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National Museum of the American Indians

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The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum complex that includes  19 museums, 17 of which are located in Washington D.C. One can look at it as a cluster of varied architectural buildings or a giant display of over 136 million objects, artworks and specimens. Visitors have free access and usually make the effort to walk the long distances from one building to another – the Smithsonian website clearly advises people to wear comfortable shoes before a visit.

Due to our limited schedule, we narrowed our visit to the National Museum of the American Indian (pictured above). We were initially attracted to its controversial postmodern design which was previously referred to as “native by design” by the National Geographic magazine. The building was designed by several Native American architects – Douglas Cardinal, a Blackfeet Indian; Johnpaul Jones, a Cherokee/Choctaw; Ramona Sakiestewa, a Hopi, Donna House, a Navajo/Oneida, and Lou Weller, a Caddo Indian – and its construction was assisted by a Native American Design  Collaborative known as the Table Mountain Rancheria Enterprises.

The museum has an exterior cladding of Kasota dolomitic limestone that give the building the appearance of a stratified stone mass that has been carved by wind and water. The interior is unfortunately more conventional and consists of dark gallery spaces generously filled with over a million artefacts.

A temporary exhibition called Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America caught our attention. By looking beyond the traditional representations of Native American culture, this show reflects indigenous culture in a 21st century context. We learned that skateboarding has inspired many Native American youths to start their own companies and build community-based skate parks in the United States. By fusing design, graphic art, filmmaking, and music through skateboard culture, those individuals are affirming their identity within contemporary American society, perhaps to also show that their heritage is vibrant and alive.

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