Someone recently solicited opinions on favorite and most interesting Washington DC/Smithsonian institutions. My response:
But I found the Museum of the American Indian, “most interesting” because it was the most eye-opening. Here’s why:
The collection is not large (which the institution is openly honest about) but the architecture is transportive and one of my all-time favorite examples of how buildings can be inhabitable art. There are lots of videos, lectures and classes which supplement the objects, so it’s more of an experience you have than stuff you go see.
The story behind how the AI came into existence is also fascinating from an cross-cultural perspective: After years of fierce debate among the Native American community, they finally settled on a compromise presentation from a collection of peoples, each with a strong tribal identity, as a confederated minority culture struggling to maintain its diverse voices inside a dominant society that is still incredibly ignorant regarding its indiginous inhabitants. … and ignorant is putting it kindly. US policy and ordinary US citizenry are still pretty oppressive of Native Americans racially and politically, though obviously FAR less so than in the past. IMO, the Museum presents these unpleasant truths with an appropriate undercurrent of displeasure — without going so far as to alienate its visitors, who are arguably there respectfully and with the desire to learn and become more sensitive to the issues. I was there as such a visitor and it really shook me up and made me aware of many issues that had never crossed my mind (a deep privilege-checking moment way before I knew that term). I welcomed the wake-up call.
Another not-fun but hugely important experience to consider is the Holocaust Memorial, which is not Smithsonian, but is on the Mall and free (admissions are timed and it may behoove you to reserve a time in advance.) Allow a lot of time; you don’t want to rush. I have visited Memorials and WWII museums in many cities of the US and Europe. This presentation though, is incredibly thorough and immersive, and therefore completely devastating. As a Jewish person, I consider experiencing it as an imperative. But then again, as a human being, you may too.