Smithsonian Institution: Treaties Exhibition
‘Nation to Nation’ is a ground-breaking installation for NMAI that has become its new model for developing exhibitions and connecting with its neighbors – the legislators on Capitol Hill.
- Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian
- Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations
- 7,650 sq. ft.
- Design-Build, Exhibit Design, Graphic Design
- Washington D.C., USA
- Year Completed
Through the display of eight original Treaty documents, this exhibition explores the relationship between Native American Nations and the United States Government, as well as the history and legacy of US-American Indian diplomacy from the colonial period through to the present.
The Two-Row Guswenta Wampum belt, representing two boats travelling side-by-side down the river of life, was to be used as a key feature in the design. The belt symbolizes how two differing nations can live harmoniously next to each other. To reflect this idea in the exhibit, it was important to highlight the two perspectives and viewpoints side-by-side.
In addition, highly conservation-sensitive artifacts would be paired with the precious Treaty documents. These would change out along with their stories at regular intervals.
Through a design-build process with Hadley Exhibits, R&P worked closely with NMAI’s concepts to develop a design that carefully paces the visitor through the challenging and provocative narratives. This involved extensive consultation with representatives of the Treaty Nations.
Each zone is thematically organized and includes a circular Wampum Belt representation overhead. Great care was put into the suspended beads installation, which were strung together and carefully weighted and colored. This central feature helped draw visitors into each zone, and provided an area to reflect and contemplate the story. The metaphor of the Guswenta Wampum was also integrated into the information panels. Each thematic story is told with the two perspectives side-by-side making the ‘two ways of being’ a key feature of the interpretation.
The Gallery is predominantly dark earth tones to express the struggle between Native Americans and the United States. As visitors reach the conclusion, there is a notable shift towards brighter tones to reflect a more optimistic future. To pace the content, R&P used close-cropped imagery from the collections to enliven the story as well as highlights for key artifacts and topics.
The Museum’s initial intent was to target the exhibit towards legislators and politicians to gain a greater understanding at the congressional level of the struggle that Native Americans face to preserve their Treaty rights. It was later broadened to be more accessible to a wider visitor audience.
R&P worked side-by-side with multiple levels of Museum personnel to organize intricate information into an exhibit that would dramatically change people’s understanding of Native American history. The exhibition won the 2016 AAM Award of Excellence in Exhibitions, a first for the Museum.
- The history of treaties, like the history of native people on this continent, is a troubled one, full of sincere promise and wretched betrayal; but treaties are ongoing, and just as there are still dynamic native communities all across the country, there are still treaties in force that give them autonomy, dignity, and hope for the future…Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post