Meanwhile, in Suitland, the new museum was quite literally distancing itself from the old.
The Smithsonian's plan, before West slowed down the construction schedule, had been to replicate Natural History's then-state-of-the-art storage facility on a plot of land nearby. Or perhaps, as was suggested at one point, the NMAI collection could simply be housed in a supplemental "pod" built onto the existing building.
No? Well, how about building a bridge between the two facilities, at least?
The bridge idea stayed in the plans for a while, but then West urged that the Cultural Resources Center be moved several hundred feet farther away. The main reason, he says, was to allow as much connection as possible to the natural world. But there was an obvious symbolic reason as well:
If the CRC was to be the soul of "the museum different," it would need to disassociate itself from those anthropologists next door.
'A Cubist Approach'
How hard will it be for the Smithsonian to bridge this problematic divide? Will it narrow after NMAI opens, or widen, or simply remain unresolved? A tour of Natural History's collection area at the Museum Support Center, the facility NMAI chose not to emulate, yields some impressions -- but your assessment of them depends on your point of view.
You can choose to emphasize its differences from the Cultural Resources Center: its more off-putting security (you definitely need an appointment to get in the door), its lack of windows, its horizontal totem pole storage and the way it occasionally juxtaposes Indian material with stuffed bison and Kashmir stags. The two Indian collections are similar in size, but there's no doubt that Natural History's feels more like museum storage, less like a spiritual home.
Or you can focus on the similarities: its carefully shelved, visually accessible Tlingit baskets and Shuar blowguns, and the close attention the collections managers pay to the wishes of different cultures about how their objects should be treated (Hopi kachinas, for example -- carved figures representing invisible spirits -- reside in cabinets equipped with vent holes so they can breathe). And you can take note of the small room where, for the past several years, native visitors have been able to hold smudging ceremonies.
It's not as nice as the one next door. But it's there.
What about the alleged uniqueness of NMAI's ask-the-Indians approach to exhibitions? Director West explains, when asked, that it's not as if no one has ever done what NMAI is doing -- just that no major museum has attempted to make it central to its operations before.
West is a born diplomat. He doesn't describe NMAI as "the museum different" as much as he used to, he says -- and in any case, differences are good. He says he favors what board member Thomas has called "a cubist approach" to the study of Native Americans, because no single perspective on their lives and cultures can capture the whole truth. NMAI will emphasize the perspective of Indians themselves, because that has been badly neglected in the past. But that doesn't mean it won't value the views of anthropologists, professional historians and so on.
Fitzhugh, the anthropology chairman at Natural History, has some diplomatic impulses himself. He mentions that his department and the new museum have worked cooperatively -- with modest financial support from NMAI -- on a number of projects.
"There's a difference in attitude, a difference in approach," he says, meaning that his museum focuses more on scientific research, while NMAI's interest is in presenting history and culture "from the Indian point of view." But both missions are important, and "both institutions are essentially moving in the same direction" when it comes to collaborating with native people.
Yet Fitzhugh also believes that the growing resource gap between the two could impede future cooperation. "We haven't been able to hold our staff and maintain our budget over the last 10 years," he says. Lack of support "is crippling us, and the money is all in the Indian Museum."
Be that as it may, NMAI makes a strong case that in Suitland at least, its money has been well spent.
The Cultural Resources Center is the soul of the museum. It does feel, especially to its native constituency, like a spiritual home for the collection. And it will remain so long after September's celebration on the Mall is past.
Part of the reason is the attitude of the staff. "They are so amazing," says Nika Collison, one of the Haida who came east with Lucille Bell. "Our elders were just blown away -- and all of us -- by their true understanding of where we were coming from."
And part of it, thanks in no small measure to the consultations that served as its intellectual foundation, is the quality of the building itself.
West still remembers the day he took "our first little model of the CRC, of which I was so proud" up to Capitol Hill to show it to the late Sid Yates (D-Ill.), longtime chairman of the House subcommittee that oversaw the Smithsonian budget. "Sid looked at it and he said, 'That's a beautiful museum.' And I said, 'Well, Sid, this is actually the Cultural Resources Center, this is where the collections are going to be held.' "
The director laughs. It's the satisfied laugh of a man who's seen something different done well.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company