Feeling Ignorant in a Museum: National Museum of the American Indian

This past week I participated in a field trip with a group of 6th graders to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. Our school group only had a one-hour tour with a guide, which means we saw about three displays. However it was enough, between the tour guide and the information on the walls, to bring into sharp relief that I know so little about the amazing people who lived on our continent before the Europeans came and took over.

The National Museum of the American Indian, or NMAI, was one of the museums I had never been to since transplanting to the DC area in 1998. It was built more recently, but holds a prominent place on the mall, next door to the Air and Space Museum, and just a few steps from the Capitol Building. The museum is visually stunning from the outside, and on the inside, like any museum worth its salt, at every turn you want to explore what you see, and everything is beautiful, educational, and modern. It has many artifacts, videos, statues, and the guides are filled with information. The guide we had was Cherokee, and even his presence was an education to the kids. He was dressed “regular” (as he pointed out to the kids), but doing modern activities like having a job at the Smithsonian, riding the metro, or dressing “regular” don’t make him any less of a Native American. It was fascinating and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I love to go downtown into DC with my family and visit museums. We do it a couple of times a year, enough that the family feels museums are one of “my things.” The Smithsonian museums are free, so I love never feeling like we have to “get our money’s worth” when visiting. From the time my children were very young, I would choose an exhibit or two in one museum, and we could enjoy that exhibit, take as much or as little time as we wanted, maybe see one other interesting exhibit or piece on the way out (or more if they were more interested in another exhibit than the originally planned one), and we would leave with the children begging (loudly) to stay and making me promise that we would return.

As we feel with any trip to an excellent and engaging museum, we barely scratched the surface, and I felt like my own kids when I left, wishing I could stay with the tour guide continuing to show me around, telling me stories that I couldn’t read on the walls. I look forward to going again with the rest of my family, so we can take our time and learn more about the history of the land and its native people.


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