Up until very recently, no Native American artifact was created with the idea that it would end up in a museum.
Rather, Indians in the Northern and Southern hemispheres made things--ranging from great buildings to everyday articles of clothing--for their usefulness, aesthetic appeal, ritual significance and spiritual content.
Yet thousands upon thousands of Indian objects have found their way into museum collections. All things considered, this is good. Otherwise, many--perhaps most--of these things would have disappeared, and serious studies of Indian culture would have suffered greatly.
But the fit between museums and Indian materials has been, at best, uncomfortable. (At worst, Indian objects have been used in displays that justify racist attitudes.)
When an object enters a museum collection, in a sense it leaves the real world behind. Its physical preservation becomes the foremost goal and, after that, its meaning is subject to interpretation.
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it definitely is not the Indian way. An Indian elder would see the very same object as a link in a metaphysical chain, a connection between the ancestors and the present-day practitioners of a still-living culture.
To bridge such formidable attitudinal gaps is the primary idea behind the National Museum of the American Indian's new $50 million Cultural Resources Center in Suitland.
The center is the second of the museum's three buildings. The first was the George Gustav Heye Center, an exhibition hall that opened five years ago in the restored Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House in New York City. The third will be the main museum on the Mall, just east of the Air and Space Museum, for which ground will be broken next month.
Of the three, the Cultural Resources Center, on a corner lot of the Smithsonian Institution's 110-acre Museum Services campus, is likely to become the most important to Indians, because this state-of-the-art storage facility is where most of the museum's 800,000 objects will be kept.
As its name and unusual architecture imply, it was conceived as something more than a warehouse for rare artifacts. "We assiduously avoided using the term storage in describing the building," says W. Richard West, museum director. He and others prefer a gentler characterization: "a home for the collections."
Thus, the major challenge to the architectural team--the Polshek Partnership of New York, in collaboration with Tobey + Davis of Reston and the Native American Design Collaborative--was to find ways to accommodate and represent very different needs and perspectives.
Yes, the building had to be an efficient container, meeting the highest specifications for storing and conserving objects. But also it had to be unusually accessible, with spaces for scholars and tribal delegations to handle and study objects on request. And, to reflect its purpose and contents, it had to be "Indian" in some way.
The architecture responds moderately well to this complex, synthesizing task. The building is not an inspired synthesis--the individual parts do not come together as a uniquely memorable whole, and in consequence the architecture strikes no deep, universal, emotive chords.
On the other hand, the center is quite a satisfying place and, compared with other major museum storage facilities, is fresh and innovative. Many of the individual architectural elements are distinctive and moving. And things work. The disparate functions--storage, conservation, research, ritual and so on--appear to be well planned and interconnected.
Rare objects in their compact storage containers have been arranged in a way sensitive to Indian attitudes and, perhaps most importantly, ceremonial spaces are integral parts of the design. An Indian delegation can come here and, without undue fuss, use a rare sacred object in the way its creator intended. Then, the object goes back to its container.
In approaching these difficult issues, the architects were given important guidance in "The Way of the People," the exceptional master plan prepared for the museum by Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates after an intensive series of consultations with Indian tribes in both hemispheres.
Although the plan contained no specific advice concerning architectural style, it strongly suggested staying away from any obvious, thematic approach. "There are no generic Indian building types," its authors wrote, "nor is there a desire for the building to be an amalgam, 'an adobe tipi.' "
The Suitland team, under the design leadership of James Stewart Polshek and Susan Rodriguez of the Polshek Partnership, was predisposed to take the strong hint. The Polshek firm's approach to architecture in general might be characterized as contextually abstract--designing buildings that somehow fit their sites but retain a firm allegiance to modern art.
Fortunately, therefore, tepees of any type--or, with one exception, any other confounding, specific reference--were not in the cards. The building turns out to be an amalgam, all right, but the mixture is of abstract ideas rather than readily identifiable motifs.
Harmony with nature, connection between inside and outside, the presence of water, alignment with cardinal directions (including an opening to the east), an organic sense of form, a welcoming atmosphere--these are among the generalized "Indian" ideas seized upon by the design team. At the same time, the architects kept in mind certain contrasting ideas--modernity, contemporary materials, efficiency and so on--and attempted to exploit the resulting tensions in the design of the building.
The overriding concept was to anchor a dramatic, organic architectural form--a spiraling roof--with solid, rectilinear forms (such as the exterior walls, behind which storage and administrative functions take place). It was an idea full of brilliant potential.
Unfortunately, as executed, the contrast between spiral and rectilinear frame is best observed from a plane or a nearby communications tower. From the ground, and from inside the building, the powerful spiral is only intermittently visible, and its expressive potential is thus considerably diminished.
Furthermore, the color and patterning of the main exterior walls distract from the overall seriousness of the architecture. Made of precast concrete panels tinted to resemble sun-baked Southwestern clay, and "decorated" with a minimalist pattern of diamond-shaped windows, these walls seem a bit too specific, too self-consciously ethnic for the rest of the design and out-of-place in our mid-Atlantic light.
Where it does work, however, the idea of contrast works splendidly. Certain key spaces in this building resonate with meaning. The entry sequence is particularly noteworthy.
The gradual rise of the exterior stairwell; the narrow, formal waterfall (filled with recirculating water); the open steel fretwork of the rooftop spiral; the circular vestibule with its superb wood-and-steel columns and excellent views to the outside; and the north-facing bridge to a ceremonial site in the pine woods to the rear of the building--these interpenetrating spaces are powerfully evocative of both the poignancy and profundity of the center's mission.
In sum, one is forced to conclude that the architectural glass of the Cultural Resources Center is half empty--a disappointment. On the other hand, the glass is half full, and this institution of unquestionable importance will be with us for a long, long time.
Although the Cultural Resources Center, at 4220 Silver Hill Rd. in Suitland, is not open to the general public, there will be reservations-only open-house tours on Sept. 26. For reservations, call 301-238-NMAI, Ext. 6300.