With 2.3 million visitors every day in the United States, it’s a Golden Age for museums. Pity that the historical content of the nation’s leading museums is often so leaden and undemanding.
On a recent trip to Washington, D. C., I did what many people do when they travel to the capital: lined up to see a blockbuster exhibition (“What Does It Mean To Be Human” at the National Museum of Natural History); visited the National Museum of American Indian to experience its dramatic architecture as well as see its exhibitions; and checked out gift stores everywhere.
Given my current project on twentieth century archaeology and grave looting of native cemeteries, I also was interested in how the city’s museums deal with the nation’s first racial encounter and what historian Tom Bender refers to as “the greatest demographic disaster in the historical record” – the destruction by disease, warfare, massacres, starvation, and humiliation of three-quarters of the indigenous peoples of the continent.
What can you learn from the Smithsonian about this foundational event in American history? Not much.
In the not-too-distant past, you would have first made your way to a natural history museum where Native Americans and their artifacts were presented, often artfully, as relics of a “vanishing race,” embedded in the landscape. But since the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in 1989 and its opening in 2004, the National Museum of Natural History has become a repository of huge native collections that no longer are displayed. Now, for information about Native Americans, you must visit either the NMAI or the National Museum of American History.
The NMAI, which is the first national museum “about Indians run by Indians,” focuses on emphasizing the point that native peoples never vanished and continue to be a vital and diverse presence in the continent. “We are not a museum of history or anthropology or archaeology,” a guide told me. “We are a museum of living peoples.” This approach is understandable given the longstanding portrayal of Native Americans as indolent and brutish, predestined to extinction by their inherent degeneracy.
With the exception of an innovative traveling exhibition, “Indivisible” – that grapples with issues of identity relating to the intertwined lives of African-Native Americans – the NMAI does not require visitors to work through their own assumptions or confront the country’s tragic past. Its exhibitions are for the most part informative and uplifting, but there’s nothing to trouble our sleep at night.
This would not be a problem if you could confront the sorrowful weight of the past at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). “Where can I find information about the history of American policies towards native peoples,” I ingenuously asked a guide at the NMAH. She paused, brow furrowed. “There’s not much here,” she replied.
That’s an understatement. You have to search purposefully to find references to this decisive component of the origins story in the NMAH. The overall ambiance is heroic and jingoistic, the nation’s story told as a relentless trek to democracy. The “Hall of Military History” includes a few token cases on the settling of the West and “Indian removal,” highlighting the Trail of Tears as “among the most tragic episodes in American history.” But that’s it folks, as you quickly move on through the country’s penchant for warfare, inexorably framed as “The Price of Freedom.”
It’s a pleasant surprise, though, to find that a special exhibition on American maritime history, “On The Water,” includes two cases on “The Salmon Coast,” with a particular focus on the importance of the ocean and rivers for the Hupa and Yurok in California’s northwest. But this effort at inclusion is undermined by a text that airbrushes out the unremitting violence against native peoples during the Gold Rush. This critically important period – now recognized by historians as one of the few examples of American genocide – is repackaged as “a series of threats” to tribal communities by gold prospectors, settlers, and dams. Again, there’s nothing here to make us catch our breath or question the price of freedom.
As I was leaving
the NMAH, Cecilia called me over to look more closely at Horatio Greenough’s
iconic 1841 statue of George Washington that, together with a dramatically huge
exhibition on the Star-Spangled Banner, smothers visitors to the museum in a
fog of patriotism. “Where’s the Native American,” she challenged me. I slowly
walked around the massive marble sculpture, in which a toga-draped Washington
offers his sword to the people. “Here it is,” I said eventually, when I spied
the familiar image of a miniature noble Indian, head down in defeat, tucked
away under the right armpit of the nation’s founding father.