National Museum of the American Indian

Jacki Thompson Rand
Why I Can’t Visit the National Museum of the American Indian, Reflections of an accidental privileged insider, 1989-1994.” Common-Place, vol. 7, no. 4 (July 2007).

From the article: ” ‘We’ve been trying to educate the visitors for five hundred years; how long will it take to educate the visitors?’ spoke an elderly Native woman at one of several community-based consultations I organized for the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) between 1989 and 1994. Her words—strong, angry, and impatient—formed a response to the question we carried to each consultation: what should the museum say about Native America? Her agitated comeback affected the remainder of my experience as one of the museum’s early planners and has remained with me for the past fourteen or fifteen years. Smithsonian representatives had no response for the woman then; today, the finished museum stands as a reminder of how the small-but-growing museum staff failed to find, in that tense moment of public scolding, inspiration and encouragement to tell the story that we know and the nation denies.”

This took a long time…

Why? I’d like to read the follow-up story here. How will the public help identify these works?

“The Louvre is showing Nazi-looted art in a bid to find its owners. Some wonder why it took so long.”

James McAuley, Washington Post, Feb. 2. 2018.

Paintings looted by Nazis during World War II on display at the Louvre in Paris on Tuesday. (Christophe Ena/AP)

“Please Touch”

…is not a sign you usually see in an art museum. But Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, or the Museum of the Cathedral of Florence, invites visitors to touch the art…at least some of it…okay…copies of some of it.


Above you see my hand on the head of Jesus in a copy of Arnolfo di Cambio’s sculpture of the Madonna and Child of 1296 that was on the early facade of the Florence Duomo.


Above you see the full copy at left and the original at right positioned at eye level and in the central opening of the reconstructed original facade you read about in an earlier post. The sculptures you see here were placed higher on the original facade but have been placed here at the center to allow visitors to see them more clearly while still getting some idea of where they were positioned.

Touching the copy was amazing! I could get a very good sense of the artist’s focus on sculptural details that would not have been seen by viewers at street level or viewers of the original in the museum. For example, Arnolfo carved curly hair on the back of Jesus’s head, as well as the little folds in the child’s ear. These details seem minor, but for a scholar of Renaissance art they suggest the artist’s desire to enliven the Christ Child with human details, a concept that theologians and Humanists as well as artists were exploring at this time. These are details that a scholar cannot “see” when a sculpture is placed against a wall in a museum…and we certainly are not allowed to touch the original. The “copy” allows scholars to explore the work in a different dimension while using the sense of touch as well as sight. And as with the “touchable” painting by Caravaggio in the Capitoline Museum in Rome (see an earlier post on this), the work is accessible to those who are visually impaired.

What do you think “touchable copies” means for scholars and students of art? What might we learn from these? What work of art would you most like to touch and why? What would the copy have to be like to answer the questions you have about the work?

A remodeled museum in Florence

Florence was settled by Julius Caesar in 59 BCE for army veterans, but in time the army camp became a Christian town. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, or the Museum of the Cathedral of Florence, is home to sculptures, paintings, architectural models (designs for the facade made in the 16th c.), mosaics, paintings, clerical vestments, furniture, and liturgical objects such as chalices and reliquaries. All of these objects were once in the 4th c. church of Sta. Reparata (the earliest church in Florence) and the later cathedral built on top of that Early Christian structure. The Cathedral has long owned this property. In fact, Michelangelo carved the David here between 1501 and 1504; his David was initially intended for the Cathedral. The museum reopened in 2015 after being closed for several years. As a museum closely connected to a Christian church, its focus is on interpreting objects within a Christian context. This is different from religious works (from any faith) you might see on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where the focus is primarily on interpreting art within an artistic context that includes faith, but is not exclusively about the faith.

Below is a view of the Cathedral facade today with the Campanile (bell tower) at right and the Baptistery at the far right.

When the church was finished in the 14th and 15th cs., sculptors were commissioned to decorate the facade with statues of Mary and Jesus as well as saints; however, the facade was never completely finished. These sculptures remained on the facade until the 19th c. when the facade of Florence Cathedral that we see today was designed and constructed (see above).


The drawing above dates to the 16th c. and shows the unfinished facade; the 19th-c. photograph shows the facade with the sculptures removed prior to the construction of the new facade in the 1890s.

The museum was remodeled between 2013 and 2015 in order to bring all of these medieval and early Renaissance sculptures together and place them onto a reconstruction of the earlier unfinished facade.

Instead of seeing sculptures on a pedestal against a wall or in the middle of a room, as one sees them in a museum, the visitor now sees these works exhibited in the reconstruction of the original facade. Further, sacred Christian music from the 14th and 15th cs. is heard in the background in an attempt to recreate the experience of a visitor hundreds of years ago.

What are the pros and cons of these curatorial decisions?

Visual art for the visually impaired

The Capitoline Museum in Rome has several paintings by Caravaggio, a Baroque artist active in the city from around 1594 until shortly before his death in 1610. Caravaggio is known for his realism, earthy colors, and depiction of everyday scenes populated by characters one might encounter on the streets of Rome ca. 1600. The museum has developed a way to share these paintings with visually-impaired visitors through panels that “depict” the painting in raised relief. All visitors are invited to touch these panels to gain a better idea of Carvaggio’s painting which is, by definition, to be “seen.”


The painting here is an early work by Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller of ca. 1595.

What do you think of this? What other ways might art museums make their collections available to the visually impaired?


How do we get the public to visit?

Marcus Aurelius may seem esoteric to many Americans, but this late 2nd c. CE Roman emperor was a philosopher, and some scholars today consider his Meditations to be one of the most important texts from the ancient world.

Yes…this is interesting and important! But will it bring people to a museum?

The Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, one of Rome’s museums of ancient art, is located in one of the busiest sections of the city…right next to Rome’s main railroad station. Posters showing objects from the museum’s collection together with passages from Hadrian’s writings inform passersby what treasures lie within. Keep in mind…these are not ads but posters with objects from the museum’s collection and philosophical passages about life from Marcus Aurelius’s writings.

Do you think these are inviting? Do you think they bring visitors into the museum? Do you think the goal is to attract visitors, teach the public, something else?