these newcomers. They had to absorb these newcomers into their diplomatic, political and military thinking and positioning in the regions, and they were very sophisticated about it.”

Several decades later, though, King Philips’ War, a bloody conflict that looms in history as one of the most horrific in North America, demonstrated the failure of those diplomatic decisions. “People don’t think about the friendly Pilgrims waging war in that fashion,” Gover said. “It was absolutely devastating and to some eyes genocidal. ... Our point is the story is much bigger than you think it is.”

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. She is the author of THE ART OF GRACE: On Moving Well Through Life, coming in Nov. 2015. She has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996, and after logging time in opera houses, black boxes, and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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