Saturday, January 14, 2012

Public Diplomacy and the National Museum of the American Indian

In the company of a distinguished American journalist, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian the other day. I had been there before, and been taken off guard by its emptiness -- its lack of well-identified objects on display. This time around, I was again shocked by how little this cavernous building in central Washington tells (can tell?) about

the history and culture of Native Americans. It is a coffin without a body.

My friend, a man of far more profound ideas than my own, shared my concern, and made a memorable remark, which I paraphrase here: "In an ironic way, in its voidness, this place tells us more about the extermination of a people than the Holocaust Museum nearby."

My widely-traveled pal added that the Indian Museum was among the sites most visited by foreigners who come to Washington. (Again, I paraphrase him: "Tourists don't come to DC to see European masters at the National Gallery of Art").

So, impressed by his comment, I wonder, former diplomat that I am, what public diplomacy impact this essentially vacant stone structure on the Mall, "sheltered by a roof that recalls a limestone overhang in a Southwest U.S. canyon" and dedicated to the ancestors of native Americans, has on persons from other countries in search of enlightenment about the U.S.

If disappointed by the museum's exhibits, tourists might at first be intrigued by its restaurant, which promises to have interesting and "unusual" food. But, judging by the "Buffalo Burger" that I consumed more out of hunger than delight, this souped-up, outragerously expensive cafeteria has much more to do with squeezing dollars out of visitors than titillating their palates.

Image of the National Museum of the American Indian from

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