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.
During the mid-1990s, Douglas Cardinal visited the Northwest Territories as he was interested in building something for the Gwich’in people. The Gwich’in live on the Arctic Red River, now known as Tsiigehnjik, and the area is located near the North Mackenzie Mountains. A photo of Douglas Cardinal visiting the area is below. (It is also one of my favourite photos of Douglas I’ve seen this summer.)
Although this photograph is rather neat and tells us that he visited the area, the Gwich’in project remains a mystery. The only materials we’ve found relating to Gwich’in are a joint archaeology and oral history report of Tsiigehnjik conducted from 1994-1995, a summary of the Gwich’in Territorial Park Masterplan, prepared by Gwich’in Geographics Ltd., building specifications and the above photo. The archive does not tell us what happened with this project, whether Douglas continued with it or not. This goes back to points made in previous blogs as well as the video Stories from the Douglas Cardinal Collection: The Archival Project. This Gwich’in story shows us that the archive does not tell us everything. There are mysteries within the archive, mysteries which we cannot solve. Perhaps we will find out the outcome of this Gwich’in project from more interviews with Douglas. Or perhaps it will remain unknown. But for now we can say that we have one rockin’ photo of Doug.
Yesterday was an eventful day for our archival team. We finished processing the textual records of the Douglas Cardinal Collection. Exciting? Most definitely! The final box count is 344, just short of 350 boxes. These boxes contain correspondences, drawings, sketches, booklets and much more. We’ve discussed a few of these finds on this blog, but there are hundreds of more stories to be found within this collection.
As we are now finished processing, I can now make an informed opinion of what I think of this collection. It is rich, full of stories and has great potential for interdisciplinary work at Carleton. I believe that architecture and engineering students would benefit the most from this collection, as much of the material consists of drawings, plans and measurements. Though I admit I do not understand the engineering documents or architectural specifications (math was never a strong subject of mine), I do have an appreciation for it and I see how it could be important or useful to others.
Looking back, I have to say that one of my favourite parts of processing the collection is reading about Douglas’ discussions, meetings and “Vision Sessions” with First Nations communities across North and South America. As a historian with a strong interest in Public History theory, such as “sharing authority,” these files were of particular interest to me as it shows how the architect, the clients and stakeholders interact with each other. It is fascinating to see how buildings such as SIFC and the CMC and housing plans such as Oujé-Bougoumou played out with all the different parties involved. It is interesting to see how people’s sensitivities and concerns were taken into account, and to see the obstacles Douglas had to get through in order to create some of his great works.
This collection was exciting to process, and it was great to closely with John and Elizabeth on this project. Talking about our finds with Lloyd and Patti over lunch breaks was fun to do, and also provided us with a well-needed break from looking at mountains of files all morning. Over the next few days we’ll put up more posts about our interesting finds this summer, and we’ll continue posting into the Fall about processing the thousands of architectural plans.
In the meantime, come and see the live finding aid we’ve been updating throughout the summer. (Type in “Douglas Cardinal” in the top bar.)
Also, check us out on our other social media accounts below. And if you haven’t seen the video Stories from the Douglas Cardinal Archive: “The Archival Project,” we suggest you do so! Not only do we talk about this project, but we also show off some of our cool dance moves! You can see it on our Facebook page and on our YouTube account!
The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) contains First Nations artifacts from North, Central, and South America. These various First Nations groups from different parts of the Americas were to be represented in the architectural design of the NMAI. The design of the NMAI site, interiors and exhibits were to reflect the many First Nations groups that existed prior to European contact as well as contemporary traditions. These various First Nations groups were to be reflected in the design of the entire building.
During the planning process for the NMAI in Washington D.C., the architectural and design team decided it was valuable to conduct a research trip to Mexico in May 1995.
The objective of the research trip to Mexico was to learn how Latin American Indigenous cultures, both ancient and contemporary, were to influence the design of the future NMAI. The intent was to see first-hand forms of symbols characteristic of pre-Hispanic civilizations that could influence the architectural design of the NMAI.
The trip to Mexico included a visit to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and a tour with the Mexican architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez. The tour also included experts from Peru that provided insight into Inca architecture and cultural symbols. The group also toured the Museum of the Templo Mayor and the Pyramids of Teotihuacan. The last leg of the trip saw the NMAI team visit Oaxaca to visit the Zapotec ruins at Monte Alban.
As noted by Douglas Cardinal’s firm, the research trip provided the the team with the tools to create a museum space fair to Indigenous groups across the Americas. Douglas Cardinal’s wish was say something powerful and meaningful about First Nations peoples by his use of flowing, curvilinear architecture and design.
As many of you now know reading our blog, Douglas Cardinal designed the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and completed it in 1989. In the early 1990s, Douglas Cardinal and his team revisited the CMC and designed the First Peoples’ Hall, now a focal point of the museum. The Preamble to the Principles for the First Peoples’ Hall and a plan for this hall are below.
“We are a group of people of diverse backgrounds, both Native and non-Native, working toward a common goal. We contribute to the discussion on an equivalent footing, always recognizing the particular expertise, knowledge, and insights of each particular member. In our discussions over the past year we have developed the following principles.”
The General Principles for the First Peoples’ Hall can be seen below. They stress the fair representation of all First Nations communities in Canada in this exhibit space, as well as designing the exhibit for both “aboriginal and non-aboriginal audiences.” Creativity in designing the space is also encouraged.
The fact that Douglas Cardinal came back to design such an important space tells us about the continuing relationship an architect has with one of their buildings. It shows us that Cardinal continued to pay great care to the museum once it had been fully built.
Going through these files also shows us how the First Peoples’ Hall was built, which is interesting to see as it is now well-known to be a beautiful part of the museum. To learn more about the CMC and the First Peoples’ Hall, we encourage you to delve into the Douglas Cardinal Collection to find out more!