Thursday, October 14, 2004

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN

I went to Washington D.C this past Columbus Day weekend, to visit the new museum recently opened on the national mall.

I went hoping to be impressed but prepared to be disappointed. Prepared because its not as if the U.S (or Canada) has a great history with North American Aboriginal peoples nor with re-presenting that history in texts, museums, monuments and the like. Hoping, however, because everthing I had heard about the preparation, planning, and opening of the museum seemed to indicate that Aboriginal people themselves were at the centre of the undertaking and that there was a serious commitment to approach Aboriginal history and society in an informed, reflexive and respectful manner.

I was not disappointed.

The museum is positioned as a presentation of Aboriginal philosophy, history, and society by Aboriginal people from a contemporary perspective. The Aboriginal people of the Americas (and it is indeed the Americas, not only the United States) appear as a multitude of distinct cultures and nations. The museum invites the visitor to actively engage and question its narritives and representations.

The museaum is organized around three permanent exhibits entitled, Our Universes, Our Peoples and Our Lives.

Our Universes, focuses on Aboriginal cosmologies and world views. Here we uncover the founding ideas and principles that inform the lives and cultures of Aboriginal societies. We see that Aboriginal people have complex and long-held beliefs that have adapted but remained constant over time. Each of the three exhibits is set up so that principal themes and commonalities are examined in the centre of the exhibit, while surrounding that, are individual sections that present the unique experiences and position of particular Aboriginal nations as they relate to the subject being presented. So in the Our Universes exhibit underlying themes of Aboriginal cosmology are discussed in the centre and then surrounding that are specific discussions of how those common cosmological themes are differently expressed amogst various Aboriginal groups.

Our Peoples, examines the history of contact between Aboriginal peoples and new-comers in North America. The central themes are that of the impact of disease, technology and religous conversion as well as a questioning of the presentation of Aboriginal history. It was this examination of the presentation of history that I found most interesting in this section. There is a historiographicl examination of the representation of Aboriginal people in Western histories. There is also an explicit acknowledgement that the representation here is a specific historical interpretation that takes for granted its own underlying assumptions just as the past histories have done. The museum is aware of its own positioning and invites the viewer to engage with it and question it.

The other aspect that I liked about the Our Peoples exhibit was that Aboriginals and new-comers were both portrayed as actors in the history of North America. We see both Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals interacting in constructive and destructive ways with and against each other ultimately creating a distinctly American (in the continental sense) experience.

Our Lives, looks at the modern day lived experiences of Aboriginal people. Both the struggles and conflicts, triumphs and achievements of present day Aboriginal communities are explored. Armed conflicts with state authorities and substance abuse, along with the success of community language programs and the expansion of self government are examined equally and in context. The emphasis is on the continuity of Aboriginal culture and the active strategies of survivance that Aboriginal communities have engaged in.

The museum has clearly called upon a wide array of people and resources to present the historical and present day experiences of Aboriginal people in a diverse and complex manner. The museum is clear that it is presenting its own historical interpretation. It is one that portrays Aboriginal people not as idealized primitives or passive victims but as active agents in the development of North America. It portrays European new-comers often as aggresors but not as invaders motivated by cruelty.

It is a museum that takes seriously the difficulties in telling history, particularly the history of Aboriginal people in the Americas. It is a museum of a quality and type that I have never seen before.

Posted by Matthew @ 3:43 AM