Photograph by Robert C. Lautman, National Geographic

While in D.C. last month, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian for the first time. I’ve been wanting to visit since it opened, so I was delighted to have a couple of hours free one afternoon.

As this picture from the National Geographic website illustrates, the NMAI is a beautiful building, and just as its outside is quite different from the other museums in the Smithsonian, so too is its inside. It has a much more fluid, organic organization than more traditional art museums. For example, exhibits are arranged by theme rather than historically. It also embraces a multimedia approach to its subjects, often blending sights, sounds, video, and music into an organic whole that represents native tribes, their artifacts, their art, and their beliefs holistically.

Most of my museum blogging has been about art museums. I’ve also written a couple of posts about natural history museums. This is the first cultural museum I’ve visited in a while, and it took me a little while to get acclimated to it — visiting this kind of museum is obviously very different from looking at paintings, sculpture, etc. Visitors are encouraged to start on the top floor and work their way down. The first exhibits I saw were in the Our Universe exhibit.

As the NMAI website explains,

Our Universes focuses on indigenous cosmologies–worldviews and philosophies related to the creation and order of the universe–and the spiritual relationship between humankind and the natural world. Organized around the solar year, the exhibition introduces visitors to indigenous peoples from across the Western Hemisphere who continue to express the wisdom of their ancestors in celebration, language, art, spirituality, and daily life.

The  gallery features eight cultural philosophies — those of the Pueblo of Santa Clara (Espanola, New Mexico, USA), Anishinaabe (Hollow Water and Sagkeeng Bands, Manitoba, Canada), Lakota (Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, USA), Quechua (Communidad de Phaqchanta, Cusco, Peru), Hupa (Hoopa Valley, California, USA), Q’eq’chi’ Maya (Cobán, Guatemala), Mapuche (Temuco, Chile), and Yup’ik (Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska, USA) — and its design reflects each community’s interpretation of the order of the world. (Source)