The Ongoing Debate Over Representational Museums On The Mall

The National Museum of the American Indian.

Virginia Rep. Jim Moran’s still hammering away at his proposal for a Museum of the American People on the National Mall with the idea that it would focus on the role of immigration and migration have played in American history. It’s an absolutely critical theme, but I’m concerned about any museum that’s built more on a swell of interest group support than on curatorial imperatives about what will make a strong, cohesive ongoing set of exhibits. If you look at the groups that Moran has signed up to support the museum, almost none of the organizations are primarily concerned with historical preservation and curation. There are a few exceptions, including the Chinese Historical Society of America, the NSU Creole Heritage Center, the Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the German-American Heritage Foundation of the USA, the American Irish Historical Society, the Swedish-American Historical Society, and the Great Plains Welsh Heritage Project (which I now kind of have an overwhelming desire to check out). I’m sympathetic to demands for representation on the Mall. But I don’t know that the German-American Citizens League of Greater Cincinnati is necessarily well-equipped to do more than demand representation.

It’s worth considering two examples of representational museums, one of which I think works fairly well, one of which I think is a considerable failure. The Holocaust Museum has an incredibly narrow mandate, which I think serves it well. And it serves that mandate by devoting most of the gallery space to a single permanent exhibition, so there’s less pressure to fill rotating gallery space with weaker narratives or exhibitions. There is rotating space, though, and when I was there, it was filled by an excellent exhibit on the route out of Germany through Asia some Jews were able to take due to accommodating customs officials. It was a part of the story I haven’t known anything about, and it was a good narrative exhibit.

By contrast, I’ve always been amazed by how weak the Museum of the American Indian is. Part of it is that the architecture doesn’t actually create a lot of gallery space, but I’ve never been exceptionally impressed by how that space has been used. One of the problems with creating a museum out of a sense of representational obligation is that you run the risk of ending up with fairly milquetoast exhibits in an effort not to anger any of your stakeholder. While it’s nice that there’s a Museum of the American Indian, and the cafeteria food is good, I’ve always wondered if Native Americans might be better served by much stronger integration of Native American history and culture into existing Smithsonian museums. A National History Museum exhibit about the Founding Fathers’ experiences on the western frontiers of colonial America and their later failures on Indian policy might reach a lot more people, and be a lot tougher and more informative.

It’s not that I don’t think that there’s a curatorial mandate for a museum about immigration and migration and how both forces shaped America. There are a lot of stories there to tell. But I want to hear the case from curators and historians. It would be a failure to get the Museum of the American People only to have it be accountable to too many groups with competing agendas to actually produce compelling exhibits.