The Bible being silent on Indian origins, the Puritans concluded that the people they encountered in the Massachusetts woods were of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and greeted them in Hebrew. Soon they realized that they had somehow got it wrong.
The hope-filled viewer who tries to make some sense of the National Museum of the American Indian will feel as stymied, as confused.
"Pink Buffalo Hat" by Ric Glazer-Danay.
(NMAI Photo Services Staff)
What's it like?
Well, the new museum that opens to the public today is better from the outside than it is from the in. Its exhibits are disheartening, their installations misproportioned, here too sparse and there too cramped. Eight thousand varied objects, some spectacular, are offered to the eye. What's missing is the glue of thought that might connect one to another. Instead one tends to see totem poles and T-shirts, headdresses and masks, toys and woven baskets, projectile points and gym shoes, things both new and ancient, beautiful and not, all stirred decoratively together in no important order that the viewer can discern.
The great material culture of the natives of this hemisphere is rich beyond imagining, but not much is on view. The museum owns 800,000 Indian objects. Where are they? Mostly absent. Mostly absent, too, is the brain food one expects from good museums. This one teaches few crisp lessons. Too often its exhibitions are a blur.
Hundreds of curatorial minds, those of Indians mostly, were consulted on its contents. Director W. Richard West Jr. says his museum "in a systematic, consistent, rigorous and scholarly way," has attempted "to put native peoples themselves, in their first-person voices, at the table of conversation." But "systematic, consistent, rigorous and scholarly" are not words that well describe the shows that have resulted. Too many cooks. The eye should have been offered a feast of many courses. Instead it's served a stew.
What's best about the building is that it isn't just a museum. It's a reparation, and a reconciliation. It soothes the nation's conscience as its limestone undulations soothe the strictness of the cityscape. It brings to the Mall a pond with lily pads, a waterfall, tobacco leaves, cornstalks and big rocks. And then you step inside.
The big domed room you enter, named Potomac, may come alive when performances are held there. But now it is bare. Beyond, a broad staircase beckons. You climb and find -- a shop. An expensive one. The whole building stresses shops, and rooms in which to gather, and in which to eat, much more than it does art.
On the third floor, finally, there are some Indian things to see -- a gangiluk (a 19th-century Aleutian hunting hat made of wood and walrus whiskers), a Victorian pincushion and moccasins. All of these have beads on them. One can see no other reason why they're side by side.
Indians do beadwork, that's the point. They also chipped at rocks, and for this reason we are shown scores, or perhaps hundreds, of arrowheads and spear points, all swirled into a pattern as if they had just joined a school of fish. Who precisely made them? How old are they? From where do they come? By now one understands -- because answers aren't provided -- that one is not supposed to ask.
Like Hindus and Assyrians and everybody else, Indians all over the hemisphere look up at the heavens. Hence we get a room whose pinpoint ceiling lights suggest the starry sky. In it are a pipe and a woven basket and other things with stars on them. That seems to be the only connection that these varied objects share.
The mind is getting hungry. It wants something to chew.
Indians make dolls. So here's a case containing more than 200 dolls. One is a Hopi kachina from the 1960s. Such dolls have long been used to give children of the tribe a sense of unseen spirits. Beside this doll is another, a blonde in a bikini, that might serve to teach a child about Marilyn or Barbie, but isn't spiritual at all. The Apache figure next to it, circa 1880, has a horsehair plume where it ought to have a head. Are you getting the point? Indians make dolls.
The "Our Lives" exhibit, in which various tribes suggest the various ways they live, is more coherent, and more poignant. From northern Canada is an Igloolik kitchen, which wittily includes a couple of aluminum Coke cans, a flashlight (it stays dark in winter in the Far North), unbreakable plastic bowls, a pair of scissors and a teapot. Good for them. Still theirs is not the sort of offering that many will return to see time and time again.