Reading this week:
- Missionary to Tanganyika edited by James B. Wolf
- The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton
- Mr. Selden’s Map of China by Timothy Brook
A couple of weekends ago my super amazing girlfriend, her mom, and I all went to the National Museum of the American Indian. This was not the original plan. Her mom had come into town to see the cherry blossoms, as one is wont to do in DC around this time of year. They initially had gone on Friday and had a lovely time. I was unfortunately working, and thus could not go. Saturday we spent at the zoo and then on Sunday we ventured once again to the National Mall in order to see some extremely pretty flowers.
Unfortunately between Friday and Sunday a wintry blast had hit, dashing all hopes that spring had firmly sprung and making me regret storing all of my sweaters and sweatshirts in the box to which I banish them in the summer with the idle hope I will never need them again. Don’t worry, dear reader, we did get to see cherry blossoms! In fact we saw cherry blossoms from perhaps the best vantage point in all of DC, that is atop the Washington Monument. Having had such a nice time last time, we had managed to snag tickets for Sunday morning so bright and early we found ourselves peering over at Jefferson and enjoying the view:
However, as all things must eventually come to an end, we were eventually ejected back out into the frigid and blustery cold and had to find something to do. Our original plan was to walk around the tidal basin and look at the blossoms, but due to the bluster and cold I just mentioned that plan was right out. So instead we did the logical thing: go to the National Museum of the American Indian.
I have some fond memories of this museum. I remember when it opened and how eager my grandpa was to go to it. He made a lot of art and had a deep interest in native American art, hence his enthusiasm. I also remember the cafeteria they have being very good, and it was good again this time and I thoroughly enjoyed my traditional authentic Navajo taco. However, as a museum overall I remembered it being a bit underwhelming. My sort of biggest criticism is that I remember being disappointed that they didn’t stick more museum in their museum. This is not a particularly objective criticism, and if I was running a museum I would lean heavily in the wunderkammer direction. A gigantic part of the museum is taken up by the open atrium and between that and the other sundry museum bits they really only have four or so exhibit spaces available. I just want more.
However, it was this time around that I figured out the way they give you more is being fairly well dedicated to rotating their exhibits out. I hadn’t even realized that what I thought of as the “intro” exhibit is itself technically temporary (and ending soon!), though an 18-year run is pretty good. The next exhibit was the one that most directly appealed to the interests of my girlfriend and I, which was all about the nation-to-nation relationships between the United States and the American Indian Nations. If you’re, you know, an American with an iota of feeling for one’s fellow man, it’s not a feel-good exhibit as one might guess. My favorite part was learning that the Haudenosaunee still demand to be given cloth by the United States government, despite the government’s attempt to just switch it to cash. According to the exhibit, “The nations replied, ‘The cloth is more significant than money, because so long as you keep sending this to us, there’s a chance you’ll maybe remember all of the other articles of that treaty.”
Of the exhibits, my favorite and most gorgeous displays the work of Preston Singletary, and is titled “Raven and the Box of Daylight.” It was in this exhibit that I had to remind myself to reset my notion of what a museum should be away from my wunderkammer instincts. It displays a series of stunning glass statues but then uses those statues to relate to story of, as you guessed from the title, Raven and the Box of Daylight. I came away convinced more museums should have whole exhibits that literally tell a (metaphorical) story.
The most thought-provoking exhibit however was titled “Americans,” and explores how interwoven Native American iconography, imagery, and culture is with the United States, despite or because of the massive racism and violence they have experienced at the hands of the people of the United States. As pictured above, its central hall contains multitudes of those images, including many I hadn’t quite realized were named after Native Americans (I’m thinking of SueBee Honey, ie Sioux Bee Honey here, not the Tomahawk, which is obvious, except that I took that picture because as soon as I saw the Tomahawk I realized I hadn’t actually ever made the connection). Of the hall they had smaller displays telling not only more accurate versions of the history of people like Pocahontas or events such as the Battle of Little Bighorn, and even more interesting how the perception and use of these histories have changed over time in the United States in response to the changing mores and fashion of the times. Interesting stuff, and its these changing exhibits that are going to make me need to come back to the museum more often.
After a quick trip to the gift shop (of course), which is excellent, that wrapped up our time at the Museum of the American Indian. We ventured back outside to the still-blustery day and headed home. As a final note, since I have mentioned here that I like baskets, they did have some excellent baskets: