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 neighbours, 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 new exhibition explores the relationship between Native American Nations and the government of the United States. Visitors are to leave with a clear understanding that while Native American treaties remain U.S. law, their stories are far from over.
The Two-Row Guswenta Wampum belt, representing two boats travelling side-by-side down the river of life, is used in the design to symbolize two differing perspectives and the two viewpoints presented in the exhibition—the Native American Nations and the United States.
The exhibition was to display highly light and conservation-sensitive artifacts paired with the precious treaty documents themselves which were to be changed out along with their stories at regular intervals during the course of the exhibition.
Through a design-build process with Hadley Exhibits, R&P worked closely with NMAI’s initial concepts to develop a gallery design that carefully paces the visitor through the challenging and provocative narratives. The development of the project 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, provided a location where they could get a full 180° view of the 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 never-ending struggle that Native Americans face to preserve their treaty rights. However, 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 complex information into an exhibit that would dramatically change people’s understanding of Native American history. This project establishes a new path for the Museum where intellectual scholarship, collections, and design of the visitor experience work together to create a new understanding of very complex content. The exhibition won the 2016 AAM Award of Excellence in Exhibitions, a first for the Museum.