"Americans"—a nod to the name given to this country's indigenous peoples by European settlers—is a modern, dynamic, multimedia permanent display. The 9,200-square-foot exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. deconstructs conflicts and decisions involving native peoples at specific historic moments and portray the ubiquity of Indians in all aspects of our national identity despite the fact they now comprise only 1% of the country's population.
Within the central gallery entitled "Indians Everywhere," a powder-coated ?-inch, square tubular steel armature holds three centuries of objects, graphics and photography. Showcasing diverse artifacts such as a classic 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle, the Tomahawk missile and Navajo Barbie, this intricate display system required creativity and technical expertise to execute. To insure an economic and efficient installation, the display consists of a grid with 12-inch-deep MDF object cases that integrate widely diverse materials. Thirty-two sections of framework, each 5' wide and 14' tall, connect with imperceptible male/female joints. All aspects of the design comply with strict Smithsonian standards, Universal Design, ADA and ABA. The effect is a larger-than-life, historical narrative interpreted within a bold, modern aesthetic—fulfilling the museum's agenda to achieve an immersive environment with engaging content.
To promote engagement, media and technology are skillfully employed for maximum effect. An interactive experience interface allows visitors to search and decode the "Indian" iconography featured in the armature. At the far end of the room, looping television, documentary, "spaghetti" westerns map onto a series of panels. This fragmentation of moving image allows for seamless integration with artifacts without subordinating the gallery into mere theater. Comfortable, upholstered, seating—highly unusual for a Smithsonian Institution— encourages visitors to linger, reflect and share experiences with others, while absorbing the magnitude of the installation content.
Individual galleries entering off of "Indians Everywhere" present materials with bold graphic motifs coupled with pithy, provocative quotes inspiring the visceral questioning of common assumptions of historical topics—Pocahontas, the Battle of Little Bighorn, Thanksgiving, and the Trail of Tears. By understanding the past, visitors acknowledge the cultural complexity of native peoples in America's collective history. "Who really won the Battle of Little Bighorn? It's Complicated," invites visitors to view the battle from two points of view—the first tells the story of the battle through hand-drawn art on muslin and Lakota regalia artifacts, while the second viewpoint comes from newsprint and Wild West show ephemera. Native American regalia, is displayed following prescribed ritual using herbs and orientation according to tribal custom.
A dedicated gallery with a sharing area allows visitors participate in the ongoing future of the exhibition by leaving postcards with their thoughts and recount personal histories—facilitate community learning and engagement. Within this safe space, visitors are able to listen to others. The success of this show is its ability to encourage all visitors to move beyond cultural tourism to a true understanding of how our ability to grapple with a past defines who we are and our goals for the future.
The curators at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) decided to address a main obstacle that their visitors faced—that American Indians are remote abstractions to most visitors. Attempting to explain U.S. policies or differences between Native nations resonates very little in an era when most Americans reside in urban and suburban areas with near zero Native Indian visibility. To bring content relevance to American visitors, NMAI curators decided to use pop-culture as a gateway to larger issues that would resonate how Native people are grossly enmeshed in America's national identity and psyche.
Changing the paradigm
The exhibition design brings absolute clarity to the discussion via layout, graphics, materiality and architectural vocabulary. From the overall look and feel to each nuanced detail, the power of history emerges from the rigorous application of a reduced palette of materials, bold spatial organization concepts and unexpected use of evocative media. The effect is an immersive, awe-inspiring experience for visitors who stay for two hours or just twenty minutes.
"Indians Everywhere"Visitors enter the exhibition through the central gallery entitled "Indians Everywhere" and are immediately surrounded by a plethora of Indian imagery that has been a familiar backdrop to American life. A powder-coated ?-inch, square tubular steel armature surrounding the gallery holds three centuries of objects, graphics, and photography. Showcasing diverse artifacts such as a classic 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle, the Tomahawk missile, and a Navajo Barbie, the armature set the stage for the visitor by becoming the physical embodiment of the complicated relationship between Native peoples and Americans. Rather than make visitors feel racist, guilty, or defensive, the goal is to leverage American nostalgia into new insights by illustrating Indian imagery as a broad phenomenon, spanning centuries, and defying categorization. The effect is a larger-than-life, historical narrative interpreted within a bold, modern aesthetic—fulfilling the museum's agenda to achieve an immersive environment with engaging content.Media and technology are skillfully employed to promote visitor engagement that allowed for displayed gallery text to be kept to a minimum so as not to overwhelm the visitor. An interactive experience interface allows visitors to search and decode the "Indian" iconography featured in the armature at their choosing. The immediate impact coupled with the deeper dive is key to our storytelling. At the far end of the room, looping television clips, documentary, and "spaghetti" westerns map onto a series of panels. This fragmentation of moving image allows for seamless multimedia integration with the artifacts. Comfortable, upholstered, seating—highly unusual for a Smithsonian Institution— was purposefully integrated into the space to provide emotional as well as physical comfort. We wanted to create a generous public space that invited people in and did not preach to them. The seating encourages visitors to linger, reflect and share experiences with others, while absorbing the magnitude of the installation content.
Introduction to Side Galleries
Individual historical galleries entering off of "Indians Everywhere begin with bold, geometric graphic and typography treatments that reference the main gallery's armature, strong statement texts, pithy, provocative quotes, and custom-illustrated timelines. The effect is dialed back in the heart of the galleries, allowing each to develop its own character.Beginning with a strong statement and then presenting the predicament of modern interpretation, these galleries show that what is important isn't only what happened but what has happened since. They inspire the visceral questioning of common assumptions involving historical topics—Pocahontas, the Battle of Little Bighorn, Thanksgiving, and the Trail of Tears. By understanding the past, visitors recognize the cultural complexity of native peoples in America's collective history. Below are examples of title and content from two of the five galleries.
Room 2: "Who really won the Battle of Little Bighorn? It's complicated."
"Who really won the Battle of Little Bighorn? It's complicated," demonstrates how the Plains Indian warrior, often reduced graphically to an eagle-feather headdress, emerged as the stereotypical American Indian soon after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Visitors experience the battle through two viewpoints—the first tells the events through hand-drawn art on muslin and Lakota regalia artifacts, while the second viewpoint comes from newsprint and Wild West show ephemera. The presentation culminates in the display of a headdress and a contemporary Lakota elder's video discussion of its ongoing cultural and spiritual significance.The objects displayed allow the visitor to appreciate how little the stereotype is connected with Plains Indians. As respect to the Lakota tribe, the displayed regalia follows prescribed tribal custom orientation and herbal ritual.
Room 5: "'Americans' Explained"
The final gallery, "'Americans' Explained", consists of four panels that concisely summarize the exhibition's intent, the meaning of the title, and the main ideas of each gallery. There is a three-screen video installation of visitors discussing their connections to "Indians Everywhere". The remainder of this gallery dedicates a safe space to allow visitors to read/write postcards recounting personal experiences and ask questions that help facilitate community learning and on-going programs. A recent study qualitative study conducted by NMAI indicated that the museum collects an average of 450 postcards per month and that 74% of visitors filling out these cards make a personal connection to the exhibition material. The success of this show is its ability to encourage all visitors to move beyond cultural tourism to a real understanding of how our ability to grapple with a past defines who we are and our goals for the future.
Testing and prototyping
Bespoke fabrication methods were vital in displaying diverse artifacts. For example, the armature in the central hall required welding a continuous steel framework 240 feet long and 14' high. Comprised of 32 sections that were assembled quickly on site, it incorporates lighting, data, and security for over 200 elements including fine art, historical artifact, props and back-lit graphics panels. The team built sample sections at full size to study the integration and test various technologies. In particular, the curving sections had to be welded precisely to integrate with standard tubular steel sections. Instead of building standard stud walls, our strong collaboration with fabricators helped identity a way of building that constructed plywood back up with MDF cabinetry that included the display boxes. This method allowed us to thread hundreds of electric feeds and data cords up to the top of the walls where they aggregate into sections and hook to dimmer panels.
To guide visitors through Americans' immersive exhibit, we created intuitive touchscreen decoders that reveal the history and significance of items ranging from Indian-themed mascots to missiles. Two 46" exploratory surfaces present detailed information about the images and objects on display. A user-friendly interface greets visitors with a scrollable grid of digital images corresponding to the physical items in the gallery. The entire interface uses the same graphic motif as found elsewhere in the exhibition giving visual coherence to the spatial design as a whole. When a visitor identifies and selects an item—by visual recognition or label number—the decoder enlarges the onscreen item and presents detailed historical information and complementary images. Visitors can continue to browse items in detail view by intuitively swiping left or right, or return to the grid view if so desired. Located on the floor of the exhibition hall at ADA compliant tables, the decoders are designed to accommodate two single users at once and are oriented to maximize views of the panoramic exhibit. Built as a Chrome Kiosk application, the decoders are programmed in React and HTML5 and meet WCAG 2.0 web-accessibility guidelines.
Given visitor attendance and the length of the installation (minimum 10 years) we had to think carefully about durability including not just standard wear and tear, but the fading of color imagery and the translucent, reflective, matte and highly textured surfaces with digital printing. For example, there are 200 distinct graphic panels in the central gallery. Historical artifacts required low foot candles, so they are rear illuminated. To give the surface a magical appearance through its depth and quality, we used a honed acrylic ?" deep with the image on the rear surface.
The exhibition achieved LEED Silver Certification for Interiors. Factors credited were LED lighting, retention of existing finishes where applicable, and use of sustainable materials and construction practices.
"It is rare a project turns out better than you imagined, and that is what's happened here. What is so striking is the combination of the bold design and the fanatic attention to detail. That sense of quality and integrity is apparent the second you enter. In lesser hands, the central gallery could suggest a jungle gym crammed with stuff … Instead, the space glows and shimmers and invites. I wanted our public to be dazzled, and I suppose I thought I would be too familiar and too jaded to ever feel that way. But that's exactly what I felt when I saw the first time I saw "Indians Everywhere" powered up and the mapped projection working its spooky magic. I am pleased and grateful beyond words."—NMAI Curator