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Native Voice for a National Museum

A different sort of museum opened in Washington D.C. this September. The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which is largely administered by Native Americans, seeks to balance a public understanding of Native objects between cultural interpretation, aesthetics, and anthropology. Some fifteen years in the making, and housed in multiple locations, this institution unveiled its centerpiece museum last month. NMAI occupies the last plot of land on the National Mall between The National Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Capital Building.

East façade of the National Museum of the American Indian, photo credit: Robert C. Lautman.

This new museum is actually one of four institutions, which together make up the NMAI. Like the four cardinal directions, which play an important role in Native religion, the four distinctive museums of NMAI each address different concerns of both the Native and non-Native public.


The nearly 800,000 Native objects, which form the core of NMAI’s collection, were collected by George Gustav Heye. A New York investment banker, Heye collected in the early 20th century, acquiring objects by Native cultures from throughout the Western hemisphere, from the Arctic to South America. The collection includes Nootka whaleboats, Kwakiutl masks, Sitting Bull’s drum, Mayan jade, a splendid Haida totem pole seven stories high from 19th century Alaska, and myriad other pieces. Heye was known as a boxcar collector, purchasing everything he could ship East on a train, including unlikely objects such as common footwear and samples of Native foodstuffs.

North façade of the National Museum of the American Indian, photo credit: Robert C. Lautman.

Heye established the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation in Manhattan’s Audubon Terrace neighborhood, where the collection lived from 1922 through the late 1980’s. The collection was transferred to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in January 1989 and eleven months later the first President Bush signed legislation incorporating the NMAI into the Smithsonian Institution. The museum began to take form with the appointment of W. Richard West (Southern Cheyenne) as founding director. West is both a Pow Wow dancer and a lawyer versed in Indian affairs, bringing a combination of talents to the position.

Navajo bi ni ghá dzi itl’ ó ní (serape poncho), New Mexico, 1825-60, photo credit: David Heald, © Smithsonian Institution/National Museum of the American Indian, (9/1912).

Part of the Smithsonian’s agreement with the Heye Foundation was that NMAI continue to maintain a New York City venue, and in October 1994, the George Gustav Heye Center (GGHC) opened in the Alexander Hamilton Customs House on Bowling Green in New York City.

Kiowa hide shield with painted cover, Oklahoma, ca. 1900, photo credit: NMAI Move Team, © Smithsonian Institution/National Museum of the American Indian, (12/3230).

Venue #1: The George Gustav Heye Center

The GGHC is located in a beautiful Greek revival edifice, which previously served as the Customs House when New York was a bustling port city. The museum features rotating exhibitions of historical Native objects culled from the museum’s permanent collection, and under the leadership of John Haworth (Cherokee), the museum is focusing attention on work by contemporary Native artists. Traditional culture has proved to be a rich source of inspiration for contemporary artists and the museum, going forward, will present a New York venue for younger artists to exhibit work. Currently on view at the Heye Center is “Continuum: 12 Artists,” a curatorial project conceived by Truman Lowe, in which each of twelve Native artists present a solo exhibition of his or her work for the duration of two months.

Eskimo (Kuswogmiut or Kuskokwim) mask representing a spirit (Amekak) that lives in the ground, carved and painted wood with feathers, photo credit: Ernest Amoroso.

Venue #2: The Cultural Resouces Center

The second museum is the Cultural Resources Center, a vast facility in Suitland, Maryland, which houses the museum’s permanent collection of nearly one million Native objects. Part of the charter of the NMAI was to build a storage facility to house the collection near the site where the Mall museum was to be constructed. Native cultures represented in the collection did not disappear, as George Gustav Heye feared they would, and today many are vibrant, living communities. In designing the Cultural Resources Center, museum management sought to organize the storage according to tribe rather than size, which is unusual for such facilities. As a result, Native delegations can come and view moccasins, beadwork, garments, watercraft, and other objects from their own Native heritage. The building has good clerestory lighting and feels more welcoming than a museum while fulfilling its function as home to the collection. The facility also houses the Curatorial Department and museum administration offices along with a library dedicated to Native cultures.

Raven Steals the Sun, blown glass by Presto Singletary (Tlingit), Seattle, Washington, 2003, photo credit: Ernest Amoroso, © Smithsonian Institution/National Museum of the American Indian, (26/3273).

Venue #3: The Smithsonian NMAI Mall Museum

The Mall Museum, which opened on September 21, is the first national museum of Native culture in Washington D.C., and will be the central venue for exhibition programming from the museum’s permanent collection. Its architecture is quite dramatic, consisting of a curvilinear façade that is crowned with a dome. The museum is faced with Kasota limestone from Minnesota, which has a warm, umber hue, and the stone blocks are irregular in size and surface treatment, evoking a canyon wall carved by the elements. The design is most successful, somehow interacting with more official-looking buildings in the vicinity without discord. Johnpaul Jones (Cherokee/Choctaw) was the principal architect and the final design was arrived at through consultation with Native people from diverse communities.

Basket by Lucy Telles (Mono Lake Paiute), California, 1915, photo credit: Ernest Amoroso, © Smithsonian Institution/National Museum of the American Indian, (11/5307).

A video montage greets visitors as they enter the museum, welcoming them in two hundred Native languages. “Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World,” Is the first of three inaugural exhibitions and examines Native religions and cosmologies. Visitors to the exhibition traverse a solar year, and experience annual celebrations that define man’s relationship to the natural and spirit worlds. American history, post 1492, is explored from a Native perspective in “Our Peoples: Giving Voice To Our Histories.” Indigenous people faced European weapons and diseases while contending with homesteaders and intolerant Christian missionaries. Despite all of these hardships, Native communities endured, devising strategies to preserve their languages and culture. The case studies of eight communities, each in its own small gallery, tell the story of cultural resistance in the face of European expansion on the Continent. Native American issues in contemporary society are explored in the final exhibition “Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities.”

Absaroke (Crow) beaded bridle ornament, Montana, ca. 1880, photo credit: Ernest Amoroso, © Smithsonian Institution/National Museum of the American Indian, (18/9240).

Venue #4: A Museum Without Walls

The NMAI, through outreach programming, also intends to support living Native cultures by helping to preserve their languages and nurturing their literature, history, and visual art (both traditional and contemporary). NMAI Director Richard West defines this active community outreach as the “Fourth Museum,” whereby the NMAI collection can be used to foster cultural growth of Native communities in the United States and beyond. The “Fourth Museum” is a broad, complex project, which includes programming specific to the arts. The Native Arts Program, for example, enables Native artists, from throughout the United States and abroad to conduct three weeks of research in the collection of the NMAI or other museums and cultural institutions in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and the Washington D.C. area. Programs like this one, particularly for an artist who hails from a remote part of the country, are important experiences for both the individual and the Native community to which he or she returns. Much more than a new museum in the capitol, the NMAI, through community outreach, will work to ensure that the culture of the first Americans finds fertile soil to grow and develop into the new millennium.

Untitled, colored pencil on paper by George Morrison (Grand Portage Band of Chippewa), 1919-2000), Grand Portage, Minnesota, 1995, collection of Robert and Frances Leff, photo credit: Robert Fogt.

The NMAI George Gustav Heye Center, Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, One Bowling Green, New York, NY 10004. Phone: 212-514-3700. Open every day except December 25, admission free.

The NMAI Cultural Resources Center, 4220 Silver Hill Road, Suitland, MD 20746-2863. Phone 301-238-6624.

NMAI on the National Mall, Fourth Street & Independence Ave., S.W. Washington, DC 20560. Phone: 202-633-1000.

Native Arts Program, Outreach Assistant 301-238-6624 x6353, 

© 2004 Daniel Rothbart. All rights reserved.

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