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Indian Museum's Uneasy Presence Bespeaks Troubled Past

The galleries themselves, mostly windowless with ceilings darkened, are spatially disorienting, hard to navigate, cluttered and organized in ways that defy comprehension. Like many who have questioned the exhibition strategy, I was uncomfortable with the didactically incoherent collection. "Science yields to stories" was the Post's characterization in September when the museum opened, but stories have narrative structure, and I could never discover or decode the structure.

Because many of the artifacts on display are not as light-sensitive as paintings or drawings, galleries could have been greatly enriched by introducing filtered natural light and providing more views to and from the outside world.

Perhaps this museum was destined to be aesthetically compromised, considering its troubled history.

In 1993 the Smithsonian Institution selected Cardinal as lead designer, but as a subcontractor to the Philadelphia firm GBQC, the executive architect. Not surprisingly, disputes arose between the two architectural firms as well as between the architects and client. The project bogged down, and the Smithsonian subsequently fired GBQC and Cardinal for missing deadlines and failing to fulfill other contract obligations. Disagreements about money also spoiled relationships. (At one point Cardinal retained me to help settle one of the disputes.)

Nevertheless, Cardinal's initial concept had been approved by both the client and the Commission of Fine Arts, although the Smithsonian wanted the design edited. A new team of architects and landscape architects -- James Stewart Polshek & Partners, the Smith Group, Jones & Jones, EDAW -- took over the design process and the scheme, made revisions (some of which were rejected by the commission), and finally got the project built.

During all of this, design implementation was further complicated by the nature of the client, officially the Smithsonian. But there were really hundreds of clients. The programming, conceptual content, internal arrangement and exhibition strategy of the museum were substantially determined by a sizable group of Native American tribal representatives. Thus, it was not just design by a committee, but design by a very, very large committee.

In the end, having been unceremoniously discharged and claiming to have done work for which he was not compensated, an embittered Cardinal has disclaimed design authorship. Last September, he refused to attend the museum's opening and dedication and has condemned all those responsible for bastardizing his design.

Yet the resulting edifice, while departing somewhat from the original concept, is still very much a Douglas Cardinal building. Whether a Douglas Cardinal building was the right building to house this extraordinary collection at this unique site remains in question.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.


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