The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations

Walter C. Fleming
2011 Journal of American Ethnic History  
The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations is the first scholarly examination of the many and complex issues surrounding the founding and development of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The NMAI has become the site for a national conversation concerning the right of indigenous people to tell their own story as well as the product of new thinking about museums among indigenous people and museum professionals. The National Museum of the
more » ... can Indian opened on September 21, 2004, after years of planning and development. Almost immediately, voices were raised in both praise and criticism. These pundits included Indians and non-Indians, analysts and activists, scholars and journalists, laypeople and museum experts. In the ensuing years, editors Amy Lonetree and Amanda J. Cobb have recognized the need to record and share these conversations and did so as guest editors for two special issues of American Indian Quarterly. Critical Conversations includes essays from those issues as well as essays that appeared elsewhere. Contributors to this volume include art historians, anthropologists, Native American Studies/ethnic studies scholars, and museum specialists. Critical Conversations is divided into four sections. The first is "History and Development," exploring the evolution of the NMAI. The second section, titled "Indigenous Methodology and Community Collaboration," outlines the collaboration between museum professionals and Native communities. The third part, "Interpretations and Responses," focuses on reactions to NMAI opening exhibits and "Indigenous museology" (p. xiv). The fourth section, "Questions of Nation and Identity," examines the place of the NMAI with respect to other members of the Smithsonian family, national and international institutions, and tribal cultural centers. The book contains Native voices, but not a unity of voices. Instead, it presents a complexity of voices, both triumphant and critical. From its inception, the NMAI sought not only to represent the best of contemporary museum theory and practice, but also to change the antiquated representations of Native people and their lives that marked exhibitions in the past. It sought extensive consultation with Native people about what they wanted their museum to be. This resulted, in part, in a fo-
doi:10.5406/jamerethnhist.31.1.0087 fatcat:zsb24dwlyndnjlzcfwgwvsygz4