The Indian Museum Storage Facility Feels Less Like a Warehouse and More Like Home
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2004; Page C01
The dancing is what Lucille Bell remembers most.
Two years ago, Bell -- a member of the Haida Indian tribe -- left her home on an island off the coast of British Columbia and journeyed east to visit museums with large collections of her tribe's materials. She and the other members of the Haida Repatriation Committee went first to New York, where the bones of 48 Haidas at the American Museum of Natural History were returned to them. They took the opportunity to examine the other Haida materials in the collection as well. But when they asked for permission to dance ceremonially with some of their people's treasures, the museum's reaction was disappointing.
"It was 'No way,' " Bell recalls.
Then they bused down to Washington to view the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
At the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, where NMAI's collection is maintained, staffers didn't appear nervous as Bell and her companions looked over some of the more than 1,600 Haida objects stored there. When the question of dancing came up, they were directed to the light-filled "welcome space" at the CRC entrance, with its lustrous mahogany floor and its cherry wood columns marking the four cardinal directions: east, west, north and south.
The Haida performed there for maybe an hour with masks, rattles and regalia from the collection. Museum people watched approvingly and, when invited, joined in.
They'd said from the beginning that NMAI would be a different kind of museum.
Wasn't dancing with the Haida exactly what being different meant?
What most people know about the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian's newest large-scale venture, is that it is putting up a building on the National Mall.
The dramatic, curvilinear structure nearing completion next to the National Air and Space Museum will be NMAI's main exhibition venue. Its Sept. 21 opening, with the six-day festival that is to follow, is shaping up as a very big deal. It is expected to draw celebrants from all over the hemisphere, for whom the opening represents a triumphant moment in the history of the diverse peoples misnamed by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The new museum, Smithsonian officials say, will offer a prominent space in which Indian stories can be told -- from their point of view, for once. And its emphasis on contemporary native peoples and cultures is intended to make an essential point often overlooked by the descendants of the European colonists who overran and nearly extinguished them:
We're still here.
But to understand the true nature of "the museum different," the somewhat precious self-description NMAI adopted around the time of its launch in 1989, it helps to look first at the little-known facility that so enthralled Lucille Bell and the Haida. Museum Director W. Richard West has called the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, inside the Beltway just southeast of the District, "the soul of the museum." West's NMAI colleagues regularly cite it as irrefutable evidence that the institution they're building truly is different from all those old-style museums.
They don't always say so directly, but high on the list of the museums they're dissing is the Smithsonian's own National Museum of Natural History, which has its own, much older building on the Mall. Natural History boasts a similarly vast collection of Indian materials, much of which it, too, stores in Suitland, in a building a few stone's throws from the CRC. More on that culture war later, though. First, we need to see how the soul of the new museum came to be.
The CRC opened in 1999, but its story begins with one of the biggest decisions Rick West made after he was appointed in 1990.
Which was to slow down.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Godfrey Williams, a member of the Haida tribe, performs a raven dance at the Museum of the American Indian's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland when tribal members viewed objects stored at the facility in September 2002.
(R.a. Whiteside -- Smithsonian Institution)