Saturday, November 10, 2007


It is very hard to convey to others -- either in person or in print -- how I see some things. Therefore, I was delighted to find that the Religion and Culture Web Forum addressed the intersection of museums and religion in an essay by Elizabeth McKeown, professor at Georgetown University. Her way of making the subject concrete -- and hopefully more tangible and manageable -- was to consider two museums on the National Mall: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. Each museum is intended to valorize the people they represent and to claim National status. The USHMM ended up just off the Mall, while some of the last precious space was used for the NMAI. The USHMM is meant to harmonize with the other mall architecture; NMAI is meant to harmonize with curving nature and contrast with the square-edged monuments. There are many conclusions one can draw from this, but one way (from outside) is that the USHMM is European and the NMAI is indigenous -- therefore, the USHMM can claim identity with the terrible wars and aesthetic standards of the US, while the NMAI can point to its OWN terrible wars and apartness.

Museums are not quite the same category as “religion” though to some people a museum can be a kind of church and science or art can be a kind of religion. Both of these museums are historical with the USHMM acting as a memorial and NMAI often shading over into both art and science, if you think anthropology is a science. (Some people are beginning to wonder about that.) So these two institutions are just not equivalent. They simply happen to coincide in time of completion, so people are talking about both at the same time.

Still, Jewish people often make common cause with American Indians, seeing that both are victims of genocide, confinement and special designation. Jewish lawyers have often been major defenders of Native American rights. And there is always that peculiar notion that the NA are descended from a lost tribe of Jews. But I should stick to the text of this essay, which is quite thought-provoking.

The Holocaust museum started as nothing but an idea. Objects had to be brought from Europe: a pile of shoes left by victims, a milk can where the history of the Warsaw Ghetto was hidden, and a controversial mass of 9 kilos female human hair that is kept off-site for complicated reasons. A provocative idea suggested by Peter Novick is that in trying to elevate memory -- to the point of discrediting all information except that provided by survivors -- has caused the museum to create a Catholic-style “stations of the cross” complete with the relics of saints, though traditional Judaism has tried to limit and contain grief, not to allow the focus to remain with mourning.

This comparison of two museums is pointed when considering that the NMAI evolved out of the Heye collection, Heye being a man who vacuumed up everything that might be Indian and stashed an enormous accumulation of unsorted objects. West, the founding director, saw the mission as NOT focused on the past but rather to celebrate Indian identity. The problem, of course, is that this presumes that there is a unitary Indian identity across the continent when those who know more than Hollywood versions of Plains Indians are quite aware of variation. For instance, the museum cafe is called “Let’s Eat!” or Mitsitam. What language is that? Are we gonna eat fish, buffalo or corn? There are other sneaky issues, like repatriation of human remains, which has been underway for some time, and a demand for repatriation of other materials that have been poisoned as a means of keeping bugs and mold out. They are no longer safe to have in a dwelling.

On the one hand, all Indians are to be included -- on the other, they are included by giving each a little space, a sort of booth at the trade fair, which is hardly unitary. It appears that this is partly the product of trying to figure out what an Indian is anyway. As they point out, they were just themselves -- it was the problem of the invaders to try to define them and figure out their boundaries, partly because of treaty entitlements and territory deals resulting in reservations. So “one-quarter Indian” has been the marker, one grandparent who is full-blood. Today’s grandparents were born in 1950 or so. They grew up with television, pickups, and Vietnam.

Then there is the pan-Indian movement, partly fueled by government Indian schools where tribes mixed at a courting age, partly by Eisenhower’s relocation plan which brought many together into city ghettos, and then by the pow-wow movement which calls Indians into a competitive arena where they have developed into a kind of sub-culture. Are dream-catchers Indian? Is fry bread Indian? Are day-glo feathers Indian?

Anyway, now there will be a Museum of African-American History and Culture. At one time the stature of the Founding Fathers was guaranteed by the solemnity of a few impressive and classical buildings. Then came the tactful and stunningly successful Vietnam War Memorial, drawing power from being so opposite: below grade and black, naming multitudes. The WWII Memorial is accepted. (It seems quite German to me!) Where will it stop? Is there to be a Memorial Ghetto crowded with the celebrations of every hyphenated kind of citizen. Will we have to find room for an Islamic monument? (Already trouble over the size of their mosques in cities.)

It appears very late to develop criteria, except that the nation is a living process and these memorials are part of its patriotic blood-stream, furnishing ideas and carrying oxygen to many kinds of people so that they know they are part of the shared body. We really MUST address these issues or risk death, at least in parts.

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