I is for Indigenous 

Located at One Bowling Green, New York, NY 10004
Museum Website:  https://americanindian.si.edu/visit/reopening-ny

National Museum of the American Indian

This is actually two museums in one… the building itself and the exhibits within the building. The building, named Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House and completed in 1907, is itself a museum with its own history. 

 The magnificent architecture, the stunning sculptures on the exterior, the spectacular domed rotunda, the amazing artwork in the main hall… all these are subjects for another blog post. Here we are talking about the museum and its exhibits. 

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is part of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex. The museum’s collections had their origin as the personal collection of George Gustav Heye, a New Yorker who quit Wall Street to indulge his passion for American Indian artifacts. In 1916, with the collection totaling 58,000 objects, Heye founded the Museum of the American Indian at 155th and Broadway in New York. This museum was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1989.

Overall, Heye gathered some 800,000 pieces from throughout the Americas, the largest such collection ever compiled by one person.

The museum has one of the most extensive collections of native American arts and artifacts in the world. These around 825,000 items represent over 12,000 years of history and more than 1,200 indigenous cultures throughout the Americas. Ranging from ancient Paleo-Indian artifacts to contemporary fine arts, the collections include works of aesthetic, religious, and historical significance as well as articles produced for everyday use.

When I last visited in November 2022, the exhibition ‘Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian’ was on. It consisted of more than 200 works of Native art from throughout North, Central, and South America, organized geographically and were a representation of the museum’s collection highlighting the historic importance of many of these iconic objects. This is a permanent exhibition.

As can be imagined, this exhibition is meant to illustrate the geographic and chronological scope of the museum’s collection.

Stunning examples representing each region included warriors’ robes, elaborately beaded women’s clothing, drums, carved and painted headdresses, water vessels, baskets, household implements etc. Also contemporary works of art by Native artists are displayed as part of the exhibition.

Another ongoing exhibition was ‘Native New York’, exploring the lives of native communities that called New York home for centuries. Long before there was a New York State, its lands encompassed thousands of Native towns, cornfields, fishing grounds, and hunting territories. European traders and other colonists migrated to these lands, intending to stay. This forced some Native New Yorkers to seek safety elsewhere. Other Native people managed to remain, and their descendants live here today. Still other Native communities moved into New York, seeking alliances and new homes. 

Native New York tells the story of these New Yorkers and how they fared through the years.

The exhibition leads you through path on the floor, to visit 12 New York places from Long Island to Niagara Falls.

By the end of this path, you would have been exposed to some uncomfortable facts, heard some heartrending stories of suffering, and learned histories not told in the books. 

The exhibition dispels several myths including the mother of them all that Manhattan was bought by the Europeans from the native inhabitants. 

Through the 12 places, visitors gain an expanded understanding of the region’s history and reveal that New York is, and always has been, a ‘Native place’.

The exhibition ‘Developing Stories: Native Photographers in the Field’, follows the work of Native photojournalists, three photo essays that provide insights into 21st-century Native lives. They portray stories that show the diversity and complexity of their contemporary lives.

imagiNATIONS Activity Center, provides visitors an interactive, opportunity to explore scientific principles behind Native innovations and technologies that are so ingenious, recommended for those 10 and older.

The National Museum of the American Indian is a great cultural resource, with something new for every one – a frequent visitor or someone on their first visit. 

You can enjoy conducted tours (schedule at the website) which provide a wealth of information. There are also a number of online exhibitions here: https://americanindian.si.edu/online-resources/exhibition-websites

Comments (2)

  1. Molly of Molly's Canopy

    One of my favorite NYC museums, which I visit every Day of Mourning (aka Thanksgiving) to honor Native peoples. You are so right that this museum dispels colonial settler myths about the forcible acquisition of Native land, while also celebrating Native history and culture and current artists.

    1. Ria (Post author)

      It is painful to look at some of the exhibits. Amazing how facts can be swept under the carpets and hidden, even when publicly known!



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