By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 2009
Even with three locations in its empire, the National Museum of the American Indian can display barely 1 percent of its 800,000 objects. To help close that gap, the museum has decided to set up a digital showcase.
On Monday, the museum plans to launch its "Fourth Museum" to give scholars, students, teachers, cultural historians and those far away from the museum's homes in Washington and New York the opportunity to look into its archives.
The move has been in the works for nearly three years, as staff reexamined each item and its scholarship. The online project, part of the museum's regular Web site, will begin with 5,500 items and photographs. The goal is to have all 800,000 objects on the Web site, but it will take at least four years to achieve that.
"Most Americans will never see the Smithsonian, and Native Americans aren't any different," said Kevin Gover, the museum's director. "This Web site has always been part of our long-term strategic plan. Quite simply, given we know most native people will never visit any of our three museums . . . we wanted to provide this experience." Money to travel isn't plentiful in native communities, Gover said, but most reservations and schools have been equipped with the latest Internet and satellite technology.
So now the historian or descendant of the Kalaallitt can study a harpoon head resembling a polar bear, made around 1880 by a member of those Greenland Inuit. It was probably collected during Robert E. Peary's Arctic expedition in 1891-92 and since 1929 has been in the archives that preceded the museum. "We started with objects where we were sure the information was accurate," said Ann McMullen, chief curator of the project.
As a result, they are putting up items from recent exhibitions and the most-requested ones: pictures of the Sioux chiefs Red Cloud and Sitting Bull, and of Geronimo, the Chiricahua Apache leader. Also popular are photographs of groups of Indian men who came to Washington early in the 20th century to petition the government. In the first phase, there are 500 photographs, with links on how to purchase reproductions.
Getting more and more of the Smithsonian collections to the public through technology is a particular goal of the new secretary, G. Wayne Clough. "This is a happy coincidence," Gover said. "We were relieved he thought it was a good idea." The museum has raised $750,000 for the first four years of the project, and Gover said a deadline has not been set for the Fourth Museum completion.
The museum's holdings are centered on the collections of George Gustav Heye, an industrialist who built what then was the largest collection of Indian materials in the world. Heye knew and financed a network of people and organizations, including the 105-year-old Explorers Club. And items have come to the museum through workers with the government Indian agencies, physicians, scientists, missionaries and other collectors, such as Minor Keith, the railroad magnate who founded the company that became Chiquita Brands, McMullen said. In the first wave, the Heye material accounts for 12 items.
Researching what viewers want out of a virtual museum, the small team discovered people were curious about how the museum acquired things. "We hadn't thought of doing a history of how we got the items. We just had brief catalogue cards," McMullen said.
As McMullen cast her net for more information, she found details that could have been lost to history. Thisba Hutson Morgan, a teacher at the Pine Ridge Reservation School, had collected many items during her years in South Dakota, and her family donated them to the museum, then based in New York, in 1983. McMullen was able to locate Morgan's granddaughter, who gave her the details her grandmother had shared about the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890 and the ordeal of her grandmother and her students.
The online collection includes one formal portrait of Chiricahua Apaches, taken in March 1887 by John N. Choate at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. It is rare to have a photograph with all the names of the people in the two rows instead of anonymous faces.
The Web site's organizers want that two-way conversation to continue. "They can ask for more information or offer up more information," McMullen said. And the museum is continuing the policy of not photographing items that tribes consider sacred or inappropriate for reproductions, she said.
The museum's current Web site on the Mall museum, the Heye Center in New York City and the research center in Suitland is colorful and well-organized with the expected information about exhibitions, the buildings and public programs.
The new addition gives it a learning structure that Gover hopes will be enriched by discovering new stories about the objects. "I think we are going to strike gold."