Jim Moran’s A Moran When It Comes To Smithsonian Ethnic Museums

National Museum of the American IndianVia the ever-awesome Ta-Nehisi Coates, I see that my esteemed Congressman, Jim Moran, has managed to offend yet another ethnic group:

Seven years after opening its National Museum of the American Indian, and four years before the scheduled unveiling of its museum of African-American history, the Smithsonian Institution is being urged to create another ethnic museum on the National Mall, this one to recognize the history and contributions of Latino Americans…

“I don’t want a situation,” said Representative Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, “where whites go to the original museum, African-Americans go to the African-American museum, Indians go to the Indian museum, Hispanics go to the Latino American museum. That’s not America.”

The discussion in TNC’s comments thread has been focusing mostly on whether Moran in this case was speaking from a philosophically defensible point of view (a desire to avoid Balkanizing the Smithsonian’s audience), or from plain old fear of brown hordes overrunning the National Mall. Having lived in Moran’s district for almost ten years now, I don’t find those discussions very interesting, just because at this point every ethnic group in America should know that at some point Jim Moran is going to say something stupid about them. It’s part of the American Experience.

So trying to read Jim Moran’s mind isn’t a particularly fruitful line of thought.  What might be fruitful, however, is to look at actual data to see if his fears are grounded in reality, no matter where they come from.  In other words, do ethnic museums only attract the people whose stories they tell, or don’t they?  That’s a question that has more bearing on the subject of whether there should be a Latino museum than Jim Moran’s state of mind does.  I left a comment at TNC’s place digging into this question, but since it’s of general interest I thought I’d post the figures here as well.

Thankfully, on this subject, we don’t have to rely on reading the minds of notoriously gaffe-prone people such as Rep. Moran, because we actually have data.

The Smithsonian already has one ethnically-themed museum: the National Museum of the American Indian.  And the Smithsonian publishes their estimated annual visitor counts for all museums on the Web, so we can look at the visits that museum receives and see how they compare both to the main National Museum of American History and to the Native American population generally.

If Moran’s fears are real, you would expect the National Museum of the American Indian to attract a share of the American History Museum’s visitors that’s proportional to the share of Native Americans in the general population.  So to begin with, let’s see what that share is.  The most recent estimates from the Census Bureau puts the total population of the U.S. at 301 million people, of which 2.4 million identify as Native American (American Indian or native Alaskan), 477,000 identify as native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and 6.7 millionwho identify as belonging to two or more races. Odds are that most of the latter don’t include Native American ancestry, but let’s give Rep. Moran’s side of the argument as much space as possible and assume that all of them would be included in the audience for a Native American museum.  That comes to 9.6 million people total, or around 3.2% of the total population.

Now let’s look at the traffic figures for the Smithsonian’s museums.  In 2010, the National Museum of American History saw 4.2 million visits, and the National Museum of the American Indian saw 1.6 million (1.3 million at its Washington facility, and another 300,000 at its satellite facility in New York).  That means that the National Museum of the American Indian attracted 38% of the number of visits the American History Museum did.  The figures for 2009 are similar: 4.4 million visits for the American History Museum, 1.7 million for both facilities of the National Museum of the American Indian, or a 39% share.

Those audience shares are an order of magnitude higher than you’d expect to see if the only people interested in visiting the National Museum of the American Indian were American Indians. (Not to mention that they’re higher than most other Smithsonian museums, including the much-promoted Dulles annex to the National Air and Space Museum. Location, location, location!)

Now, I would venture to guess that those numbers of visits today to the National Museum of the American Indian are higher than that museum will end up averaging over its lifetime, since that museum is comparatively newer and is therefore probably drawing a bit more foot traffic now just from the novelty factor. But even if it were to lose half its visitors it’d still have much higher visitorship than you’d expect to see if the only audience that were interested in it were Natives.

So you can officially relax, Rep. Moran; the evidence indicates that while ethnic museums don’t have the drawing power the main American History museum does, they do have enough drawing power to attract an audience broader than just those whose stories they tell.

(Postscript: A possible counterargument might be the comparatively low traffic figures for the other ethnically-themed Smithsonian museum, the National Museum of African Art, which only sees about 300-400,000 visits per year. But I’d argue that it’s not as relevant to this discussion as the National Museum of the American Indian is, because it narrows its appeal not just by ethnicity, but also by subject. I’m not sure if relatively low visitor totals for a museum about African art necessarily mean you’d see similarly low totals for a museum about the African-American experience more generally.)


Sandy Smith

April 22, 2011
10:17 am

Attendance could be skewed because the attraction for one ethnic group causes them to visit in numbers far out of proportion to their proportion of the overall population. Whites have lots of places to go to learn history that largely includes them, whereas American Indians may have fewer places. Also, the collection at a museum may be sufficiently important within a community to draw them disproportionately. Unless you have actual demographic information, attendance figures might be suggestive of a lack of Balkanization, but they’re not proof.

That being said, from what I have heard about the American Indian Museum is that American Indians are not super thrilled about how it presents everything, so you have mostly ignorant whities (Hi Rep. Moran!) there.