For my first museum trip, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian, which is dedicated to the art and culture of the native inhabitants of North and South America and the Rubin Museum of Art, dedicated to art and cultures of the Himalayas, India and neighboring regions. It was a great chance to visit two ethnic museums related to completely different cultures of the world, and compare both visions on how to organize the content and display it to create an experience for their visitors.
I organized my report of each museum into five items: space, collection, people, interactivity and website.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN INDIAN
The museum occupies two floors of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in Lower Manhattan, a building from the early 1900s. The space has a very classical, historical feeling but its small scale makes it feel friendly and not intimidating. The most impressive space is the rotunda in the main hall of the second floor, from where you can access the different exhibitions. It’s only purpose, though, is to show the history of the building through a set of small panels.
The museum is easy to explore but we were a bit confused about where to go right after the security check at the entrance.
The permanent exhibition is organized by geographic regions, focusing on the artistic and cultural expressions of different indigenous groups without presenting their linear history or evolution. From my point of view, this can easily create confusion and misunderstanding of the temporal context of each object if they don’t read the captions. However, the exhibition succeeds in providing an insight into the depth and variety of the cultures of the original inhabitants of the continent.
The special exhibition on Navajo jewelers was very interesting, as it helps understanding the importance the museum gives to groups of Native Americans that are still alive preserving the culture of their people.
The museum seems to have a good number of daily visitors, probably because it is free and located in a very touristic area of New York. There were several security people working at the front door and inside the building, but the reception area seemed to be short of staff at the time we visited.
The exhibition includes some screen kiosks with audio and video with additional comments by historians on specific objects. Other than that, the museum lacks of creative ways in which to engage the visitors. On the lower floor there is a Dance Room and an Education Center with very poor interactive material.
The NMAI in New York is one of the two branches of the museum in the United States, the other and main one being in Washington, DC. The website mixes information from both museums on its main page, which creates some confusion on the exhibitions currently hosted at the museum. Overall, it serves it purpose of displaying information about the museum’s activities, but it doesn’t provide any insight or extra information to make it interesting to visit other than to look for the museum’s address and schedule.
THE RUBIN MUSEUM OF ART
The museum occupies what was formerly a portion of the Barneys department store in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, and it was opened in 2004. It has a very modern and feeling with dimmed light, making it more intimate. The most remarkable element is the spiral staircase located in the center of the building, connecting its seven floors. The café in the first floor helps creating a modern and intimate atmosphere, and invites people to use the building even when they are not visiting the exhibitions.
The permanent exhibition is organized in a very educational way to understand the art of the Himalayas and Tibet. On its first level, the visitor gets an insight of the common symbols and important figures portrayed in the different paintings and sculptures. As they walk through the next levels, the artwork gets more complex and rich in images, especially in the upper floors where the temporary exhibitions are hosted. By the end of this very metaphorical ‘ascension’, I had the feeling of getting a much better understanding of these cultures. The captions and other illustrations help a lot to understand all these symbols and elements in depth.
From the temporary exhibitions, my favorite one was related to the use of masks in different parts of Asia.
Due to its location, price and theme, I believe that the visitors of this museum are people specifically interested in these specific cultures or living in the nearby areas, compared to the National Museum of the American Indian, which is probably visited by more tourists or Americans in general. The people working there are extremely friendly, peaceful and helpful, including security guards, receptionists, people working at the cafeteria and a guy who was playing music on the ground level.
There are not too many interactive elements. Again, just some screen kiosks with in-depth interactive graphics about the figures and symbols in the artwork. They are effective, tough. The most engaging interactive installation one was a group of screens in the seventh floor which allowed you to take a self portrait wearing a 3D mask, using a camera and face detection technologies. They also encourage people to use hashtags in some of the exhibitions while taking pictures of the pieces, as a way to expand the museum experience into their social media.
The museum’s website is a good companion to the experience at the museum. Its interface seems confusing at the main page, but while navigating it provides a lot of information about the different exhibitions, specific pieces in the collection, and ways to participate in the museum’s different activities. It seems that the Rubin is very interested in creating a community around the institution, so a big part of the website and the pamphlets in the museum are related to that.