A Tale of Two Museums — The Holocaust Museum and the Museum of the American Indian

Many thoughts rise to the surface after a trip to D.C. But from them all, I’m going to pick only one: the experience of going to the new Museum of the American Indian and then to the Holocaust Museum.

Let me start with the Holocaust Museum. It is a brilliant, chilling, unrelenting narrative of the crimes of the German people during World War Two. I choose my words carefully when I say “German people” rather than “Nazi regime,” for this is an indictment not only of what was done in the name of racial purification, but of what was not done by those who stood by while it happened. There is no mercy here; no hint of understanding or sympathy for innocent bystanders caught up in the sweep of history — nor should there be. This is a documentary indictment, built with the cold clarity of a legal case. It is filled with a frozen anger that is not only warranted, but appropriate. “Let the dead speak and tell their stories, and the rest of you just shut up and listen” is the way I would describe it in the vernacular. From the moment you climb into the heavy steel elevators that will take you to the exhibit, and listen to the cold clunk of the closing elevator doors, you are forced to follow out a story that you may not wish to learn, but from which you will be allowed no relief.

You ride to the fourth floor, are let out of the elevator, and begin a directed walk through a darkened exhibition hallway that is alive with photographs, text, artifacts, and videos. The entire experience is dark and directed. There are no brightly lit seating areas; the layout of the exhibition allows for no casual meanderings from place to place. It is directed; you are directed; you are owned and claimed. If you don’t read, you still can’t escape, because you are forced to hear and see.

It starts with the rise of the Nazis and their claim on the long tradition of anti-semitism, continues to the actual crimes and brutalities of the wartime German policies, and finishes with a revelation of what was found when the camps were liberated, and what was done after the fact by the allies.

The entire journey, done with even the slightest degree of diligence, takes over three hours. The museum is stark, industrial — made of brick and girders — and devoid of light except in the passages where you go between the sections, in the main entry area, and in the brilliantly stark yet peaceful memorial room that ends the exhibition.

It is one of the most powerful museum experiences you can ever have, because it evokes as well as describes, and it builds its case with an icy efficiency and outrage that is made all the more powerful because it is so cold and lethal.

I think back on the strangely named Documentation Center in Nuremberg, which is a comparable and very similar museum, and equally as worthy of a visit. There, with the same architectural severity and unrelenting historical accuracy, the German people have created a museum that says, in effect, “See how this happened, and wonder what is was that allowed us be so blind and cruel.” But it has a question at its heart: How did this happen while we were standing by? And it shows the devastation wrought on Germany as the price exacted by those who put an end to the Nazi horrors. In other words, it allows the Germans room in which to doubt and question, as well as bear witness. Indeed, it wants to lead them to doubt and question. It is a museum of self-reflection as much as a documentation of crimes.

The Holocaust Museum is none of that. Though the two museums look much the same, have a common architecture and method of presentation, and contain much of the same imagery and cover much of the same material, the Holocause Museum is as uninterested in self-reflection as a murder victim’s parents are in examining their own inner responses when coming face to face with their child’s murderer. This is the Nuremberg trials made into a documentary and testimonial experience, and it is built up, piece by piece, until there is no possibility of escape. It is, without a doubt, the single most angry museum I have ever experienced, and the coldness of that anger is as chilling as the museum itself.

And then there is the Museum of the American Indian. Another architectural masterpiece, it is, to my mind, in all other ways, a great disappointment. It wants to reflect a philosophy in its design — the whole museum is circular in its flow and presentation — but it experiences a complete breakdown in its effort to communicate that philosophy.

Consider the problems: Do you call it the Museum of the Native American or the Museum of the American Indian? Do you organized it tribe by tribe, or do you run the danger of a pan-Indian philosophical distortion by trying to find a common theme? How do you deal with over 500 recognized tribes and 200 non-certified tribes that have effectively been decimated? What about the very notion of “tribe” itself — a grafted concept that became reified as the U.S. government tried to make distinctions and divisions. And the list goes on.

Unlike the Holocaust Museum, which isolates a time, the Museum of the American Indian needs to show a continuum that goes up to the present. So freezing a moment in the past is impossible. Yet the second you try to show the vibrancy of individual cultures, you come up against sheer numbers, and the danger of becoming archaeological and anthropological. And if you show objects apart from their sacred purposes, you reduce the spiritual to the aesthetic.

As a result, you have a museum by committee — museological democracy run amok. There is an attempt to organize around themes, but that, to me, commits the very crime against which Indian people have been railing since their cultures were first collected: objectification. You go to one wall — here are ceremonial objects like pipes, to another, here are dolls. Yes, you can see beauty and diversity, but you also end up seeing categories. It is comparative anthropology, punctuated by a few very limited attempts to present several tribes in more depth. (I was told that tribes get featured status on a rotating basis).

In the end, this is the absolute antithesis of the Holocaust museum. It describes, it does not evoke. It has no narrative drive. And it does not engage the heart.

Personally, I would have done it as a narrative museum, with a precontact section, just as the Holocaust Museum had a pre-Nazi section, followed by a narrative of the unrelenting march of European culture across the continent, from the east, the north, the west, and the south. I would have featured salient moments — and, yes, these would have been dark moments — and then I would have ended with a celebration of the strength of the remnant. In this way people could have experienced what is in the native heart.

It could have been done with multi-media using streaming images and overlays, combined with stills and significant objects. Instead, we get a tepid celebration of what exists today, almost as if the past did not take place.

I did not follow the controversy of the museum’s creation, but I surely would have come down on a different side than the one that won the struggle.

I can think of no greater missed opportunity than to create a museum of peoples of the spirit that has no spirit. And that’s what they have done. One can only hope that since this is a fledgling museum, the curatorial team will figure out a way to give the museum some heart. In a desire to celebrate, they have, to my mind, failed to communicate. Five minutes on the Bear’s Paw battlefield is more powerful than five days in this museum. How to bridge that gap is the challenge that the museum faces. I hope they find a way to meet it.

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