Updated: Dec 11, 2019
The National Museum of the American Indian is a wonderful institution with a very clear mission.
They want to educate the public on Native American history and they also work to repatriate many items that have been taken (often stolen) from various nations.
They also want to provide access to materials and images for those interested. This is great! But how do you know what you want to ask for if you're not already familiar with their collections? How do you find your information?
Their website displays clearly the Smithsonian affiliation of the museum, as well as the various locations (Washington, D.C. and NYC). They also introduce current and upcoming exhibits on their website and separate those from special events, which include cultural engagement and special history presentations. The many traveling exhibits or co-sponsored events seem interesting, but I think many of the events are not sponsored by the museum directly so it could be confusing to site visitors specifically looking for Native American cultural events to see other events featured by a wide variety of groups. Potentially, a separate community engagement page would be helpful.
I’m a little confused as to who the target audience is for this particular website. There are many educators who would certainly benefit and find information here, but the educational materials are featured deep within the navigation menu. The home page features upcoming events and the museum address, but little about the mission of the museum or links to find more detailed information about collections and more. While it is important to facilitate a community with events reflecting the mission of your museum, in destination cities like DC and NYC, this museum needs to feature special exhibits and perhaps even host digital exhibits of the different things you might miss if you visit DC but not the NYC branch of the museum.
Also, featuring specific goals like education, scholar engagement, or other significant functions of the museum would be an acceptable thematic framing for their online collections. As far as I can tell at first glance, it’s a hodgepodge of different curators with different goals building on the same framework without adapting older features to their new purposes.
One instant drawback I found on the home screen was the very bold push for donations. Asking visitors for donations is acceptable since it’s a museum and many of them are funded through public donations, but at the same time this is part of the federally funded Smithsonian Institution so it really contrasts with the visitor’s expectations of this lauded institution. Although the funding is clearly for educational resources and their distribution, I think it is an interesting choice to immediately greet site visitors with a push for donations. I was also taken aback by the push to donate because it was unclear what the educational resources already available might be, and how to navigate to them. Probably the most off-putting and also most easily corrected aspect of this funds-grab was that the banner to give covered the visible webpage and filled the screen upon opening the webpage like an unwelcome pop-up ad.
While the NMAI has many online teaching guides and some images associated with blurbs about past exhibits, they don’t have many elements that I would consider “digital exhibits.”
They do have an online collections page, but it links to a larger Smithsonian database or it links to a text-based explanation of different kinds of collections possessed by the museum. Unfortunately, there are very few images on this website. The few they do have available for viewing are hard to read when text-based or scroll quickly as part of a mini-slideshow.
You can request digital images through the Archive Center, but there is little available for perusal. I think it’s very important to have digital repositories, at minimum in the form of a gallery, because it inspires people to discover new information. If people can browse, they can stumble across lots of information they never would have realized they were missing. If you have to request things specifically through online forms, you won’t be introduced to new material.
While there are many wonderful educational resources available on this website, there is little to allow for discovery.
When you don’t know what you’re missing or what you’re looking for, you need more guidance for what you need to learn. Especially in the context of educational resources, many educators don’t have the resources or time to research and seek out topics, but they can recognize wonderful learning opportunities when they see them.
Perhaps this is why the NMAI needs the extra funding for educational resources!
Image galleries are also a great way to identify elements of your collections that you might have otherwise missed in your own search as a scholar. Researchers who think they know what they’re looking for can easily request and receive images and information, and even access to some source material, but many great projects started out as a small thing someone noticed while they were actually looking for something else.
I think the most valuable thing on their website is the Native Knowledge element that directs you to learning objectives for students and ideas about lesson planning. It is arranged thematically, which is an interesting choice. I think it is wise to organize information like this so it can be used in a government, economics, religion, or geography class (and potentially more), rather than just in a history class.
The “Essential Understandings” segment breaks down the key points of many categories of Native America history interest, and I think it’s very useful that there is a downloadable PDF that would be an excellent printed booklet for distribution as a class handout.
When I finally found the page that stores all of the teaching resources, which are numerous and contain a wonderful range of grade level applications, I was stunned at how unintuitive it was to find. I wouldn’t have considered the “Native Knowledge 360” tab to take me to a page filled with lesson plans because it was billed as a “new perspectives” page and featured next to “Essential Understandings.” I would have imaged that “new perspectives” would lead me to information about more recent developments in Native American communities or perhaps new discoveries. While we can always benefit from taking a new perspective on history topics, we should also be very cautious in the way we name and represent learning materials. Anything marketed to the public should be unambiguous and easy to comprehend upon first viewing.
Within the “Native Knowledge 360” page you can use search criteria to narrow down regions, time periods, peoples, and more to find a lesson plan that fits your topical or geographical needs. I think this part of the website is very clearly new because the design elements are fresher and the menus are simpler. These elements make it much easier to use, and the search bars give suggested content so you’re not stuck with a bad search result if you’ve misspelled a name or forgotten some alternative terms for what you’re seeking.
They also asked me to take a survey after I spent a couple of hours browsing the website, which indicated to me that they are invested in making positive changes to the site’s navigability and content. This encouraged me! It takes a long time to revamp a webpage that already exists.
I think this website is suffering from being simply outdated. The color scheme and graphic design elements date this webpage severely. I am sure they’ve updated the content consistently, but I doubt that anyone has taken a crack at the organization or web design in years. Simply the layout of the menus and the nested menus give away the age of this online forum. It was likely built with expansion in mind, but digitizing items and building online exhibits takes a lot of funding and support while updating events pages are rather straightforward and simple. Web design standards change quickly and frequently, so I’m not very surprised that a huge project like this might lapse.
However, I think the Smithsonian has a responsibility to keep these online resources up to date and help institutions navigate the digital age.
It is difficult to know what you should put on a website, so when there is little offered by these webpages I think that is a clear indication that they don’t have the staff to work on the public facing digital elements like running effective social media or building online resources. This is a key need in the modern world of museums, so I expected much more of a Smithsonian institution. Even their twitter page has little engagement despite their fairly regular tweets.
If the site is to be truly effective for the public, they will need to put their educational resources on the home page and feature it prominently. Additionally, I think they would benefit from taking a more thematic approach to the website to make it simpler to navigate. Breaking the menus down into categories like “Archives” or “Events and Exhibits” and “Engagement” would be much easier to understand than the multi-level nested menus they use to break up each of the aspects of their website. They have menus upon menus to the point that it’s difficult to find your way back to something after you’ve moved on to another page.
Simplicity is trending right now, and I think it will remain relevant even after trends in web design and marketing change, so I hope they find a more sustainable and classic model.