Indian Museum Education Programs

I'm Faith Lapidus.  And I'm Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we tell about how the new National Museum of the American Indian is educating the public.

A large group of school children waits outside the doors of the new museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. They are loudly talking and laughing with their friends while they wait. Then the doors to the National Museum of the American Indian open.

The young students move past the security guards and walk around a metal wall. Suddenly they are very quiet. They are standing in a huge round space that is the center of the new building. Light from the sky pours in through a glass opening almost forty meters above them.

This is a space that quiets people. It expresses the American Indian respect for how the sky and the earth join to create the native universe. The sudden silence of the students is evidence they have begun to learn something about American Indians' culture and beliefs. That is the goal of the new museum.

The National Museum of the American Indian opened September twenty-first with a week-long celebration. On opening day, more than eighty thousand people gathered on the Mall to celebrate. About twenty-five thousand American Indians in their traditional clothes marched in the colorful Native Nations Procession. They represented five hundred tribes and Native communities from northern Canada to as far south as Chile in South America.

Congress created the NMAI as part of the Smithsonian Institution in nineteen eighty-nine. Planning began the next year to create the first national museum to honor Native Americans.

W. Richard West, a Southern Cheyenne, has been the director of the museum since nineteen ninety. Mr. West explains that Native Americans have had a continuing part in developing the design and goals of the museum and what it should show the public. Meetings were held for years with hundreds of Native people from North, Central and South America. They said that this museum should be different from other museums. They wanted the building to connect to the earth and its surroundings so it looked like it belongs on Indian land. And they urged that the voices and ideas of Native people be heard in all the displays and programs.

Their advice has been followed. The design of the building and its surroundings show its connection to nature. Colors, materials and forms that are found in American Indian lands are used outside and inside the building. Throughout the museum, the voices of Native people describe their world.

Mr. West says the museum was created to be a center for learning about the history and cultures of the native peoples of the Americas. He hopes visitors will leave the museum experience knowing that Indians are not just a part of history.

The National Museum of the American Indian has about eight hundred thousand objects in its collection. Most of them were collected by one man, American businessman George Gustav Heye (high). He spent the first fifty years of the last century gathering all kinds of American Indian objects that have great artistic, historic and cultural meaning.

The collection now is in three different buildings. Some of the objects are shown in the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. Most of the collection is kept in the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, which opened in nineteen ninety-eight. This is also where people can do research.

The new museum in Washington, D.C. has about eight thousand objects in its exhibits. It also has space for educational activities, ceremonies and performances.

Representatives of Native communities helped develop the three main exhibit areas in the new museum. One area is called Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World. It shows the spiritual links between people and the natural world. And it shows how these links are honored in many different ceremonies throughout the year.

Eight Native communities are represented in the Our Universes area. Tessie Naranjo helped choose the objects and the theme of the Santa Clara Pueblo exhibit.

Mizz Naranjo says the goal is to help visitors understand how the Santa Clara people look at life. This is done, she explains, through storytelling, which is used throughout the museum. All tribal stories have a teaching purpose, she says. Stories express the values of each Native community and the way community members are connected to the universe.

So the Santa Clara exhibit tells about the importance of water, maize, and the four sacred mountains that surround the reservation in New Mexico. Visitors learn how young people in Santa Clara are taught to listen to older people and to honor the land.

Another major exhibit area is called Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories. It explores events that have shaped the lives of Native Americans since Europeans arrived in fourteen ninety-two. It shows how American Indians have struggled to save their traditions.

The third exhibit area is called Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities. It tries to answer the question of what is an American Indian. Visitors see objects, pictures, and films and hear spoken words. They learn about the difficulties native peoples face to survive economically, save their languages, and keep their culture and arts alive.

Genevieve Simermeyer, a member of the Osage tribe, is the school programs coordinator for the museum. She says the museum education office has developed three programs for different age groups of school children. Nine Native Americans act as tour guides or cultural interpreters. They meet school groups in the large open space. Then they take the students through different areas of the museum. They explain about some of the exhibits and answer questions.

Before a group of school children visits the museum, their teacher receives materials to help prepare them. The youngest children from ages five to eight explore the idea of old things and new things. At the museum they discover links between the past and present in American Indian life.

For groups of school children nine to eleven years old, the visit to the museum is about the cultural values of Native Americans. They explore how American Indians have dealt with change. Older children learn how modern issues such as borders and treaties have affected the culture, language and traditions of native peoples.

Mizz Simermeyer says the guided tours for school children are so popular they are already filled through May. But school groups can visit the museum without a guide. There are teaching materials to help them prepare for the visit.

Storytelling takes place throughout the museum. There are short films that tell American Indian stories. Voices in some of the some exhibits tell stories that explain native beliefs. The cultural interpreters also tell stories.

Adults and children also enjoy the hands-on parts of the museum. Computer games and instructional devices that provide learning experiences are very popular. So are teaching boxes that contain objects that visitors can touch. For people who cannot get to the museum, education materials can be found on the Internet at AmericanIndian.si.edu.

Amy Drapeau (drah-poe) is a spokesperson for the National Museum of the American Indian. She says the education program helps the general public understand that American Indians are not just from the past and are not all the same. They live in many different places. They speak hundreds of different languages. And their traditions are very different.

Children who visit the museum seem to enjoy what they learn. You can hear their excited comments as they make discoveries for themselves. "Wow." "Come look at this!" "I did not know that."

Adults learn, too. A woman from Silver Spring, Maryland, says she learned that present day Native Americans still have traditions they know and value. She says that made her think about her own family traditions and what has happened to them. "The Museum of the American Indian," she says " is a powerful place."

This program was written by Marilyn Christiano. It was produced by Mario Ritter. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

Source: EXPLORATIONS – Indian Museum Education Programs
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