The well-known Texas cattleman, Charles Goodnight, related that a Comanche shield he once procured was stuffed with the pages of a complete history of Rome…
—FROM THE COMANCHE SHIELD, SYMBOL OF IDENTITY, BY CHRISTOPHER H. BENTLEY, 1989
I decided to open my talk with an image of words, maybe not surprising since I make my living with words. I found these in a book about three years ago, and I made sure to have them taped to the walls of the various cubicles I’ve worked in ever since. For me, they were a piece of found history, a prophecy telling me the task I had been assigned was perhaps not completely impossible. Because if a single Comanche shield could hold the history of Rome, then perhaps a single Comanche, with the right comrades, could tell an even bigger story, maybe the biggest untold story of all.
I am the newest curator at the Museum, and work on this exhibit precedes my arrival by many years. It takes a small village—of curators, carpenters, researchers and electricians—to create an exhibition. In the forty-five minutes I have this afternoon, I must leave out much of the history of this history exhibit, but my curatorial team studied closely earlier incarnations of this exhibit, and I want to acknowledge and thank the many who came before me. They include framers like Dave Warren, and later Bruce Bernstein, Craig Howe, and Harvey Markowitz. Curators Cécile Ganteaume, Carmen Arellano, and Ramiro Matos have been key to this project for years.
The Our Peoples gallery is really nine exhibits. Eight are collaborative ventures between NMAI curators and people from Indian communities across the hemisphere. The ninth, comprising roughly half of the gallery space, tells this big untold story. This afternoon I’m going to talk about the curatorial team’s goals, successes, and failures for that exhibit. There are no unimportant exhibits in this building, and in my view there are also no total failures, or complete successes. However, this piece of real estate, in the clumsy language of museums bureaucracy known as the “NMAI curated section of Our Peoples” but one that I am going to call the Big Story, or sometimes Evidence, is in my opinion the raison d’etre for the existence of the Museum itself.
Awarding Indians the last open space on the National Mall was a profound act that showed the American government and its people wanted Indians to be part of a national conversation, to finally talk, seriously, and at the highest levels, about things we had never really talked about before. Let’s be clear: you don’t get a new museum right next to the Capitol itself for making excellent jewelry, or for having stories and songs, or religious beliefs you wish to share with the world. You get the last open space on the National Mall because the country’s decided, in the mysterious ways nations decide such matters, that it’s time, at last, to speak about the hard things, the painful things, the unspeakable things.
The National Museum of the American Indian project rests on a set of exquisite contradictions. The federal government has not always been a friend of Indian people. In fact, the U.S. for much of its history has targeted Indians for removal and physical destruction. We also aren’t too crazy about museums, and of all the museums in the world we probably like the Smithsonian the least. And did I mention our Museum is about all Indians throughout the Western Hemisphere, from the beginning of time up to the present? Actually I think we’re also supposed to be experts on the future too. The Museum is much more than the exhibits: it is public programs, books and CDs, the landscape, the ducks, the water and rocks. Our floor staff and cultural interpreters are, in a way, really part of the exhibits. And in the building itself, the café and gift shops are as much a part of the experience as the exhibits are. In fact, exhibits make up only about 30% of the space inside the Museum.
I was assigned to this project in January 2002. Although much work had been done on the larger narratives of Indian history, the Museum leadership believed no viable exhibit had emerged. I was given the authority to hire one outside person, and that choice was easy. Dr. Jolene K. Rickard is a Tuscarora artist and scholar who is also, in the opinion of many, the most talented Indian curator in the United States. Jolene curated two groundbreaking exhibitions in the 1990s that challenged conventional Iroquois thinking: In the Shadow of the Eagle, and Across Borders, Beadwork in Iroquois Life. She also worked as a Creative Director on Madison Avenue during the 1980s, and I knew that experience would prove valuable to the project. We had been colleagues for years, but had not collaborated on a project before. We did, however, have shared assumptions that allowed work to move quickly. The first shared assumption was that most shared assumptions are wrong. Our practice is grounded in deep skepticism. We relentlessly interrogate everything, including each other. If she tells me the sun will rise in the East tomorrow morning, I’ll probably call the observatory in Greenwich to see if her story checks out.
Jolene believes that an exhibition should present something that has never been done before, and not repackage knowledge that already exists. It should use objects to provide an experience you cannot have any other way. She believes it should generate controversy, questions, discussion, and yes, argument. She also believes there is no safe space inside the museum: the museum is always part of the larger social forces in the world. For red people, that space is highly problematic. We focused early on how to make the exhibit one where the anthropological gaze, previously one that showed Indians on display, trapped in an ideological prison, would be returned by Indian people. She also believes a great exhibit should be both visually and intellectually challenging. Oh, and they should also be drop dead beautiful.
The other person there from the beginning was my boss, Dr. Ann McMullen. She has always been key in this project, and oversaw both the work Jolene and I did as well as the eight community spaces.
I wrote a statement of intent for the exhibit in February 2002. Though we had little time, and not so much money either, we did not lack for ambition. Here’s an excerpt:
What really happened?
For the Americas, this question has never been satisfactorily answered. The usual replies are punch lines and cartoons, amnesia and denial, or not quite believable tales of paradise and conquest, generals and natives. It is not a question serious adults ask out loud, since asking it is proof of naiveté or bad manners, yet it preoccupies Americans – north and south – all the same. The continent is filled with Indian-named streets and rivers, corporations and sports teams, and mountains and cities. This untold past is everywhere, in the landscape and the air we breathe, and it’s not even past, and we all know it. Confusingly, millions of Indians are still here too, living all over the place: in cities, jungles, suburbs, in the shadow of pyramids and shopping malls. Everywhere you look, there it is, asking the same question few ask but everyone still wonders about. What really happened, and why?
We conclude the answer is the biggest story never told: the rise and fall and rise of the Americas, the ways America changed Europe, Africa and Asia, and how Europe changed America, a story featuring Indians as actors on the world stage and not merely victims. It is a story of changing worlds and how people managed that change in often, surprising, ingenious ways. … the greatest mass human extinction in history, and the countless ways Indians survived and triumphed in the face of adversity. It is a story where Indians are partners in global markets, savvy diplomats, and eager consumers of new technology. It brings into focus a hemisphere that before contact was outrageously diverse, deliciously complex, endlessly fascinating, and one that would become only more so with every passing century.
It is a story with Indians at the center but also, by definition, relevant to every visitor, whose identity and personal history is shaped by those events. We argue understanding this hemisphere and your place in it is impossible without investigating the centrality of the Indian experience. We argue it changed everything, it changed you. Further, we advise visitors that just about everything you know about this story is wrong. That goes for red people too.
We will privilege beautiful stories and objects and ruthlessly edit out the mediocre ones. This story is so extraordinary, so important, so different than what people expect and think, and yet at the same time precisely what our visitors, especially our Indian visitors are hoping for; finally, to learn a bit about what really did happen.
We’re going to tell them. To do so this must become the most exciting, the most controversial, the most moving and talked about exhibition in Washington. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum currently holds that position, and we pay them our highest compliment by declaring today our ambition to put them in second place.
Okay, so that looks pretty silly right now. I wrote those words not out of delirious ambition, but because I believed the story demanded such an exhibition. I’ll say more about this later.
As I would be reminded hundreds of times during the following months by Jolene and others, a museum exhibition is a visual experience, and people don’t go to museums to read essays by Paul Chaat Smith. I did some research and it turned out that, tragically, this was the case.
So Jolene presented her vision for Evidence in April 2002. She said the physical space must reflect the exhibit’s central idea that history changes and is a matter of perspective. And it must look contemporary, and begin the process we’d started to name as gently destabilizing the space for visitors. She referenced the sculptor Richard Serra, and suggested his curving, disorienting walls offered a way for the exhibit to become experiential.
By then our designers, Verena Pierik and Lynn Emi Kawaratani were on board, and they embraced and improved these concepts.
The crucial early decisions about content repositioned the exhibit so that all visitors, Indians, non-Indians, tourists from Beijing, would be challenged. Our central message was this: Contact was the biggest thing ever, the most profound and momentous event in recorded human history. It created the world we know today. It places Indians, and the Indian experience, at the very center of world history.
Now there are lot of problems with that message. It’s counterintuitive, even though it’s factually sound and not disputed by scholars and historians. But it is so different than how most people understand Indians that it feels like it can’t be true. If there really were as many people in the Americas as lived in Europe, why wasn’t I taught that in school?
The problem isn’t that it’s controversial. It’s something else, what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance: defined as a psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously. That’s what happens when you tell visitors of wealth Europeans had never imagined.
This becomes extremely problematic when designing an exhibit for a mainstream audience, because museums traditionally are not about challenging visitors most deeply held beliefs.
Some people, both Indian and non-Indian, believed the Museum could merely act as tape recorder, and bring back the unfiltered truth of Indian history, philosophy, and contemporary life. That didn’t match the vibrant, disputatious Indian world Jolene and I knew. And you’re always up against what I’ve come to regard as the great cosmic joke about Indians: we’re portrayed as simple, even cartoon-like, and the terrible truth is that our lives and history and philosophies are absurdly complicated.
We believe there is always a filter.
Jolene and I also believe the Indian world is vast, so complicated, so endlessly surprising, that no one could possible claim to know more than a small piece of it.
For direction we closely studied two projects: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The first teaches that this work is more art than science, and insight in the human condition and the human heart is more valuable than a million visitor surveys. There is probably not a single Vietnam vet who, if asked, would have described the appropriate memorial for their service as a slab of black granite adorned with nothing more than names. It would have sounded cold and sterile to nearly all of them. Yet history shows that is precisely, exactly, what they wanted. Maya Lin’s genius insight made those walls the most beloved memorial in Washington. She knew how to understand what people wanted, and not just listen to what people said.
The second taught us the value of understatement, the importance using real artifacts, and most importantly, the rewards of respecting the intelligence of viewers. USHMM breaks every museum rule about how long text labels can be, or how educated visitors in Washington’s museums are, and has defied expectations by creating a massive audience of people willing to spend half a day, even an entire day, reading labels that are more than 75 words long. The creators of the permanent exhibit at USHMM gambled that the conventional wisdom was wrong, and that millions of people craved deep knowledge about the Holocaust, and not superficial treatment.
I always believed, and still believe, NMAI has the same kind of potential audience out there, an audience of readers, people who want depth beyond what 75 word labels can deliver.
And I deeply respected a singular part of the USHMM exhibit, and that is the one that happens the night before at home, when out of town visitors are debating whether they are up for a visit to the Holocaust Museum. I’m sure many of you have had that experience. I have friends here who love museums and to this day think they are not ready. That is an extraordinary achievement that is also completely appropriate for a Holocaust Museum.
NMAI was never meant to be a holocaust museum. Yet it was also determined to portray this part of our history. When I think today about the failure of the Big Story to even come close to that kind of emotional power, I believe one reason is the mandate to tell the darkest of stories right next to exhibits that are celebrating life. Elie Wiesel famously spoke of the holocaust as “the kingdom of night,” and resisted all attempts to find silver linings. Curators initially opposed giving much attention to interventions like that of Oskar Schindler, because however noble his rescues were, they had no impact on the Nazi machine. How different would the permanent exhibit at USHMM have been if relegated to a single floor, or even two floors, alongside other exhibits that focused on the bright side of that era, or if the Museum was not about the holocaust but instead about Jewish life? The relentlessness of the permanent exhibit is perhaps its greatest strength.
Now, let me talk about the biggest story never told. It begins with a single word: EVIDENCE. We imagined the exhibit as a beautiful excavation site, where history is buried, lost, and found. The first installation, a blast of white, like a fresh layer of snow on a frozen lake, reveals objects beneath the surface. We are telling visitors several things here: what you see depends on where you look, things change, and this Indian history museum is going to look nothing like an Indian history museum is supposed to.
The second installation is called 1491, a teeming convention of contrarians, figurines, lots of whom don’t look especially Indian. They are from all over, and made of stone, wood, silver, jade. A label describes the Americas as half the world, and Americans as numbering in the tens of millions. “Their world is ancient and modern, and forever changing, with memories from the beginning of everything. The figures standing before you knew this world. Many spent centuries underground, until farmers, tomb raiders, road builders and archeologists brought them to light. Like their human descendants, they are survivors of a buried past.” The key ideas here are ancient, always changing, tens of millions of people, and incredible diversity. This is the first time we use something called repetition with difference: 250 objects that are similar but completely distinct from one another. This allowed us to get at the complexity of the Indian experience without reducing it to a few generalities.
Past 1491, you find a wall of gold. Why gold? We chose wealth and dispossession as the central organizing principle of the exhibit. We wanted to present visitors with a new, and unsettling idea of pre-contact America as a rich place. We describe late 15th century Europe as a place where there was a shortage of gold and silver for money, and Peru’s Cuzco as a place where gold was used on the side of buildings, and a garden where the dirt itself was made of gold. We don’t say this was typical in 1491, and are careful not to say life in the Inca Empire was better than life in Northern California. We focus on wealth, power and abundance. In less than a dozen labels we show how Spanish businessmen seized that gold by kidnapping the Incan leader Atahualpa. And how that gold made Spain the superpower of Europe and the largest empire since the days of Julius Caesar. And how perhaps 20 million died not from disease but as a direct result of the greatest transfer of wealth in history.
The curving S wall that began with the people of 1491 ends with a column of fire and a quote from Eduardo Galeano. Nobody has written better about the Big Story than Galeano. Across from the gold is a free-standing installation called Ocean, which tells visitors our thesis: that contact between the world’s two halves was the most profound event in human history, and changed everything. On the other side of the Ocean is a wall that tells the story of two invasions: Seventeen ships, named for the number of craft in Columbus second voyage to the Americas, and Infinite Thousands, about the unprecedented biological catastrophe that forever shaped the way colonialism would function in this hemisphere. In this section, we say this: “The explosion of death was one of the greatest tragedies in human history because it was unintended and unavoidable, and even inevitable. What happened in its wake was not.”
In this section we wanted our visitors, particularly our Indian visitors, to reflect on events we have no direct memory of. In North America, our disease narratives go back only to the 19th century. As terrible as those events were, they were nothing like the pandemics that destroyed up to 90% of the native population.
Then we offer a room full of George Catlin masterpieces, each one numbered and crammed together.
There is also a portrait of George Gustav Heye, and here we tell the creation story of NMAI. Without Heye’s obsession to collect Indian things in vast quantities, there is no National Museum of the American Indian.
Here we most directly reverse the gaze, and present the tools of the collector for observation and study.
A video, shot in this building, at our research facility a few miles away in Suitland, and also in the National Arboretum, puts our cards on the table. We tell visitors that although the past never changes, the way we understand it changes all the time. We say that all histories have agendas, including ours.
Floyd Favel, a noted Plains Cree playwright, walks through columns that, believe it or not, once held up the East Portico of the United States Capitol. Every president from Andrew Jackson through Dwight Eisenhower walked through them, which were removed in the late 1950s. Elegiac and beautiful, this location was suggested by our friends at Interface Media Group.
In the center of the gallery, we created three walls we named, perhaps unimaginatively, The Storm. We kept asking ourselves what are the forces that confronted Indian people across the hemisphere, and concluded pretty much everyone was familiar with firearms, Christianity, and the power of governments not our own. Labels describe these forces as making us Indians, giving us shared experiences that those people back in 1491 never had. Inside the walls, another media piece describes the biggest of storms, the hurricane, as a force that creates and destroys, and as a teacher. In the closest thing to a joke we could come up with in this dark exhibit, Floyd Favel asks if there’s anything more Indian than a Winchester rifle, except maybe a horse. At the very center of a hurricane is the eye, in this case an extraordinary work of conceptual art by Edward Poitras.
Evidence seeks to upend one of the most enduring beliefs about Indian people: that we fear change, and are only really Indian as long as we don’t change, or don’t change very much. Evidence argues that we love change, have always changed, and that change is key to our survival.
Okay, so there you have it: Evidence. Creating this exhibit was unbelievably difficult, much harder than writing a book which practically killed me, and I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have been part of it. The exhibit is massively imperfect, yet it achieves many of the goals we set. I am very grateful to have had the chance to work on this project, and particularly want to thank Lynn Emi Kawaratani and Verena Pierik, the two finest designers on the East Coast.
I also want to address a few other issues. Like this label. My relatives loved it, but having my name plastered on label after label is really embarrassing. As a professional writer, it’s like signing each paragraph. It also misrepresents authorship. I mean, really, what do you think is more important to know: who imagined the gold wall, or who wrote the labels? Who spoke the fifty words on the wall of a tribal exhibit, or who chose those fifty words out of fifty thousand to put in the exhibit? This is something the curatorial department is looking at now and perhaps we’ll find more accurate ways to let visitors know who created the exhibits.
As everyone knows, the opening was a fantastic success. The procession drew 80,000 people, the building has been a hit, and we just had our millionth visitor. The exhibits, however, have taken a beating in the press. People say, Paul, what’s it like reading those reviews that describe your exhibit as a public service announcement, or homogenized pap? I tell them, you know what, truthfully, it’s not so great. When Herb Rosen and I decided to end the Making History video by exhorting visitors to reflect on our exhibit, encounter it, and argue with it, who knew the press would be so obedient? If only we’d changed the last three words to “Write gushing reviews….” Anyway, I thought nearly all of the reviews made valid points, and many were painfully on target.
However, I would like to take this opportunity to correct a few factual mistakes. For example, The Denver Post reported in November that in this Museum “American Indians hold all the key leadership positions.” Actually, in the countless meetings about this project over the last three and a half years, I was usually one of just a couple of Indians, and quite often the only Indian in the room. Our splendid Director W. Richard West, and his splendid Special Assistant Gerald McMaster are both reds, and they had final authority over the exhibit content. But for those concerned that a large pack of dour, non-hegemonic Indian non-scholars have taken over a Smithsonian museum, I can assure them no such thing has happened. Indians are a minority at the Indian museum, and are especially a minority on the content and exhibit side of things. We are nothing to be afraid of, just a thin red line of government workers surrounded mostly by white folks who are also government workers (and often some of the nicest people you’d ever meet), making our way as best we can.
My hope for the Museum is that in this next chapter we become both more ambitious, and more humble. As far as the white folks are concerned, I think this biggest of all stories should attract the sharpest minds from all over the planet, and the color of their skin matters not at all. Expertise, scholarship, experience, creative thinking is what counts. My closest intellectual partner inside the Museum has been Ann McMullen, and last time I checked she was beige. I also know that telling stories of Indian America is a challenging task, and though it’s possible that someone, either Indian or not, could fly into some Indian community for a few weeks with no expertise, scholarship or experience and come back with something worthwhile, it is pretty unlikely. World class exhibitions require world class scholars and designers and thinkers, and being world class has always been this Museum’s destiny.
Jack Valenti, boss of the Motion Picture Association of America, was asked once why there are so many bad movies. He said it’s because in this country, we make 500 movies a year, and we don’t have enough talent to make 500 good movies. Making exhibits, I think, is not so different. It requires talent, skill, and luck. We never came close to dethroning the Holocaust Museum, but we’re just getting started.
I spoke at the beginning of my talk about the museum as a site of a national conversation. We are the very beginning of that conversation, and like any difficult conversation, it can be rough going, especially at first. Let’s keep arguing, because at least it means we’re talking. And of course by now you know I’m talking also about arguments among Indians, not just those boring arguments between Indians and cowboys. But we’ll get better at this, because we have to. I mean, it’s not like anyone’s going anywhere, right?
I’m going to close with the exhibition’s last label. It’s called All My Relations.
Entire nations perished in the wave of death that swept the Americas. Even their names are lost to us. We cannot tell you where they lived, what they believed, or what they dreamed. Their experiences are buried and unknowable. Like much of Indian history, we have only fragments.
This wall lists the names of our relatives who are still here, with those of ancestors who vanished without a trace. The list will always be incomplete, ruptured, and fragmented. It can never be whole.
Nine of ten perished. One in ten survived. All Indians alive today are here because our ancestors used intelligence, skill, planning, strategy and sacrifice. They didn’t fear change; they embraced it. They survived because they fought for change on our terms.
Their past lives in our present. As descendents of the one in ten who wake up in the 21st century, we share an inheritance of grief, loss, hope, and immense wealth. The brilliant achievements of our ancestors make us accountable for how we move in the world today. Their lessons instruct us, and make us responsible for remembering everything, especially those things we never knew.
Thank you for listening.