Other requests involved everything from help in correcting ethnic stereotypes -- not all Indians wear feathered war bonnets and live in tepees, NMAI representatives were frequently reminded -- to exporting museum expertise and resources to fledgling cultural institutions in areas where Indians actually lived. As a result of the consultations, NMAI realized that it would have to build a significant outreach program.
As important as the planners thought this outreach would be in shaping "the museum different," however, it wasn't something an architect needed to design. The collection storage facility was.
And they were learning just how different it would need to be.
It should feel like a home, they were told, not a storage warehouse, and should be connected to the natural world. It should somehow blend the way native people care for sacred objects -- which are often viewed as living beings that need to breathe and be fed and be blessed -- with modern conservation methods. Most important, it should offer ready access to the collection. Some precious things would be returned to their original tribal owners as mandated by a new repatriation law; most would not. Yet Native America wanted to feel that its spiritual ownership of them had been restored.
To tour the Cultural Resources Center -- which the public will be able to do, preferably by appointment, once the crunch of opening the Mall museum has passed -- is to see how hard the museum has tried to meet those goals.
Here is that homelike "welcome space," with its spiraling, nautilus-like roof and its windows opening onto the woods out back (and never mind the ferociously ugly communications tower next door). Here is the unobtrusive security post and the handy coatroom where a visitor can stash a suitcase. Here is the special ceremonial room, with its zoned smoke alarm that can be turned off when the stone fire pit is in use. It is employed to burn herbs in "smudging" ceremonies common among native cultures. Here is the elevator that allows elderly people to reach the room without having to negotiate stairs. Items from the collection are often brought there when visitors ask to spend time with them.
And here, lovingly arrayed in rows of gleaming white storage units that stand maybe 16 feet high and extend three-quarters of the length of a football field, is much of the collection itself.
"This is a drawer of Tlingit material," says Bruce Bernstein, NMAI's assistant director for cultural resources, who is leading this particular tour. He points out halibut hooks, seal clubs, powder horns, a maul with a frog carved into it. "The idea is visual accessibility," he says. The storage units are not stuffed to the bursting point, as they were in the old Heye storage facility (which had 20,000 square feet as opposed to the CRC's 145,000). Objects are housed by tribe when possible, rather than by utilitarian category, to make it easier for tribal delegations to see them. Staffers are trained to stand back and not intrude.
"Native people for many, many years have never been welcome in museum collections," Bernstein says. "We are dead set to change that."
The CRC was supposed to be even more welcoming than it is: At one time, there were plans to include residential facilities for hotel-shy visitors, a cafeteria, a day-care center, and studios where artists could settle in to work. Budget realities intervened. In fact, those extra-high compact storage units were chosen because the CRC's architects had to drastically shrink the center's square footage.
Still, the high-ceilinged room that houses the bulk of the collection is open and airy. It feels more like a hotel atrium than traditional museum storage.
As Bernstein's tour continues, he shows off beaded Osage shirts, Navajo textiles and the largest object in the collection, a weathered 46-foot Haida totem pole that stands upright, with other poles, in a portion of the building specially designed for them. In the conservation lab, just feet from a glittering array of pre-Columbian gold from Peru, lies a ratty-looking 19th-century food ration ticket from a reservation in South Dakota -- a relic, Bernstein says, from the days when the Lakota "were starving because their life ways and the buffalo had been destroyed."
Now he points to a black shipping container filled with objects from the Tohono O'odham tribe of Arizona that are headed for one of the exhibitions that will open on the Mall in September. NMAI worked with 24 different tribes, he explains, and -- in a process reminiscent of those early consultations -- asked them to choose the stories they wanted to tell, along with the objects from the collection that would best represent them.
Bernstein spends close to two hours showing a visitor around the CRC, and in that time he never mentions the National Museum of Natural History or its storage facility next door. Yet the subtext of his presentation is clear:
Natural History and institutions like it are cultural dinosaurs. And their way of doing things is -- or at least should be -- dying out.
'Looking Both Ways'
People at Natural History don't see things that way. From their perspective, the Indian Museum isn't as different as it says it is -- and the differences that do exist aren't all to the good. What's more, some say, NMAI's image as the Smithsonian museum that deals with Indians has had a damaging effect on their own work.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company