Cultural anthropologist JoAllyn Archambault is the director of Natural History's American Indian Program and an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Leaning against a bookshelf in her cluttered old office, in the museum's Beaux-Arts building on the Mall, is a wall label from a small exhibition she once put together on the Seminoles of Florida. Part of what Archambault did, as the label explains, was ask Seminole people "what objects in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History" they would pick if they wanted to teach non-Seminoles about their tribe.
That was in the summer of 1989, a few months before "the museum different" was launched and began building its identity as a place that wanted Indians to tell their own stories.
To be sure, there were distinctions between Archambault's approach and NMAI's. In addition to asking the Seminoles for their selections, she asked William Sturtevant, a longtime Natural History scholar who had worked with the Seminoles for decades, to do the same. She did that because she was annoyed by a "theoretical craze" in anthropology contending that it was impossible for outsiders to speak accurately about another culture. The Seminole exhibit was an experiment, she says -- she wanted to see how much overlap there would be in the choices. More than half turned out to be the same.
Differences or no, however, Archambault's work -- and that of other anthropologists at Natural History and elsewhere -- tends to undercut NMAI's carefully cultivated aura of uniqueness. To do a good exhibition on native societies, she says, "you have to involve members of those societies in the work and in the story line. They have to be real partners. It's not new. People have been doing that for at least 20 years."
Her boss, William Fitzhugh, chairman of Natural History's anthropology department, agrees. Museum anthropologists "have been talking to native people for a long time," he says. A recent example is an exhibition called "Looking Both Ways," mounted last year by his museum's Arctic Studies Center: It was developed, Fitzhugh says, "in close collaboration with native communities and native curators" and it examines their material culture as part of the ongoing life of those communities, not merely as the record of a dead past.
Why, then, has NMAI focused so relentlessly on the differences, rather than the similarities, between the two museums?
Part of the answer lies in the long history of troubled relationships between anthropologists and native peoples, and the mistrust and stereotyping that resulted.
David Hurst Thomas, a veteran curator in the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has spent the past decade and a half trying to bridge this divide. As "a token white academic," Thomas says, he was asked to be a founding board member of NMAI. At an early board meeting he was told "that I needed to go take Indian 101." Some years later he acknowledged to himself that this was true. The result was a book called "Skull Wars," which lays out the history of the anthro-Indian culture clash.
Thomas doesn't spare his profession, or at least its more hidebound members. "We were all raised with the notion that we really owned Indian history," he says. "We were the ones who understood that, and these people on the reservation ought to be listening to us, because they'd learn a lot." The early days of anthropology produced plenty of horror stories, including the one he tells about his own museum: how in 1897 it imported for study six Greenland Eskimos, four of whom promptly died, with their bones being added to the collection.
His bottom line is that the scientific world is changing, with younger anthropologists especially coming to understand "that you're going to do a lot better science if you work with native people, rather than just throw it in their faces." Still, he understands the concern the Smithsonian's embrace of "the museum different" provoked, both philosophically and financially, at the older museum. Having NMAI as your bosses' number one priority "is great, if you're involved in that museum," Thomas says. "It's not as great if you're in the National Museum of Natural History . . . watching this go on."
Watching this go on is exactly what Natural History's Archambault was doing.
She had applied to be director of NMAI, though she says she never expected to get the job. She lauds the new museum's basic intentions. "It wants to be something that's an article of pride for Indian people," she says. "I think that's very good." But to her, the real difference between it and Natural History is what she sees as NMAI's lack of interest in traditional scholarship. "The stuff they do that's called scholarship is really interviewing Indian people who come and visit the collections," Archambault says. She also thinks NMAI's attempt to generalize about a single "Way of the People" helps foster a "simplified, overly spiritualized version of Indian people and Indian cultures."
She has a more specific grievance as well.
Around the time NMAI arrived on the scene, Natural History managers gave Archambault a major task: redoing that museum's embarrassingly antiquated North American Indian halls, portions of which dated from the 19th century. (The last of these is now being closed down.) She plunged into the work, laying out a new exhibition that focused on seven tribes, with each section to be curated or co-curated by native scholars -- among them, Tlingit anthropologist and NMAI trustee Rosita Worl. She spent $100,000 on models, presented her plans to numerous Smithsonian superiors and looked forward to going after the money to proceed.
Former Smithsonian secretary Robert McC. Adams says he would have gotten a lot of "very penetrating questions" from Congress if he'd asked for Indian funds for something other than the Indian Museum at that point. Natural History wasn't even allowed to raise money privately, for fear this would interfere with NMAI fundraising. Adams also says that although combining the two collections was discussed, it was never taken seriously. The clash between the two museums' approaches was too severe; a merger "would have produced not just sparks but a series of major confrontations."
© 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)