A year of transition for NMAI
WASHINGTON - For the National Museum of the American Indian, 2007 was a year of transition in leadership and operations.
The leadership change has been long anticipated. Inaugural director W. Rick West had announced his departure and he made it official in August, at the museum's national pow wow. NMAI's parent organization, the Smithsonian Institution, named Kevin Gover the new executive director, and he took office Dec. 2 with many tasks on his plate, among them a charge to tell the museum's story in a way that will appeal to people who aren't already familiar with Native culture.
The museum remains cherished ground for Native people, with one woman recently comparing it to ''a church where I'll always feel welcome.'' Gover has pledged to maintain the museum's character as a Native place, a center of living indigenous cultures rather than the display case of the past some still fear it could become.
Fueling their concern is an operational change not everyone foresaw. Congress has tightened its purse-strings and a budget impasse has threatened appropriations for programs across the board, including Smithsonian programs. Retired Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, in Washington Dec. 4 to donate a pendant of his own design to the museum, where it will be sold exclusively with all proceeds going to NMAI, explained the impact of the new political climate on the museum's operations for an audience of 50 or so.
''To offset rising costs,'' he said, while maintaining free admission to Smithsonian museums, ''you've got to ask for money. And if the Congress does not have the appropriated amount that the museums need to do a really creative job, that means we've got to rely on the private sector to help raise some money. And that's basically what this [the pendant] is for. ... I hope that a few people will buy this to show your support of the museum, because that's where all the proceeds go.''
Transitions aside, the stable identity and stellar exhibitions of the museum showed few signs of slackening in 2007. The pow wow mentioned above drew tens of thousands to a powerful display of the diversity within tribal culture; in July, the museum grounds hosted a wildly successful, widely viewed speech of Al Gore on Earth Day; ''Identity By Design,'' a beautiful showing of Native dresses from past and present, opened to acclaim; and two recent additions, a Blackfeet and a Chiricahua exhibition, continued to fill out the little-known history of the Americas in moving and informative ways, giving pause for thought and spiritual nourishment to the most casual passerby.