Thursday, January 13, 2005

Coke Cans and Indians

As if the new Indian museum on the National Mall isn’t already a joke.

When I visited recently, I was impressed only by the architecture, and the lobby especially, in which you enter a vertiginous central cavern that goes all the way to the building’s ceiling. The "collection," if you can call it that, is scattered about on floors extending outward in a circular fashion, not unlike the Guggenheim’s setup.

But what they have on display is pathetic. In one window case, there were some everyday crafts by a Canadian tribe (speaking of which, there is absolutely no uniformity or even thoughtfulness behind the museum’s use of terms like tribe, nation, people, etc.), including, on one shelf, a coke can and an ordinary hot beverage thermos. Whether these had been left behind by construction workers or were deemed, somehow, illustrative of Indian culture I cannot say. The signage for the display ignored most of its contents. In fact, the museum’s collection properly speaking receives only a fraction of the attention that is lavished on the subject of living Indians of North and South America. Head-dresses, weapons, totem polls, all the beautiful, intricate ceremonial pieces one associates with this massive indigenous civilization are little in evidence.

It was an example of curating, not by committee, but by a committee of committees. And the committee of committees took as their goal making visitors aware of present-day Indian culture. So, what is essentially a dead culture is treated as if it were vibrant by emphasizing the current activist aspect of the Indian American experience. Funny, French culture, just to take an example, because it is living, can be treated as if it is dead. You can have a show of 17th century French art in which contemporary France is not even mentioned. But Indian culture, because it is a shell of its former greatness, cannot be treated that way. And as a result Indian culture actually seems less great.

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