Native American Museum Falls Short of Expectations
Along the Corridors
Published: Thursday, May 24, 2012
Updated: Thursday, May 24, 2012 21:05
All summer long, the guide will take a look at some of the museums that call the District home. We’ll weed out tourist traps and find the hidden gems where you can spend a few hours.
The Smithsonian Institution maintains numerous spectacular museums throughout our city. From the Air and Space Museum to the Portrait Gallery, they cover nearly all aspects of American life. In 2004, they added the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to the National Mall, attempting to fill some important gaps in their coverage of this important group. Yet the museum isn’t as compelling or interesting as it could be.
The NMAI is located between the National Air and Space Museum and the Capitol and is easily accessible by Metro. The museum is dedicated to spreading awareness and information about Native American tribes, and, like at all Smithsonian collections, admission is free.
The NMAI is housed in a huge tan brick building with a wavy design that is unforgettable. Sadly, the inside is not nearly as magnificent and architecturally interesting as the outside would lead one to believe. Aside from the Potomac Atrium, the inside of the museum holds very few noteworthy features.
One of the more interesting and educational parts of the museum is the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe. The cafe serves dishes from tribes located around the Americas and conveniently separates stations based on geographic location. There’s a station dedicated to foods traditionally eaten by the Great Plains Indians, another for the tribes from the Southwest and so on. However, for the less adventurous, the cafe also offers traditional American foods like burgers and chicken fingers. The costs are a bit outrageous, but the traditionally native food is absolutely delicious and well worth it.
The NMAI comprises four levels, but the first and second stories hold no exhibits; rather, they hold multiple theatres, the cafe and the Roanoke Museum Store. The third and fourth floors are where all of the exhibits can be found.
The exhibits themselves are varied and cover a great deal of the native experience, from the history of tribes to the day-to-day life of tribes today. The exhibits examine Native American history in a general way and gradually delve into specific tribes from all across the Americas.
While initially engaging, the exhibits become monotonous, offering up the same information over and over. The majority of them haven’t been updated since the museum opened. They also tend to gloss over the native experience in the Americas by skipping over a great deal of the more painful, controversial aspects of their history and not examining the struggles they face today.
Although the NMAI offers a unique look into the native experience, it is not as detailed and well executed as one would hope from a Smithsonian museum. It is worth the Metro fare, if only for the cafe and lively events offered throughout the summer. But many groups will prefer to visit the Natural History Museum instead, which has a lot of the same information alongside other exhibits.