The confusion begins with the entrance to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, a soaring, curving stone building at the southeastern corner of the Mall.
The entrance faces east — a symbolic nod to the many Native Americans who orient their homes to the east and the rising sun — but that makes it difficult for visitors coming from the Mall or Metro to find their way in, and entering through the back door diminishes the dramatic effect of the Potomac Atrium .
The two major exhibitions on the upper floors are similarly confounding. “Our Lives” celebrates the survival of the dispossessed without chronicling the policies and battles that brought them close to extinction, while “Our Universes” spotlights the creation myths of seven nations without drawing any connections or contrasts between them.
“The initial point was to celebrate the ongoing existence of these native peoples,” museum director Kevin Gover, a member of the Pawnee nation with degrees from Princeton University and the New Mexico College of Law, said. ”We took it to an extreme, and the narrative got lost.”
Like visitors wandering its remarkably empty halls, the NMAI is still trying to find its way.
The first national museum to focus exclusively on Native Americans, the NMAI opened in 2004 with the goal of redefining the relationship between the museum world and native nations. It collaborated with Native Americans on everything from design to the exhibitions, going out to the reservations and inviting Native Americans to join them in developing the programs.
But in ceding authority to these committees, the museum gave up control of the visitor experience and created an overall message that felt disjointed and incomplete.
As it enters its second decade, it has dramatically changed its approach, and a new exhibition, “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations,” underscores its philosophical shift. Rather than employ community curators and multiple perspectives, the NMAI brought in writer and Indian rights activist Suzan Shown Harjo to curate an exhibition examining the history and the contemporary consequences of nine legal agreements between the United States and native nations.
“This is a big moment,” Gover said. “It’s important that we be responsible for the narrative, to say, ‘These things are true; these stories are true.’ We must treat Native American history as American history.”
Such bold statements were not part of the museum’s early focus. Established in 1989 by an act of Congress, it took 15 years to open the five-story stone building that would celebrate the language, culture, history and arts of thousands of indigenous tribes and nations across the entire hemisphere.
To achieve this, the museum’s leaders built a network of community curators and let them tell their own stories. With a collection of more than 836,000 objects and three sites (including the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md., and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York), the museum opened with exhibitions featuring about 10,000 objects chosen and organized by community members and curators.
Such engagement has been in vogue since the 1990s, said Elizabeth Merritt, director of the Center for the Future of Museums at the American Alliance of Museums in Washington.
“The people whose history you are commemorating often know more than the curators do, and they have something substantive to bring to the table,” Merritt said. “People feel ownership of their history, and there can be tension and resentment if someone comes in and says, ‘I’m going to tell your story.’ ”
Of course, crowd-sourcing an exhibition can lead to tension, too. The NMAI was roundly criticized for its “empower the people” approach, with critics denouncing its choice of affirmation over authority and blasting the emptiness of the soaring space. One critic likened an exhibition on spirituality to an industry trade show.
But Gover insists that the initial exhibitions were successful; as proof, he points to the 2004 opening, when 25,000 Native Americans marched in a procession from the Mall to the museum. “When 25,000 native people showed up to march, that showed they got it right,” he said.
Attendance figures tell a different story. After attracting 2.2 million visitors in its first year, the NMAI has averaged about 1.4 million visitors a year since then, with fewer than a million through the first eight months of this year. The three most popular Smithsonian museums — Natural History, Air and Space, and American History — attracted 5.6 million, 5.2 million and 3.1 million guests last year.
The NMAI’s budget is the second-largest in the Smithsonian constellation. Last year’s budget was $35.8 million, in line with the other large facilities, including Air and Space ($29.7 million) and American History ($31.7 million).
The museum has 40,000 members, its leaders boast; the only part of the Smithsonian with more is the National Museum of the African American History and Culture, which is expected to open in 2016. It has 60,000 members.
That the NMAI is best known for its cafeteria is another sore point. Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe is included on many lists of best museum restaurants, and according to several travel guides, it is the main reason to visit.
“I told Chef [Richard] Hetzler, who is leaving, that one day we’ll have a museum that’s worthy of our cafeteria,” Gover said. “It was a joke, of course. But we still have work to do to be known as a place of public history.”
Jerome Grant is the new top chef; Hetzler will continue to oversee the menu but will be off-site most days as he opens his own restaurant in Northern Virginia, according to the museum.
Jolene Rickard, a Cornell University professor and director of its American Indian Program, said NMAI should not apologize for Mitsitam.
“The museum understood a core value of indigenous people was food. The nourishment of the body is as important as the nourishment of the mind or spirit,” she said. “And if we look at history, the foods from the Americas changed the world. There are many lessons to be learned in the Mitsitam Cafe.”
Both “Nation to Nation” and the course correction it heralds have been in the works for years, said Gover, who succeeded founding director W. Richard West Jr. in 2007. Three years ago, he hired David Penney from the Detroit Institute of Arts to fill the new position of associate director of museum scholarship. After an internal study of the museum’s programming, they and other senior staff members determined that more focus was needed on “contact” — when the Europeans and the native nations met — and the lasting consequences of their engagement.
“In many respects, the moment that most shaped the world we live in today was that moment of contact between Europeans and native people,” Gover said. “The world changed dramatically. Much of the effort is to restore native history to the world narrative.”
The new exhibition, which views the contact through the lens of legal documents, offers a history lesson with an emotional punch. Gover says it represents the museum’s maturation.
“It was always going to be a matter of time before we began to deal with some of this challenging material,” he said.
Rickard, the Cornell professor, curated the exhibition that was removed to make room for the new show. She said “Nation to Nation” reflects the NMAI’s growing confidence.
“However much I miss my own work there, I’m very happy to see this movement happening,” she said. “I’m glad to see that they picked not an easy idea: the challenging concept of a treaty, and the ethics of establishing treaties. The United States really needs a reminder [of the past], and what better place than within eyeshot of the Capitol?”
The museum plans to replace more of its exhibitions over the next five years, Gover says, and they will follow the lead of “Nation to Nation.”
“We must treat Native American history as American history, a very inclusive history,” he said. “So when someone comes into our galleries or reads our materials, they can find something about themselves.”
But it must embrace all Americans without disappointing its native audience, and that might be a difficult task. Aaron Bird Bear, a teacher who works in Native American studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, marched in the museum’s opening procession, an experience he counts among his most cherished memories.
“It was probably the only time in my life where the vast majority of the visitors were Native American,” he said. “It was just us, many nations together, learning from each other and celebrating . . . like it was for our ancestors 500 years ago.”
“We were fully allowed to be politically, culturally and linguistically Native American again,” he said.
Bear has returned to the NMAI several times — “I get my batteries charged” — and he said he is not worried about its shift away from validation toward a more unified narrative.
“The most fundamental way to see how we got to this place is by recognizing the sovereignty of Indian nations. Treaties . . . remind us that sovereignty is something one asserts; it’s not something that is given,” Bear said. “We’ve always been sovereign people, and we still are.”