Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Book Club Part 7: NMAI and the Challenge of Cultural Storytelling

This is the penultimate installment of Museum 2.0's book club on Elaine Gurian's collection of essays, Civilizing the Museum. Next week, we'll conclude by talking about opportunities for institutional change with chapter 8, "Turning the Ocean Liner Slowly." But today, a conversation about the often sticky world of cultural interpretation with chapter 20, "A Jew Among Indians" How working outside of one's culture works."

This essay, written in 1991, reflects Elaine's experience on the planning staff for the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) on the Mall as an "insider/outsider"--a "hired gun" with museum know-how facilitating the creation of someone else's museum. NMAI opened to the public in fall of 2004, and has endured very mixed reviews for its presentation of the Indian experience largely from the perspective of native communities, not curators or historians. NMAI undertook a fairly radical development process in which they tried, via extensive interviews and community outreach, to create a place that represented the interests of people who, for the most part, felt that "museums are irrelevant institutions... have portrayed Indians inaccurately." The institution of museums was regarded with suspicion, and the interior museum experience was to be reconceived in line with the "multisensory spiritual aspect of the individual Indian cultures," making exhibition design (fire in galleries? active use of artifacts?) an "uncharted adventure."

Add to these challenges the particular challenge of creating a national institution. As Elaine puts it in the essay,
When I was last involved in such an endeavor, it was when the Boston Children's Museum was small, insignificant, and unselfconscious. The National Museum of the American Indian has none of these attributes, and working issues out in the full glare of media and publich funding accountability makes the task much harder.
Once she has explained the nature of the endeavor, Elaine spends the second half of the essay detailing "worries" about the NMAI development process. These worries fall roughly into three categories: the tension between the insider and outsider, the ability of standard Western exhibition and artifact techniques to adapt to a new aesthetic, and the ownership of stories.

I was curious to hear Elaine's thoughts on these worries now, fifteen years after writing the essay and three since the opening of the museum. As a visitor to NMAI, I felt few of these worries--the museum to me seemed like a place that had avoided many of these concerns by presenting something fairly benign. Many of Elaine's worries are passionate in nature; the resulting museum, to me, conveys little passion.

With regard to insider/outsider, Elaine wrote about the challenges of creating a place that is "by" and "for" a specific cultural group, while also intended for a much larger outsider visitor population. How will outsider needs for basic information (internalized by the insiders) be accomodated? When someone says, "you wouldn't understand," are they being realistic or racist? How will the museum serve both a distinct group and a more general one?

From my non-native visitor experience, NMAI felt neither foreign nor inclusionary; it felt stale. It wasn't like the experiences Elaine details being an outsider at a pow wow, where she felt both swept into and outside a unique experience. In recent email correspondence about this issue, Elaine commented:
The other problem is that there is a disconnect between what non-Native
Americans wanted to see and what the Indian people wanted to tell them.
Thia is both where the bravery of the NMAI and their lack of responsiveness
to the audience comes in. I don't know how to fix it but by beginning to
work in a dialogue with disappointed visitors and Indians with a point of
view and see if a new and exciting middle ground can be achieved.
This first issue is about cross-cultural understanding. The second issue, about presentation and care of exhibitions and objects, is about museums. Can museums successfully adapt traditional exhibition formats to subject matter and or visitors who expect or desire something spiritual or emotional? If museums radically change their interpretation styles to match the desires of a particular group, will those styles alienate other current or future visitors? Will those styles just redefine another rigid set of rules for right action? Again and again, the NMAI curatorial staff heard that Indians were not interested in the standard set of museum services. Was it possible to create new ones?

Perhaps not in this attempt. Again, Elaine comments today:
The first, where NMAI suffered, is in repetition. In talking directly with
Indian groups but synthesizing the material through a set of curatorial
eyes, the potential outcomes have a certain sameness and a timidity that
might have been avoided.

The repair for that is quite difficult. It means that when working
directly with folks for whom the museum media is not their natural forum,
the museum folks need to offer a much larger palette of physical outcomes
rather than just words, movies, material in cases, etc. And the palette is
not really invented yet. So the direct voice got straight-jacketed into a
frame of museum methods that did not exactly fit.

It also means that the museum palette needs to be stretched into areas that
the Indian community talked about -- smell, sound, spirit, language,
environments, etc. all of which are not yet comfortable exhibition

I have always wanted to get a group of Indigenous people together with the
most inventive designers in the world and have them design new museum
systems together.

Finally, the third issue is about storytelling. Who owns the Indian story, which is really the story of people from many independent sovereign nations? How the stories and aesthetics from individual groups be woven together into one coherent museum? How can the museum facilitators avoid becoming "the victims and the perpetuators of re-creationism?" When no one voice is regarded as authoritative or objective, how does the story get told?

The most fascinating commentary I've read on this is Jacki Thompson Rand's excellent article, "Why I Can't Visit the National Museum: Reflections of an accidental privileged insider 1989-1994." In many ways Jacki was Elaine's counterpart--a native member of the team, an insider where Elaine was an outsider. And yet, Jacki came out of the experience feeling like an outsider, stating that the museum and exhibion development was controlled primarily by traditional museum designers (white men) with small roles for native interpretation (Indian men). Most significantly, the story the museum finally chose to tell was not Jacki's story, which was one of history, not material culture. As she puts it:
today, the finished museum stands as a reminder of how the small-but-growing museum staff failed to find, in that tense moment of public scolding, inspiration and encouragement to tell the story that we know and the nation denies.
To Jacki, a museum that refuses to acknowledge and explore the Native past is not one that can properly reflect or illuminate the present or future. She was an intended insider--someone who NMAI was supposedly both "by" and "for." And yet she came out of it feeling that neither was true.

Elaine commented to me that she thinks exhibitions created by a single artistic vision--like the USHMM, Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum, or any number of superstar cultural designs--work better. (See book club part 4 for more.) Perhaps, when one person is telling the story for many, they are free to create a new story that resonates both with its subjects and its visitors. The Holocaust Museum's permanent exhibition is not reflective of every Holocaust victim's story, nor does it claim to be. But the story created by Shaike's vision is a story that many people, Jews and non-Jews alike, connect with deeply. At NMAI, they sought to create a cultural story not just by curatorial consensus, but by mass consensus. Can a crowd tell a story as well as an individual?

Maybe not. But that doesn't mean that NMAI's experiment in museum "by" its subjects is uninteresting or not worth repeating. Most of Elaine's worries in 1991 came in the form of questions: how can we, what will happen when we, how will people...? Even if NMAI failed to answer these questions completely (or authoritatively), their attempts help us understand the answers possible. It's time to start looking at where it succeeds and fails and what we can learn to refine our question-asking and draw up new sets of worries. NMAI is just the beginning of the experiment in culturally-defined museums. I'll give Elaine the last word ("Rick" is Rick West, director of NMAI):
It can be forgiven but will now have to fix it. I think what Rick did is heroic ideologically but not totally successful visually. It will be up to the next team to look the problem straight in the eye and have courage enough to try new and untried display techniques that match its message.

2 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

The wisdom of crowds or the peril of groupthink? What about the NMAI project made it fall into the latter but miss the former?

Is Web 2.0 about the emergent wisdom and creativity of multiple users? Why then advocate for singular designers? What's the useful synthesis between these dialectics?

"Good to Great"/"Built to Last" conclude that great leaders are humble geniuses who keep their hands lightly on the reigns. Yet history abounds with projects of great men (and even some women!) who acted passionately and unilaterally. Still, I suppose the Pyramids weren't built in a day, or even by just a few friends.

What place the leader in [2.0] collaboration, and what authority the group? When are rules necessary, when are they restrictive? Should we all just keep making it up as we go along, letting it evolve organically? Is the NMAI, then, merely to be footnoted, to be learned from not as a success but as a lesson in failure?


Anonymous said...

The Mashantucket Pequot museum, designed by a team that included local indigenous leadership, local archaeologists, and an extraordinary design firm called Design Division, opened in Ledyard Connecticut over a decade ago. Polshek Partners designed the building, which is quite radical and striking. The Mashantucket Pequot museum, designed by a team that included local indigenous leadership, local archaeologists, and an extraordinary design firm called Design Division, opened in Ledyard Connecticut over a decade ago. Polshek Partners designed the building, which is quite radical and striking. http://www.pequotmuseum.org/

The exhibit development process had many of the challenges described in your post. The resulting exhibits, somehow, are wonderful. They've reconstructed an entire village in full scale, have a deeply disturbing and complex movie about the tribes founding and disastrous contact with the Europeans (other native americans are among the villains.) All in all, it was a radical reimagining of how native americans are presented in museums.

There are several really interesting aspects to the museum. One, they had more money than god because they opened the Foxwoods Casino, which is adjacent to the Museum. Two, the tribe basically didn't exist for the last century, and the current members of the tribe are selected by a leadership council. Three, the museum houses a world class research center about the tribe and other northeastern woodland indians.

It would be worth talking to Mike Hanke, the director of Design Division, about this experience. It was the job of a lifetime for them and makes a fascinating story.