The National Museum of Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 29 2004 11:24 AM

The National Museum of Ben Nighthorse Campbell

The Smithsonian's new travesty.

(Continued from Page 1)

The National Museum of the American Indian is backed into this corner by its mission of "survivance," a term (invented 10 years ago by an Anishinaabe scholar named Gerald Vizenor) that elevates the survival of ancient culture from the realm of fact to that of dogma. Survivance, as defined in the museum's exhibit, "Our Lives: Contemporary Lives and Identities," requires "doing what is necessary to keep our cultures alive." At the museum, that means willing into being an unchanging continuum between past and present that doesn't really exist. Yes, many beliefs and practices of these tribal cultures survive to this day. But it's absurd to suggest that, even with recent improvements in tribal economies—many of them achieved without building casinos—Native Americans live the same way in the 21st century as they did in the 16th. I'm not aware that any aboriginal culture in the world can plausibly make that claim at this late date. The continuum message is also condescending to the many Native Americans who revere their cultural inheritance but nonetheless live the way the rest of us do, surfing the Web, shopping at Wal-Mart, and so on. Modernity is no longer the "white man's ways." It's multicultural, and I can't imagine any Native American responding kindly if told he didn't belong.

The museum didn't have to be like this. Its satellite branch in Lower Manhattan, which opened in 1994, labels its artifacts conscientiously. The permanent collection on which the new museum draws is apparently quite vast and impressive, and the building itself is a beauty. (Regrettably, its distinguished Native American architect, Douglas Cardinal, was fired before he completed the job, and today he says the Smithsonian treated him like "Tonto.") One wishes that the curators would treat the older work with the same ease and frankness they treat recent work, like its exhibit on Native Modernism, which takes the trouble to provide some context for sculptures by two bona fide artists, George Morrison and Alan Houser.

Advertisement

I have to believe that those responsible for the museum's botched debut have felt the sting of public opprobrium and will make changes that encourage the public to take it more seriously. Experienced museum directors (West is not one; previously, he was a law partner in the Washington office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson) seek legitimacy among scholars, and we can probably expect quiet changes in that direction over the next few years. Native Americans, too, will likely chafe over the museum's amateurishness—if not now, then after the achievement of getting it built fades into memory.  But why should we have to wait? The Smithsonian should have gotten it right the first time.

Slate intern Louisa Herron Thomas provided research assistance for this article.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 30 2014 2:36 PM This Court Erred The Supreme Court has almost always sided with the wealthy, the privileged, and the powerful, a new book argues.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Lexicon Valley
Sept. 30 2014 1:23 PM What Can Linguistics Tell Us About Writing Better? An Interview with Steven Pinker.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 6:44 PM Ebola Was Already Here How the United States contains deadly hemorrhagic fevers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.