The development of national institutions such as museums and art galleries coincided with the emergence of colonialism and imperialism, and consequently such institutions were saturated with notions of racial difference and human classification popular at the time (Foley 2000). Colonialism was inextricably intertwined with the notion of researching exotic lands and their populations and establishing what Said (1978) calls the 'positional superiority' of the colonisers. Each new collection of objects evoked the conceptualisation of a place and a people previously unknown to Europeans. Placed in museums, these objects were 'transformed by their context into something that could be seen both as exotic and as typifying a place or people' (Fox 1992), their very existence symbolising the ability of Europeans to obtain control over uncharted worlds. This occurred at both the centres and peripheries of colonial worlds. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith notes:
... research became institutionalised in the colonies, not just through academic disciplines, but through learned and scientific societies and scholarly networks. The transplanting of research institutions, including universities, from the imperial centres of Europe enabled local scientific interests to be organized and embedded in the colonial system. (Smith 1999: 8)
The discourse of colonialism informs the design of museum exhibits in a number of specific ways, and can be identified with three governing concepts: the boundary, the label, and the meta-narrative. The 'boundary' is important because it allows the classification of collections according to time and space as well as the dichotommies essential to colonialism such as that of 'self' and 'other'. The 'label' is important because it demonstrates that the unknown is known, and that the world can be ordered. The 'metanarrative' is important because it establishes the authority of the institution as well as the positional superiority of the colonisers. Taken together, these three concepts shape the exhibits of the colonial museum, normalising the power relations inherent in cultural hegemony. Challenging these concepts is an essential step in the decolonisation of the museum.
The challenges faced by the designers of the National Museum of the American Indian have been great. Located at the interface between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, the over-riding hurdle was that of shaping what is essentially a Western medium (and one which can be interpreted as the epitome of the Western penchant to order and control both past and present), to convey Native history in such a way that it is guided by Native philosophies, but aimed at a primarily non Native audience. The touchstone guiding the Museum through these challenges has been its mission statement:
The National Museum of the American Indian shall recognize and affirm to Native communities and the non-Native public the historical and contemporary cultural achievements of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere by advancing, in consultation, collaboration, and cooperation with Native people, knowledge and understanding of Native cultures, including art, history, and language, and by recognizing the museum's special responsibility, through innovative public programming, research, and collections, to protect, support, and enhance the development, maintenance, and perpetuation of Native culture and community.
Director W. Richard West, Jr, a Southern Cheyenne and former Chair of the American Association of Museums, saw the shaping of the NMAI as a choice between a 'temple' where interpretations are determined by a disciplinary elite and a 'forum' for the sharing of knowledge between Native and non-Native groups (West 2002). Embedded in the concept of forum is the notion of a living heritage as a fundamental reality that must be represented, as the NMAI takes on a special responsibility to protect, support and enhance the development, maintenance and perpetuation of Native culture and community. In pursuing this aim, a museum was created that was shaped by the voices and worldviews of Native peoples. The installations were underpinned by five principles (West 2002):
Community: our tribes are sovereign nations. Locality: this is Indian land. Vitality: we are here now. Viewpoint: we know the world differently. Voice: these are our stories.
This scheme of knowledge is given material substance in the manner that objects in the collections are arranged and described. Deriving from Indigenous conceptual readings of the world, the classificatory systems of the NMAI reveal a holistic concern with the relationships between plants, animals, humans and places as well as between past and present. This is contrary to non-Indigenous classification systems, being based on neither the Linnean system of linking similarities of features, nor the tradition of Cutter's system of locating items in place, preferably adjacent to other items which share similar features (see Mathe 1998; Chanda 2001).
Constructed with the conscious aim of transforming relations between Native and non-Native people, the establishment of the NMAI had the potential to transform the organisation of knowledge in a number of ways--by changing the sense of historical memory and, in the case of national museums, the sense of national identity. This meant challenging the authority of existing institutions. Shaped within contemporary postcolonial discourse, the very notion of a National Museum of the American Indian had the potential to allow visitors to rethink the history of Native peoples and, since history is written by victors, to establish the triumph of Native peoples over the adversities of colonialism. Why, then, are some people disappointed, confused or angry?
Creation of the NMAI
The NMAI is the first national museum dedicated to the preservation, study, and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history and arts of Native Americans. It was originally established in 1989 with the collections of the former Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, in New York. However, its centrepiece facility, the museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC did not open until 21 September 2004. This $200 million institution also incorporates a research centre in Suitland, Maryland, where tribal visitors can hold ceremonies as part of a shared stewardship of the objects (see Sides 2004); and the George Gustav Heye Center, located in New York City. Taken together, these facilities hold responsibility for the management and interpretation of the world's largest collection of Native American artefacts.
The celebrations surrounding the opening of the new museum on the Mall attracted extensive national media attention, an important occurrence in a country where the injurious effects of colonialism on Indigenous peoples have been over-shadowed by that other travesty of human rights, slavery. The feeling of empowerment that Native Americans felt during these celebrations was almost tangible. More than 17 000 people registered for the Native Nations Procession along the Mall, which started symbolically at the National Museum of Natural History, …