Photos: Michael Loria
Photos: Michael Loria

Americans at the National Museum of the American Indian

The main gallery space of “Americans,” a new long-term exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, has the immersive feel of Nam June Paik’s “Megatron/Matrix” at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art on F Street. Though it isn’t frenetic like Paik’s field of TVs, “Americans” is still mesmerizing, and has the same quality of making familiar objects appear strange.

“Americans” doesn’t read like a typical museum exhibit, and the feeling it leaves you with is quite different as well. This is due to the question that the exhibit poses, which museum director Kevin Gover shared in an exhibit preview before the public opening on January 18. 

“American Indian images, words and stories are all around. Why?”

The exhibit goes into the commonly referenced American Indian stories of Pocahontas, Little Big Horn, The Trail of Tears and Thanksgiving, but it’s the main gallery space that has the most palpable effect, and which so plainly encapsulates Gover’s words.

View from main gallery space.

Stand in the center of the main gallery space, and all around you will see how American Indian imagery is ubiquitous in American branding and how American Indian words are ubiquitous in American geography. You will see countless schools and spirits that take their imagery from American Indians, and there’s even a poster of Cher in an American Indian headdress.

Granted, many of the objects on display come from an older generation, but there are so many more which we encounter still, including Land O’Lakes butter, any number of sports teams (the Washington team chief among them), American Spirit cigarettes and, on the wall, there’s even a deactivated Tomahawk missile.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest plays at one end of the gallery

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest playing in the gallery

The side galleries that go into the aforementioned stories are very interesting and enlightening (e.g., did you know that John Smith was a fabulist and Pocahontas likely never saved his life in so dramatic a fashion, but that her marriage to John Rolfe still saved the life of the colony?) But it’s the main gallery space that is not to be missed.

The main gallery even made me reconsider my Hydro Flask canteen, which I was drinking from during the preview. There isn’t anything particularly American Indian about Hydro Flask, but it’s the Wyoming state sticker on my canteen that gave me pause.

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The sticker depicts a bison, and what is that bison but a synecdoche for American Indian imagery otherwise? Will I remove it? No, probably not. I have the sticker because it reminds me of a summer spent camping with friends in Wyoming and Utah, and that reason still stands. But I also won’t ever look at my canteen in a so “la vie en rose” way again.

“Americans” is on view every day from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Learn more about the exhibit here

National Museum of the American Indian: 4th Street and Independence Avenue in SW, DC; 202-633-1000; www.nmai.si.edu

"The last image of an american indian i saw was i looked in the mirror"

“The last image of an American Indian I saw was when I looked in the mirror.”

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Michael Loria

Michael Loria is a writer who focuses on art and music. For On Tap, his work includes a cover story on the Principal Conductor and Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, for the December 2017 print edition, and features like his interviews with Carla Bruni and with Thievery Corporation. Collectively, he's penned more than 40 clips for the magazine.