Sunday, January 18, 2009

DC: National Museum of the American Indian

I was "strongly encouraged" (read an extra 20% assignment factored into a four-assignment semester) to visit the American Indian Museum by Doc Cobb, my favorite anthropology professor to date. The museum is so-so, and the building is decidedly - to borrow a word from Brice - "dwonky." (Mrs. Farrell told us it was supposed to resemble Mesa Verde, but I'm sticking with dwonky anyways.)

As it was inauguration weekend, they had dozens of trained, costumed dancers and a live band performing indigenous ceremonies of celebration and blessing (that's what I garnered from the reading materials in the lobby, at least). I watched a few of the different cultures and tribes perform; it was really impressive. The group of NAC members that come and dance in chapel each year had nothing on these guys. I think the music impressed me more than the dancers, actually. The first time we walked in, I thought I was listening to a CD on a high-end surround-sound system. Downky thought it is, that building has superb acoustics.

Speaking of the lobby, Brice got patted-down and practically strip-searched on his third (yes, third) attempted entry. The first time they would not let him in with a large piece of equipment he was carrying (no coat check, wtf?), so we dumped it in the bushes. Then he tucked his pocket knife into a road cone for safekeeping, but a construction worker saw and told him he couldn't leave the knife there. Easy solution: pick up the knife, leave the equipment, and re-enter. They gave us a bag check, walked us through a metal detector, and we got through without a problem. Ish. We made it all of 20 feet into the lobby before three or four security guards came running up (realizing their mistake of allowing a known blade-wielder into their museum) and hustled Brice out the door. (He tells me he had to 1) leave or 2) throw away the knife.) I got a voicemail saying "see you in the lobby in five or ten minutes," and B disappeared around the corner. As I later learned, he ditched his knife in an unused Starbucks kiosk.

Well, as you can imagine, seeing the same man three times in 15 minutes after evicting him once on weapons charges did not please the security guards. Brice's bag got dumped out, the contents rifled through, and he had to submit himself to a full-body search (not full body cavity, just full body). The guards patted him down, had him take off layers, and generally made a spectacle of him in front of the whole crowd gathered to watch the aforementioned performers. I was going to take some pictures, but I didn't think the large, angry security team would appreciate it.

Getting back on track, the museum devotes itself mostly to extolling the evils of Indian relocation policies and showcasing the condition (physical, spiritual, and artistic) of native peoples today. It felt too much like another of Doc's lectures for me to thoroughly enjoy it, but I did enjoy the scant exhibits on traditional handcrafts and religious items. The workmanship is simply exquisite - we saw a piece of bead work so vivid that I thought I was looking at an LCD screen at first.

On the modern end, they had a temporary exhibit featuring the works of Fritz Scholder. Personally, I like his earlier work and his morbid pieces best, the former because of their prismatic smears and the latter for their stark imagery and interesting skulls. This one's called Massacred Indian No. 4, and I think it showcases the best of Scholder's talent. It's simple, spackled with color, gaunt, and stunningly clear. Don't get me wrong - he does do some impressionist works, and you can play "find the skull" with most of them.

Anyways, if you have about 1.5-2 hours to kill and you're bored with the standard Smithsonian setup, start walking towards Capitol Hill and look for the dwonky building with tipis in front of it (not kidding). Just don't upset the security guards, they don't take kindly to "difficult" patrons.