The National Museum of the American Indian
The National Museum of the American Indian has a conveyor belt x-ray at the entrance that’s usually found in airports and courthouses. It’s the first time I’ve encountered one in a museum. My first thought when I saw it was “Really, they need that for this place?” But, security guards at the entryway were laid back and friendly and there was no line, so that made coming in easy enough.
The first room I entered was huge and spacious and seemed devoid of anything American Indian. A recording of a narrator’s voice reverberated in the large hall, but there didn’t seem to be much else going on. A large rotunda was in the center with a carpeted interior and some chairs haphazardly clustered off to the side. The chairs were set up in front of a video kiosk that was the source of the echoing voice. Around the rim of the rotunda was info about the history of the building as a U.S. Custom House as well as the history of the vicinity and waters nearby. Even with this info and ceiling of murals, the whole space felt empty and lacking. The stained carpet and chair upholstery just added an additional feeling of neglect, like someone overlooked or simply forgot about the room.
Once you get past this strange introduction and into the other rooms, the vibe shifts. It’s in the other galleries that one can start to see where all the care and time went in – and essentially where the National Museum of the American Indian actually starts. I was impressed to find two people working as part of the exhibits they were in. One room was evidently educational and interactive. There was a man seated and sorting some things on a table. Aside from sorting, he was there to answer questions and show people how to do some of the activities set-up for those who came in. In the room with the women’s dresses, a woman was seated at a table to the side and beading in the tradition that was associated with the dresses in the displays.
I have to say that I was more impressed after having gone through the various galleries than when I first walked into the museum. The exhibits ranged from contemporary to historical as well as interactive. I found out that the rotunda is occasionally used for events and performances and so is the more modern exhibition space downstairs. As the guard put it, “lots of parties”. It made me wonder if the rotunda was left rather unkempt because it’s used more for events. I still found it a stark contrast to the other galleries and feel that something more can be done to the space as a gallery without inhibiting it from performances or or other events. The building is large and though there are a handful of galleries, a research library, free lockers (instead of a coat check), and video room – all available to the public, this sense of lacking or neglect still looms.
The Asia Society building is visible from a few blocks away, its banner – tall and bright. In the lobby is the info/admissions area, shop and café and the museum is located upstairs. The museum exhibition space encompasses the foyer of the second floor and the enclosed rooms around it. The smaller of the rooms had loud and somewhat disturbing audio coming from a curtained area that looped over and over again. It was a kind of sinister laugh that made me curious, but at the same time was somewhat repelling. I wondered if the security guard stationed there had learned to ignore it or if he cringed every single time it played. Personally, I think it would drive me crazy and even looking at the piece it was a part of didn’t help any because I wasn’t able to perceive an obvious connection.
While the gift shop does its best in representing the grand diversity of Asia, the museum, given its relative size seems to only be able to focus on one main theme at a time. In this case, it’s (some) contemporary art from Pakistan. This makes sense, even though the concept of a museum for me usually encompasses more. My understanding of one main difference between a “gallery” and a “museum” – is that a gallery generally is looking to move through and sell art, whereas a museum houses a collection or collections that are not necessarily sold or traded so easily. From a relatively superficial perspective, the Asia Society Museum seems to me more like a gallery than an actual museum.
The Scandinavia House
Before I even went all the way in, the first thing I noticed when I walked into the Scandinavia House is the bare tree inside the lobby. It sits smack in the middle of the cafe, brightly lit with branches stretched out over the cafe. Before that, at the entrance is a small desk area with some info around it. To the left are some retail items, but a sign reveals the gift shop is towards the back. The cafe seems to be the main attraction on the first floor, the smell of food wafting throughout. To get to the gallery, you have to pass the cafe and gift shop and take the elevator upstairs to the third floor.
When you arrive at the gallery, it’s quite contrasting to the lobby. The space is minimal and spread out, whereas the lobby is very full with only one main walkway. In the elevator area is a mantel with printed material and a bathroom off to the side. The first and main gallery space was large, dark and bare. There were two rows of slanted glass tabletop displays. The exhibition featured the drawings of one artist whose works were in the glass displays, on two walls of the main gallery, on the hallway wall and in one of two gallery rooms further in. The smaller gallery with work was more brightly lit and the other room had a window, table with art books and some chairs.
Overall the gallery felt lonely, but that may have been because I was the only person there besides the security guard. The space didn’t quite retain a sense of neglect, but it did make me wonder how many people actually go to that gallery. The gallery is free whereas other features of the Scandinavia House are not. And even though “Exhibition” is the first listing in their printed guide of events, their films, concerts and café seem to be greater attractions.