Tag Archives: National Museum of the American Indian

Back to blogging with a look at some NMAI artifacts

Well, folks…it’s been a while.

Between running a museum that’s about to undergo a major renovation and trying to write a dissertation, the blog obviously fell by the wayside there for a few weeks.  I’m going to try to get back in the habit.

One of the reasons I slacked off was the fact that my job has me on the road quite a bit.  Luckily, however, it takes me to some really great places.  Every February, LMU sends a delegation to Washington, D.C. to participate in a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial.  It’s a great opportunity to hit some museums.

This year I visited the National Museum of the American Indian.  I particularly enjoyed the Nation to Nation exhibit, which examines the history of treaty-making between tribes and the U.S.

Let’s take a look at some artifacts.

Seventeenth-century Lenape wampum belts.  The lower one belonged to William Penn:

A Creek bandolier bag, reportedly captured at Horseshoe Bend:

A hide painting of the Battle of Little Bighorn/Greasy Grass:

Serape belonging to William T. Sherman.  He probably got it in 1868, around the time he was negotiating the Treaty of Bosque Redondo with the Navajo:

A relic of forced acculturation.  Uniform from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School:

Nineteenth-century reservation ration cards and beaded card holder:

Painted shields from the days of the Plains conflicts:

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What impact will minority museums have on majority visitors?

There’s a movement underway to add a new National Museum of the American Latino to the Smithsonian system.  The NMAL would be one of several Smithsonian museums focused on the experiences of particular ethnic groups, alongside the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (slated to open in 2015).  There’s also been some recent activity in an effort to put a women’s history museum on the National Mall, so we could be seeing quite a few new D.C. museums focused on the history of various minority groups in the coming years.

I’ve always been of the opinion that you can’t have too many museums.  Going to museums is one of my favorite things to do, so every new facility means something else I’ll get to enjoy visiting.

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At the same time, though, part of me worries that these new museums might lead to some unintentional “re-segregation” of public history.  The National Museum of American History is a popular destination, and “American history” is a subject broad enough to appeal to a lot of people.  Trying to encompass everybody’s history under one roof has its disadvantages; you don’t get as many chances to cover minority-related subjects.  But when a general museum does mount an exhibit on the history of a minority group, it exposes visitors of a variety of backgrounds to the material, even visitors who wouldn’t normally visit a museum focused solely on minority history.  How many people who weren’t necessarily interested in twentieth-century black history got to experience the NMAH’s highly successful “Field to Factory” exhibit on the Great Migration?  Indeed, one wonders how many thousands of people have been exposed to specialized aspects of history at the NMAH just because they came to see the Star-Spangled Banner and then decided to explore the other exhibits.

I should point out that I’m not saying your average white visitor to the Smithsonian is a closet racist who will consciously avoid a black or Latino history museum.  I’m just saying that it might not occur to them that such a museum would be of interest.  The problem I’m concerned about here is visitor apathy, not hostility.  White Americans shouldn’t think of black or Latino history as “somebody else’s” history, but as critical components of American history as a whole.

And I definitely don’t want to give the impression that I think the construction of any of these museums would be a bad thing.  I just hope white visitors to D.C. don’t assume the new museums are irrelevant to them and miss out on all they have to offer.

On the other hand, maybe the addition of new museums focused on minority history will have the opposite effect.  Maybe a lot of white visitors to the Smithsonian will pay their first visit to a black history museum when the NMAAHC opens, since the new building will be right there on the Mall, in a location frequented by tourists who are passionate about their country’s past.

Your thoughts?

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Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites