Decolonising the Museum: The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC

By Smith, Claire | Antiquity, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Decolonising the Museum: The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC


Smith, Claire, Antiquity


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. …

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