Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian

W. Richard West Jr.

Founding director

Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian

Fourth Street & Independence Ave., S.W. Washington, DC 20560

Special session byhellip;
Mr. W. Richard West Jr. (Washington DC, United States)

Established in 1989 by the United States Congress, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Indian (the "NMAI") is an international institution of living cultures dedicated to advancing knowledge and understanding of the life, languages, literature, history and arts of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. The museum includes the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, DC; the George Gustav Heye Center, a permanent museum in lower Manhattan, New York; and the Cultural Resources Center, a research and collections facility in Suitland, Maryland.

After fifteen years in the making the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. opened its doors to the public on September 21, 2004. The museum is the first national museum in the country dedicated exclusively to America's Native peoples, the first to present all exhibitions from a Native perspective, and the first constructed on the National Mall since 1987.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian is truly unique in many respects. The museum is a five-story, 250,000-square-foot, curvilinear building that occupies the last open space available on the National Mall and is located between the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Capitol. The textured golden-colored limestone exterior evokes natural rock formations formed by wind and water through time. Set in a 4.25-acre landscaped site with wetlands and 40 boulders known as "grandfather rocks," the museum is a sharp contrast to neighboring primarily neo-Classical Washington architecture. The museum's special features mdash; an entrance facing east toward the rising sun, a prism window and a 120-foot-high atrium called the Potomac mdash; were designed in consultation with many Native communities throughout the Americas during a four-year period in the early 1990s.

The National Museum of the American Indian is home to the collection of the former Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation. The collection is one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of Native cultural materials in the world and includes more than 800,000 objects, as well as a photographic archive of 125,000 images. The collection, which became part of the Smithsonian in June 1990, was assembled throughout a fifty-four year period, beginning in 1903 by George Gustav Heye (1874-1957), who traveled throughout North and South America accumulating Native objects.

 Among the collection's objects are fine wood, horn and stone carvings from the Northwest Coast of North America; Navajo weavings and blankets; archaeological objects from the Caribbean; textiles from Peru and Mexico; basketry from the Southwest; gold work from Colombia, Mexico, and Peru; jade from the Olmec and Maya; Aztec mosaics and painted hides and garments from the North American Plains Indians, to name a portion. Approximately seventy percent of the collection comes from North America (about sixty-seven percent from the United States and three percent from Canada), and about thirty percent is from Central and South America.

The National Museum of the American Indian's approach to the development and presentation of public programming is perhaps its most defining characteristic.  The institution is not a conventional museum of ethnography, anthropology, or cultural history.

It mission is comprised of three interrelated elements.  First, the museum is an institution of living cultures and communities that interprets the past, present, and future of the Native peoples and cultures of the Americas.  Second, it approaches representation of those peoples and communities by invoking their first-person voices rather than relying upon the viewpoints of third parties.  Finally, as in institution of living cultures, it assumes an institutional responsibility and obligation to use its resources, human and financial, to support cultural continuance amongst contemporary Native communities throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The National Museum of the American Indian also serves an institutional and community role that is beyond the conventional role of the museum as solely a cultural destination.  It represents the museum as a forum.  The museum is a gathering place for discussion, debate, contestation, and even controversy that connects the museum and the communities it serves in a more comprehensive and integrated manner - and ultimately as a generator of broader social and cultural resolution and reconciliation.

Since 2004 the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian has maintained a full-time staff of three hundred persons and a total visitation record of 9.7 million. The Smithsonian's National Museum of American Indian's budget for the 2010 fiscal year is 43.7 million dollars.


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