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  • What Are Our Expectations Telling Us?Encounters with the NMAI
  • Gwyneira Isaac (bio)

I had two vastly dissimilar encounters with the inaugural exhibits at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington DC during its celebratory opening in September 2004. My first encounter was at the reception for museum staff, consultants, and their families, where I was accompanied by a group of anthropologists and museologists who were animated with anticipation for what they hoped would be a landmark series of exhibits and a turning point in Native American museology. As a group of people whose lives are clearly defined by museums, we were at home analyzing the architecture and displays. During our critique, however, we discovered that a number of features confounded us and thwarted our understanding of the goals of the exhibits, providing stimulating discussions and an immense amount of intellectual and critical fodder for future examination and research.

My second visit was with an enthusiastic colleague who accompanied me in the small hours of the morning on the first day the museum was made accessible to the public. The museum stayed open through the night to accommodate the large groups of visitors who had flocked to this new and significantly visible personality on the Mall. On this occasion, I found the museum to be a welcoming beacon alight in the otherwise still night, the entrance dome pulsating with singing and the galleries alive with hundreds of families enjoying a midnight adventure. During this second visit, we spent less time analyzing the exhibits and more on conferring about the palpable sense of a shared public experience and the performance of history here in Washington DC. This late-night journey through the museum was so markedly different from my first encounter two days earlier that I felt impelled to write not only on [End Page 574] the exhibits themselves but also on what we bring to them as visitors. I wanted to explore how the stories museums tell us are not just presented in the exhibits; their social meanings are created by the intersection of curators, audiences, media, and scholars who publicize, frame, and ultimately layer varied interpretations of the exhibits. While curators may aim to communicate particular meanings, we need to develop a framework for understanding how exhibits are experienced that allows for the co-construction of meaning between curators and their audiences. To further complicate things, all of these players may identify with or use different knowledge systems and approaches to knowledge, therefore requiring a nuanced framework that recognizes how these systems differ or overlap.

The opening of the NMAI also offers an unprecedented opportunity to look at how Native Americans have chosen to tell their stories in a national venue and to consider how museum experiences are performances of history, where audiences play a crucial role in determining how these histories create meaning at a broader social level. The aim of this article is to move beyond issues of representation and to address how museum meanings are made on the ground in ongoing encounters between displays and the ideational worlds their audiences bring with them into the museum space. In particular, I will explore how contrasting expectations about exhibits can serve as an interpretive strategy to identify co-existing but distinctly different approaches to knowledge that operate within the museum space. My explorations are based on four different encounters with the NMAI. The initial two encounters are visits to the museum itself, and the following two are experiences with the museum through newspaper articles and discussions. To give an interesting twist to James Clifford's travel diary of four Northwest coast museums, I have written this as a personal reflection on four encounters with the same museum, showing the open-ended and fluid nature of histories and the ongoing processes we use to make sense of contrasting expectations, experiences, and knowledge systems.1

In effect, I am considering where the locus of meaning in museum exhibits is situated. Is it in the exhibit itself or in the mind of the viewer? An analogous and appropriate framework for examining the construction of meaning comes from the interpretation of photography.2 Although a deceptively simple medium that...


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