These past few days I’ve been examining files from the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) project. Douglas Cardinal, who was commissioned to build the museum, left the project in 1999 due to difficulties with the Smithsonian administration and other architectural firms. This dispute resulted in Cardinal sending out letters to countless politicians and journalists in Canada and the United States. Many people sent out letters of support to Cardinal, saying that he was wrongly treated by the Smithsonian. Cardinal recorded his frustrations with the NMAI in his files, emphasizing that his work was being copied and forged by the new architects hired by the museum. The situation of the NMAI is problematic, yet fascinating to read about as both an archivist and a researcher.
The NMAI story is an interesting one to examine from a Public History standpoint. Although things did not work out the way Cardinal wanted them to, this whole story of the construction of the NMAI speaks volumes to elements of Public History, such as the ideas of stakeholders and “shared authority.” The vast size and scale of this museum makes it a contentious issue to begin with, as it was built on the last available space on the Washington Mall, and therefore the last of the grand Smithsonian museums. It was a museum built with the intention of close talks to Native community leaders across North, Central and South America. Even with its original good intentions, it ended up being a situation regarding the conflicts between people within the museum, and how the museum administration chose to resolve it. The situation at the NMAI reflects the differing needs and wants of stakeholders, which include architects, Elders, Smithsonian administrators, politicians, and of course, Douglas Cardinal. This story shows us that building a grand museum like this one is never easy, and conflicts are inevitable.
Even with the tensions and controversies surrounding the NMAI, it is a fascinating case, and one that Public Historians can learn from. It shows us the difficulties of museum relationships, and the long processes of museum building. Although the situation did not turn out ideally for Douglas Cardinal, one thing is definite. Douglas Cardinal and the NMAI have provided historians and the public an intellectually-driven discussion about the role and place of museums in our society.