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All For One: Nation-Making And The National Museum Of The American Indian
In September 2004, the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington DC provided the nation with another opportunity to self-narrate on both sub-national and national levels. For many Native and non-Native peoples, the newest Smithsonian Institution represented not only a new method of museological practice based on self-governance and representation but also that Native America existed prior to European Contact, continues today and is worthy of being understood as both part and precursor of a larger collective identity of the nation. This occurred with the museum's successful Mitsitam Cafe whereby American cuisine was defined with a Native genesis. The landscape, as well, was scripted as begin original to the northeastern habitat of the United States, in contrast to the Beaux-Arts inspired landscapes of Europe which define the rest of the National Mall. A sensory engagement with both the Cafe and landscaped grounds, moreover, would separate this particular museal space- intended to be a Native place- from its neighbors. How the senses attend to an engagement with the museum is central to the planning behind the institution- as well as my analysis- whereby the sensorium is mediated both for public consumption and to meeting particular ideological ends. At the same time that Native America is re-presented in our nation's capital, however, sub-national agendas are continually negotiated by the nation-state, whether aligned or not. Historically the museum may be conceived as an instrument of pedagogy and nationalist promulgation and the new Indian museum is no exception. Allowed to self-represent, the NMAI is subsequently re-scripted by a larger agendafashioned on an inherited Euro-American discourse- that ultimately privileges the nation and nation-making over subaltern demands. As the National Mall is poised to receive a new museum on the African American experience one also recognizes how America's Lawn is rooted in spatial practices and narrative techniques of World Expositions in 19th century America and Europe, further complicating the institution. These and other myriad tensions have challenged the Native-inspired museum and this contested space, in the shadow of the nation's capitol, continues to be defined on shifting terms of national self-imagining. Designed to broadcast pan-tribal Native voices, the museum continues to harbor other historically inherited voices that destabilize the mission the institution aspires to achieve.
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