A note on Washington DC
I arrived in the nation’s capital on a sunny day and got the stupid tourist’s rush when I saw the Capitol Building for the first time. DC is like Canberra but with more to do. The metro whizzes you around really easily and getting out of DC to Arlington or Baltimore is super easy. It is also home to a truck load of museums, half of which I won’t see. There are also about a million apoplectic journalists filing reports, particularly around Capitol Hill due to the recent sacking of FBI director James Comey.
I’ve made the decision to stay just out of town in Maryland. There’s a Metro station right next door so getting into the middle of things only takes 15 minutes on the Orange line. I was, however regretting this decision given how awesome DC itself is. That fell away, however as I had one of those “perfect moments” walking home past a deer, stopped to drink from a stream in the middle of the forrest that I’m staying next to. So it goes.
The Museum of the American Indian
The Smithsonian Institution is an organisation charged with the “diffusion of knowledge” and has 19 museums in its collection across the country. I’ll be seeing a few of these but today’s offering was the Museum of the American Indian whose remit covers the cultures and histories of Native Americans of the Western Hemisphere. It was established in 2004 and has three other facilities including the beautiful Douglas Cardinal designed DC building, another in New York City and a research facility way out in Maryland. The building itself takes pride of place on the National Mall, wedged between the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the United States Botanic Garden. I am now becoming accustomed to the omnipresent security screenings.
Once inside the building, however you finally get a sense of its breathtaking scale. The limestone clad, wavy exterior gives way to an airy, cavernous interior. A Guggenheim-esque stepped, circular windowed ceiling caps the vast main hall replete with huge banners stating the themes of the museum: Living Earth, Community, Encounter and Expression.
The Museum of the American Indian – lower floor (click to explore)
Confusingly, a large sign on top of the ground floor elevators informs you that it would be a good idea to “Start Your Visit in Lelawi Theatre, 4th Level”. I obey and proceed to the fourth level only to find said Lelawi Theatre in the middle of the introductory documentary which will not begin its loop again for another half an hour. Unperturbed in enter the first exhibit that encompasses a brief overview of several Native American nations in labyrinthine enclaves surrounded a central axis representing the cosmos. Most exhibits give a pictorial diagram of how each nation envisages the universe and their place within in followed by a central chamber which overviews their culture, traditional dress and architecture. The pathway is quite ingenious and gives a sliver of an understanding as to the diversity of Native American nations and their cultures.
A following exhibit gives a historical background to the many treaties forged between Native Americans and the early colonists post-Independence. Many of these treaties were subsequently ignored as the many thousands of colonists arrived from Europe and were hungry for resources as the they veraciously spread west. Interestingly, each didactic panel gives a dual viewpoint – that of the Native nation and that of the European nation. This binary gives some insight into the complexity of the historical viewpoint the United States finds itself in in the present day.
One floor down there’s a space dedicated to revolving exhibitions which today houses a really cool retrospective of Native American photographer Horace Poolaw whose photos spanning 50s years from the 1920s reveal the incongruous and often objectified nature of Native American culture in what has been seen as quintessential images of middle America during times of huge cultural upheaval.
Horace Poolaw exhibition
The food court downstairs was lacking diners on the day of my visit but boasts Native American inspired food and beverages from the Northwest Coast and Meso America.
The huge, celebratory nature of this building and institution for me begs the question, why is there no physical institution solely dedicated to the history and present day culture of first Australians? While the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander exhibit at the National Museum of Australia and, in particular the First Peoples exhibit at Museum Victoria are great it’s surely time that a dedicated museum celebrating the diversity of Aboriginal Australia should exist in Canberra as a monument in the same way the Museum of the American Indian is as a state-run entity in Washington DC.
Digital engagement: A few tired touch displays give fascinating additional content plus the "Infinity of Nations" app which uses old iOS standard UI, is not optimised for devices post iPhone 5 so cuts off in some places. Great hi-res images, though and plenty of additional content.
The Peale Center
A short train ride away in Baltimore is the Peale Center, originally the Peale Museum and was originally the first building in the Western Hemisphere to be built solely for the purpose of being a museum. It was founded by naturalist Charles Peale with his son Rembrandt Peale. Other ostentatiously named children of Peale include Titian, Raphaelle, Rubens and Sophonisba. Titian actually went on to become an incredibly accomplished naturalist in his own right and created beautifully coloured etchings of insects amongst other things. The museum contained Peale’s vast collection including the “Feejee Mermaid”, purportedly a real mermaid but in reality an amalgamation of a monkey corpse with a fish tail.
I had actually already heard about Peale from the introductory exhibit at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles whose similar collection of curiosities harks back to an earlier time in the museum movement. The collection was eventually sold off and a spread around the world and the building laid bare. It has been through several incarnations since and is now under the directorship of Nancy Proctor who I met in St Louis. She had me along on this particular evening for a kind of show and tell for some of the planned programming for the building into the future. Under Nancy, and after some pretty serious renovations, the Peale Center will become a cultural institution celebrating the culture, history and neighbourhoods of Baltimore. Part of this particular evening involved a showing of a large scale project that takes over the building with immersive installations on all 3 levels and brings some of its earlier inhabitants back to life, creates a few fictions and speculates on the role of the museum both in the past and into the future. There is a lot of this interpretive strategy going on in the US at the moment – using immersive environments to skew truth and history. Partly, I’m sure this has been spurred on by Punch Drunk’s ‘Sleep No More’ which everyone is still raging on about. I’m sure there is an essay about truth, speculations, fake news and lies I could write that is encompassing American culture right now but that perhaps is for another time.
Digital Engagement: TBC however Nancy is also executive director of MuseWeb so watch this space...