- Guest Editor's RemarksCritical Engagements with the NMAI
On September 21, 2004, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened on the National Mall in Washington DC to great fanfare and publicity. Indigenous peoples from throughout the hemisphere came together to celebrate the opening of an institution more than fifteen years in the making. According to one estimate more than eighty thousand people came to the opening ceremonies.
The enthusiasm in the air, during both the opening ceremonies and the six-day First American Festival that followed, was palpable. I can honestly say that I have never seen so many Native people in one place. For more than a week we made our presence known in Washington DC. Everywhere you went—walking on the streets, in restaurants, at your hotel, at the museums, at the historical monuments throughout the city—Native people were there. It was a time to celebrate, to honor both the Indigenous past and present, to spend time with family, and to get reacquainted with old friends and make new ones.
During the time of the initial celebration and since, the museum has generated a great deal of attention, and many voices have weighed in on its significance. Whereas the building, its landscaping, and its restaurant have overwhelmingly been viewed as a great success, less uniform have been the views of what is inside the museum walls. The inaugural exhibitions received a range of responses from the media, the larger American Indian community, museum professionals, the general public, and scholars. Many of the reviews of the museum have been glowing, others ambivalent, and many have been downright scathing. These varied responses to NMAI's new museological approach is recognition that [End Page 507] however one may view this new institution it is certainly a site that has created and continues to create a great deal of reflection and critique.
This special edition of the American Indian Quarterly is devoted to a critical engagement with the NMAI. The writers whose work is featured were invited to offer their insights on the significance of the museum from their own disciplinary and personal perspectives. The scholars in this issue come from a range of disciplines: Native American studies, anthropology, archaeology, museum studies, history, and art history. The writings cover a range of topics, including tracing the NMAI's genealogy, exploring its significance to the changing historical relationship between Indigenous peoples and museums, reflecting on the museum's hemispheric approach, and critically examining and reviewing specific galleries and their impact.
We begin with an essay by anthropologist and museum studies scholar Ira Jacknis, "A New Thing? The National Museum of the American Indian in Historical and Institutional Perspective." This essay provides extensive information on NMAI's long history and how the museum's story begins with the large-scale collecting practices of George Gustav Heye in the early part of the twentieth century. Eventually his collection would total eight hundred thousand pieces from Native peoples from throughout the hemisphere. Jacknis follows the evolution of the museum under Heye until his death in 1956, the period of crisis after Heye's death, and its eventual transfer to the Smithsonian, where it became the National Museum of the American Indian. As well-known art historian and museum studies scholar Ruth Phillips has argued, "Museum exhibitions, like museums themselves, have genealogies—family trees the tracing of which allows us to place contemporary projects in critically important perspective," and the context Jacknis provides on the museum is critical in understanding its current formation.1
Art historian Mario A. Caro argues that the site-specificity of the NMAI—located in the nation's capital on the National Mall—greatly influences visitors' experiences. His essay, "You Are Here: The NMAI as Site of Identification," deals with the significance of site to a visitor's engagement with museums, noting that "it is essential to consider the site specificity of museums in general in order to complicate the workings of the narratives produced inside." His essay provides context on what visitors brings with them to the museum and how the nation's capital works in framing the presentation of Native cultures. [End...