Ask a public historian: Paul Chaat Smith

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Photo credit: NMAI Photo Services, Smithsonian Institution

Paul Chaat Smith joined the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in 2001, where he currently serves as associate curator. With Robert Warrior, he is the author of Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New Press, 1996), a standard text in Native Studies and American history courses. His second book, Everything You Know about Indians is Wrong, was published in 2009 by the University of Minnesota Press. Smith is a member of the Comanche Nation. His middle name has no hyphen, and rhymes with hot.

What led you to the job you have now?

In a narrow sense, it was meeting a Smithsonian executive named Bruce Bernstein at a conference in Victoria, British Columbia, back in the late 1990s. However, I’ll go with the expected cliché, and say “everything.” Always a lousy student, I never made it past high school. Instead, I spent years in the shambolic American Indian Movement (AIM) until it disintegrated, then moved to New York, in order to, you know, move to New York. I started writing about artists, then finally wrote a book about AIM. When I interviewed at the Smithsonian in 2001, I was a temporary office worker. (It’s almost impossible to get a job in this field without a college degree, and it took me decades to finally get one.)

The one thing I was always pretty good at was writing. The problem was I didn’t do it very much. Which for a long time actually wasn’t a problem. Because for a long time I didn’t have very much to say. In an alternate reality, I may have enrolled in the Iowa Writers School or studied curating at Bard, all by the age of 22. My sentences might have been pretty in that case, but they would have also been pretty vacant. So in retrospect, it worked out to have lots of life experience to draw on once I began writing and curating as a professional.

Who is the “public” in your position? How do you engage them or how do they shape your position?

This varies from project to project. Ten years ago, it was the international art world elite. We did some projects in Venice, which got tons of bad press at home, which was hilarious. (Why are Indians in Venice? What possible reason could Indian artists have to exhibit with their peers from around the world!?) We did manage to get nice reviews from Art in America and famous curators to come to our events. When I curated Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort, it was really important to get a review in Artforum, plus the front page of the Washington Post Style section, and NPR. For an art show in DC, it was a major hit, but remember most people hate art, so that limits the ceiling.

My current project is a 9,000 square-foot exhibition called Americans. This one is built from the ground up to reach the widest possible audience. And because we’re a Smithsonian museum on the National Mall, this means really wide. Sure, we skew to white women over 50 with advanced degrees, but, corny as it sounds, my audience looks like America, which is sort of built on a cult of individuality. There is no average visitor. So how do you create a smart, impactful exhibit for millions of unique individuals?

I’ve always paid close attention to the superstars, people like Thelma Golden, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Okwu Enwezor. Brilliant folks, and I’ve learned a lot from their practice. The most useful guiding light has actually turned out to be Matt Groening. Aside from being incredibly diverse, my audience, like his, ranges from very young children to adults of all ages. The Simpsons knows how to engage every demographic you can think of, with slapstick humor for pre-verbal, pre-literate kids to jokes where the punch line is Eubie Blake, Adlai Stevenson, and Jonathan Franzen. These are often in the same 30 seconds. Most people would think it’s insane to write jokes about such fringe characters, but man oh man, the Adlai Stevenson joke makes the people who get it feel smarter than they have all week. Yes, 97% don’t get it, but there’s something coming up for them (three, two, one) right now.

Professors make the worst curators because they’ve had captive audiences their entire lives. You either read their assignments and write their papers or you fail the class. I’m more like somebody with a little storefront in a big shopping mall, trying every trick in the book to get them to come inside. Sure, my new project (opening October 2017) will get millions of visitors, but numbers don’t guarantee impact. Will they still be thinking about it two days later? Exhibits, thanks to the smartphone, can no longer be about information. One topic in the Americans exhibit is the Trail of Tears. Twenty years ago, a museum exhibit was an incredibly efficient way to learn about it, perhaps the only way. Now, everyone has access to vast archives in the palm of their hand. We can no longer just slap that information on a screen or a wall and make it look nice. We have to understand we’re in the business of creating memorable experiences, not books on a wall.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m under no illusions about my public. They are usually badly dressed, cranky, and a great many have apparently never encountered an escalator before. The thing is, we at the National Museum of the American Indian are trying to move public opinion. We want Americans to see themselves as connected to the Indian experience. As my boss said recently, “we’ve done a good job preaching to the choir. Now we have to reach the congregation.”

The Americans exhibition team marches under the banner of “meet people where they are,” and after eight years on the National Mall, we understand that most people know little about Indians, and what they do know is often incorrect. But it doesn’t mean they are stupid, and it doesn’t mean they are interested in hearing us lecture them with guilt trips, or they want to spend two hours on their feet reading labels and watching way too long videos. They are in our museum because they’re interested, they’re giving us a chance, so our view is, heck, let’s give them one too.

~ This post is part of our series “Ask a Public Historian,” brought to you by NCPH’s New Professional and Graduate Student Committee. Follow the committee on Twitter at @NCPHnewgrad. You can find more “Ask a Practitioner” posts here.

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