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The American Indian Quarterly 30.3&4 (2006) 543-557

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The NMAI as Site of Identification

The nationalist function of museums has been the topic of much scholarly attention.1 The collection of museums at the heart of Washington DC serves as a prime example of how these institutions demand that visitors identify along national affiliations. Whether as a foreign or a domestic visitor, the address of these museums often highlights this aspect of our identity.2 This address, however, does not necessarily begin at the entrance; it begins with the ways in which museums present themselves through their publicity. Similarly, our response to that address includes not only our interaction with exhibits within the museum but also includes our pilgrimage there. Where we come from determines what and whom we find there. In the case of visiting the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), it is a trip that makes one extremely aware of the relationships among the Native cultural products on display, the site of the museum, and one's concept of home. Whether the process is one that reaffirms one's identity as Indigenous or one that stresses the ways in which we identify others as Native, traveling to the museum makes one conscious of the importance of location in the processes of identification.

The ideological implications of the representation of Native cultures within museums has been the focus of recent scholarship, much of it critically analyzing the practices of display that take place within these museums.3 Many historical accounts trace the development of the museum from its origins as private rooms used to exhibit collections full of wondrous curiosities—gathered from colonial enterprises around the world—to the more recent establishment of public museums that display materials that reify a nation's patrimony. The recent emphasis on the nationalist implications of the museum is particularly important when [End Page 543] considering the ideological implications of the colonial legacy marked by the collection of Native culture products.4 It is especially relevant to an analysis of the NMAI, an institution that forms a national collection of Native nations. A focus of this scholarship has often been on the objects and the spaces they occupy, on the relationships between the specimens and the architecture used to contain and present them to the public.5 One should keep in mind, however, that the museum itself is an object on display, which can lead to a broader consideration of its function in the narration of nation.6 The presentation of the museum is, of course, a major consideration for its architects who consider not only the building's aesthetic profile but also how it fits its surroundings. In terms of the NMAI, the architects chose a strategy that highly contrasts with the many neo-classical structures nearby, including the Capitol building directly facing the museum. While the curvilinear design and stone façade, originally conceived by the prominent Native architect Douglas Cardinal, refer to a southwestern landscape, the disjuncture in styles is productive; it connotes dislocation and relocation, key concepts in considering the histories of Native nations.

I would like to consider further the idea of location, as both a place and the act of placing, in relation to the site occupied by the NMAI. I am particularly concerned with examining how the approach to the museum informs the visitor's experience within the museum.

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When reading a map that shows your location with a sign that reads "You are here," you seek a path to your destination mindful that you may have to return to that same spot in order to make your way home. "You are here" also marks a spot that, like Ariadne's thread, leads you safely out of the labyrinth. This process of stringing your way to and from the museum is one that helps to place you in context. This was made evident during the opening ceremonies on September 21, 2004, when thousands of people from many parts of globe came together...


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