Museum of the American Indian tries to do too much, too noisily

November 06, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

New York -- The National Museum of the American Indian, which opened its first of three facilities last week in New York, is such a good idea that one wants to give the whole project a standing ovation and let it go at that.

But one can't.

One wants to cheer because a national museum devoted to Native-American culture is long overdue, and because the people behind this project have tried so hard to do everything right.

One can't because the museum's newly opened New York facility doesn't fit with complete comfort in the building it occupies, and because the inaugural exhibits are less successful than they might be.

Last Sunday, the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian opened in lower Manhattan in a former U.S. custom house designed in 1900 by Cass Gilbert, subsequently architect of the Supreme Court building in Washington. Three floors of the handsome beaux-arts-style former custom house have been renovated for the Heye Center.

The $24 million center is the first and smallest part of a planned three-part institution. A $50 million storage and research center will open in Suitland in 1997, and the $110 million principal museum building on the Mall in Washington is scheduled to open in 2001.

In developing its programs, the museum has endeavored to involve American Indians in every part of the process. Staff members have consulted extensively with Native-American communities throughout the planning; there has been enormous effort to present individual objects and entire exhibitions from the Native-American point of view; and the museum contains a cultural resource center with up-to-date technology that will disseminate information to Native-American communities and schools across the nation.

Unhappy history

"The historic relationship has not always been a happy one between native communities and museums," says museum director W. Richard West Jr., himself a Cheyenne.

"We hope to provide leadership . . . to preserve for the public the shared cultural heritage and give native communities access to materials to build a cultural future they so richly deserve."

Without quarreling with those admirable intentions, it's possible to say that this museum facility doesn't work as well as one hopes it will as time goes on.

The building itself proves part of the problem. Of the three floors comprising 80,000 square feet devoted to the museum, the galleries are located on the main floor with its entrance hall and oval rotunda, the latter decorated with murals by Reginald Marsh. It's easy to see that these largely empty rooms could not have been cut up for exhibition spaces without destroying their grandeur. But they remain vast, essentially empty spaces, while exhibitions are shoe-horned into 20,000 square feet of gallery space outside three sides of the rotunda.

Given that limitation, the museum has tried to do too much by providing three inaugural exhibitions where two would have been much more comfortable. And it has compounded that error by trying so hard to maximize information and use up-to-date technology that the trappings of these shows end up overwhelming the objects.

The purpose is laudable. If museum-goers are to appreciate American-Indian culture, they must learn that its objects are not works of art as the Western tradition has come to regard works of art -- that is, beautiful things to be looked at. They were made for a purpose, they were part and parcel of the ceremonial and daily lives of the people who made them, and they should be understood that way.

Plethora of information

But in its anxiety to present these objects in the correct way, the museum has made them all but invisible by bombarding us with a plethora of information -- printed, spoken, televised -- that makes it difficult for the objects themselves to communicate.

The first exhibit, "Creation's Journey: Masterworks of Native American Culture and Belief," consists of 165 objects that, according to the brochure accompanying the show, "span five millennia and represent native cultures from the Arctic Circle in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south."

The museum has tried to fit too many objects from too many cultures and with much too much didactic material into this space. Works are clustered in several different ways, including by geography, by subject matter, by type of object, by community of origin. They are crammed into a series of small spaces that will make moving through the exhibit extremely difficult for groups and when the museum is crowded. And there are so many texts and labels that the objects get lost in a torrent of words.

The second exhibit, "All Roads Are Good: Native Voices on Life and Culture," consists of 300 objects selected from the collection by 23 Native Americans, together with their comments on their choices.

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