Shortly after the Smithsonian had acquired the 800,000-piece collection of the New York-based Heye Foundation in 1989, before West had even been hired, the facilities planners had begun their work. Elaine Heumann Gurian, the Smithsonian's deputy assistant secretary for museums at the time -- she's now an independent consultant -- had been asked to focus on the new museum, so she had an inside view of the planning process.
"The way in which you would do things in the Smithsonian," Gurian says, "was that you would get all the heads of this and that and the other thing around the table and you would craft the endgame with what I would consider to be insufficient knowledge bordering on no knowledge." Budgeting had to be done years ahead, so the urgency was real -- but it wasn't helpful. "The head of construction would say, 'Well, we need an auditorium. We know auditoriums. They are this size and hold this many people and they cost mmmhh,' and somebody would write down 'auditorium.' "
Gurian, who is not Native American herself but who knew a bit about Indians from a previous museum job, would say, "I beg your pardon -- have you ever been to a powwow? No? Well, it doesn't happen in an auditorium." Justin Estoque, a senior project manager at NMAI who was then on the facilities planning side of the table, recalls many such clashes before West and the Smithsonian agreed to push the construction schedule back two years.
The reason was straightforward enough. Nobody seems to remember where the phrase "the museum different" came from, but what it was meant to signal was this: NMAI would not treat native peoples -- as museums had so often done in the past -- like extinct species whose cultures had been frozen in time. It would take the radical step of asking Indians what a "National Museum of the American Indian" should be.
To begin this process, the Smithsonian hired Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, a distinguished Philadelphia architecture firm, to do "program planning" for the new museum. That meant developing a rich base of information on which an architect to be chosen later would draw in designing museum buildings. (Venturi, Scott Brown was declared ineligible for the second phase to ensure its focus on the first.)
Venturi, Scott Brown put together an extensive series of "consultations," both on the Smithsonian's home turf and throughout the country. The D.C. consultations gathered Native Americans with particular expertise: researchers, educators, contemporary artists. The regional consultations, held in such places as Santa Fe and Anchorage, were designed to allow the authentic voices of Indian Country to be heard.
Heard they were.
"We thought it was about the architecture," Elaine Gurian says. "So we go off to find out about the architecture, and the first thing the Indian people say to us is: 'We don't want a museum and we don't care about you. We're never going to Washington. We don't care whether we explain ourselves to the other guys or not. We're not going there. So thank you for sharing.' "
Recalling this, Gurian lets out a long laugh. She's exaggerating for effect, but she's not making this up.
"And then," she says, "they started to talk about what they did want."
'A New Kind of Institution'
It's hard to exaggerate the importance of those early consultations in shaping the museum's sense of itself and its mission. The summary document that Venturi, Scott Brown produced, titled "The Way of the People," calls NMAI "conceptually and ideologically a new kind of institution," because the museum has, from the very beginning, "self-consciously sought out focused input" from its native constituency.
Staff members constantly reinforce the idea that their commitment to consulting Indians represents a dramatic break with the past. "All these other museums, the Field [in Chicago], the museums in New York and L.A., they have large Indian collections -- they never do this," says George Horse Capture, deputy director for cultural resources. "This is the first time."
As one of several native facilitators recruited by the museum to help with the consultations, Horse Capture -- a member of the A'aninin or Gros Ventre tribe of Montana -- was charged with convincing skeptical audiences that NMAI really was different, that it really did want their advice. This was no easy assignment. "Indians have been road-showed to death," as West puts it, "and they know one when they see one."
But when the people in those meetings did start talking, Horse Capture says, "they just poured their hearts out."
Some asked for help with chronic social problems: employment, housing, a political base, "things that we couldn't possibly do with just the museum." Others raised concerns that, while not involving traditional museum functions, seemed more in tune with NMAI's potential capabilities.
"Number one was language," says James Nason, a University of Washington anthropology professor and museum curator, who also attended many of the consultations. "Everyone said: We are fighting a desperate battle. We need as much help as we can get to make sure our native languages don't die out." This was hardly an easy problem for a D.C.-based museum to solve, but it was something that could at least be grappled with.
© 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)