Sunday, February 20, 2005


Sinus Infection.

I'm pretty sure I have one. Either that, or I'm about to come down with the worst case of ear infections know to man.

I'm doped up on Sudafed, which I hope clears it up soon. Because right now when I click my teeth it sounds like an echo chamber in my head.

Anyways, you're probably wondering how my weekend has been so far.

Okay, maybe not, but I'll tell ya anyways.

Saturday my buddy Ranger and his new girlfriend Jamie were down from Boston to visit. Jamie had never been down here, so of course we had to do the Washington D.C. "tourist lap" downtown. We started out at the FDR memorial, then went to the new Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, had lunch at the Old Post Office, did the tower tour, then looped back to the car, stopping at the Vietnam & Korean War Memorials, plus the Lincoln Memorial. Lots to see-- not to mention plenty of walking-- but despite the chill it was good to get outside for a day.

Some observations about the the new American Indian museum.

It was incredibly underwhelming. Out of every Smithsonian museum in town, it must have the highest ratio of square footage to exhibition space I've seen. Sure, it's a new museum, but out of four floors, only the top two have exhibit space, the bottom two being dominated by auditoriums, theaters and a ludicrously large cafeteria/gift shop.

As for the exhibits themselves, they were a mixed bag. The temporary exhibit on the artwork of 20th Century Indian artists George Morrison and Allan Houser was pretty neat (especially Morrison's wood collages, which were really cool), but only some of their artwork is specific to Native American design and culture. The rest of it could have been made by any artist in America, so I don't see why it belonged in the Indian museum (aside from the "cultural diversity" argument-- "Look, we've got modern artists too!")

The "Our Lives" exhibit-- highlighting modern Indian society and culture-- wasn't terribly interesting, but that's a lot better than I expected. Basically, a number of tribes ranging from the American Southwest to the Candian north to the Carribean had their own little section where they presented details on how their tribe has adapted to modern life. Aside from some artwork here and there, there was an awful lot of little vignettes talking about this conference and that meeting, etc., which didn't really mean a whole heck of a lot.

On the flip side, the "Our Lives" exhibit didn't rely on a lot of PC-style sermonizing, which I had feared. For instance, the Inuit section discussed drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge by presenting one tribe's argument in favor, and one tribe's arugment against. Most of the displays were similarly balanced. In the end, I didn't feel any white man's guilt walking out of there.

Which is something I can't say about the "Our Peoples" exhibit, which covered about 500 years of Indian history with plenty of hyperbole and dogma. After walking past the display of stolen South American gold and centuries worth of rifles used by Indians, you get the impression that the only thing missing from the exhibit is a museum curator handing you a complimentary smallpox blanket while you use virtual reality to reenact the Trail of Tears.

By far the actor that gets it the worst in this exhibit are the Spanish, which, let's be honest, isn't too far out of line in history. However, at least in this exhibit, the curators didn't feel too much of an obligation towards balance. One only has to read Victor Davis Hanson's account of the Aztec empire in Carnage and Culture to appreciate that, while the Conquistador motivation may have been religion and greed, the Aztec empire they toppled was one of the most horrifying murderous regimes the world has ever known. The exhibit conveniently forgets that "Indian" is not synonomous with "Saint"-- all men everywhere in history are members of the Fallen.

Anyways, in the end, my verdict? I didn't expect much, but I got even less than that. The biggest thing missing from the museum-- aside from "more stuff"-- is a long, detailed account of Native American history. It's been awhile since I've visited the American History museum, so perhaps it's there, but one could walk out of the Indian Museum without any significant increase in factual knowledge of Indian history, culture and society-- either before the Europeans arrived, or after. Hence, the museum can, at best, be called an attractive failure.

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