Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Architecture of the National Museum of the American Indian

Yesterday, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian with a class, and we got the amazing chance to speak with Kevin Gover, the museum director. 
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The idea for the museum was established in 1989, and it opened in 2004.  NMAI is now an undulating, sand colored building, not much more than a stone’s throw away from the US capitol building.  A museum’s architecture is almost always a key symbol of its cultural meaning, and the architecture of the NMAI is rich with symbolism.  Just as the institution itself is trying to bring together the Native American cultures with the Euro-American ideas of collection and display in a balanced way, the architecture of the NMAI balances undulating, earthy elements with neoclassical aesthetic aspects.  Here are some interesting things that struck me about the architecture and what it might symbolize:

-       Placement.  I already mentioned how close NMAI is to the Capitol building.  Its central placement reminds us of the need for the US to recognize the centrality of the American Indian story to our national narrative.  The Capitol building is on a hill, towering above all the museums on the mall, so there is still a sense of power discrepancy.  However, as I sat with my class in the conference room at the top floor of NMAI, and looked out the windows at the Capitol building, it felt almost as if the two buildings are in dialog with each other.  NMAI’s placement symbolizes hope for a more just relationship between the US government and American Indians moving forward. 

-       Size.  The National Gallery of Art, the Natural History Museum, the Air and Space Museum are huge dominating structures, and the NMAI is as giant as the rest of them. I felt tiny walking through the front door.  Enormity can evoke a lot of things –power and intimidation, for example, but in this context, it seems to evoke a sense of permanence and longevity.  The NMAI isn’t yet 10 years old, and yet when you walk up to it, its presence is so dominant that you can’t imagine this space without it. 

-       Neoclassical connections.  It surprised me, looking around yesterday, to realize that the central space of the NMAI is shaped rather like the Roman Pantheon, with a spherical dome roof, ending in an oculus.  Museums have been built for decades with Greek and Roman architecture, but I figured that the NMAI would be trying to distance itself from classical museum practices that so degraded Indians.  Yet as I thought about it, I realized that the Pantheon-like dome was actually totally appropriate.  NMAI doesn’t want to erase museum history; it wants to repurpose the power of it to create a museum of more equality and justice.  The dome acknowledges this link architecturally. 
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-       Undulating, Sandstone walls, and the emphasis in the display design inside on circles.  This feels earthy, windblown.  Even a visitor not interested in or educated in architecture is going to notice this connection.  Is a deep connection to the earth part of American Indians’ identities?  The choice of the earthy architecture answers resoundingly yes. 
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1 comment:

  1. I agree with you on all points Lex. The architecture also reminds me a lot of Frank Lloyd Write mixed with Frank Gehry. (Plenty of cantilevers, much more horizontal than vertical, the undulating walls, and the play with building/nature)