National Museum of the American Indian

National Museum of the American Indian

Before the first European settlers reached the shores of North America, the land was home to the Native Americans, who came to be known as the American Indians over time. The fascinating history of the tribes and civilizations that inhabited the land for tens of thousands of years is preserved through the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Established in 1989, the museum operates under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institute and runs three facilities – in Washington D.C., in Suitland (Maryland) and in New York City.

The National Museum of the American Indian in New York is located in the George Gustav Heye Center in Manhattan and was established to honor the life, languages, skills, literature and art of the native people of the region. This free museum is considered a must-see and is one of the more famous cultural spots for visitors and locals.

What's To Do and See?

The George Gustav Heye Center
It is worth visiting the NMAI New York if only to see this Beaux-Arts style building itself, with its grand columned exterior, reminiscent of a Greek Temple. This is considered one of the most beautiful museums in New York City that occupies the old Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House in the vicinity of Battery Park. The interior of the museum is truly breathtaking, with polished white marble floors and walls, and painted ceilings. This building was designed by the architect Cass Gilbert and completed in 1907. Visitors can enjoy up to 20,000 square feet of space over two floors in this National Historic Landmark building.

The Set Up of the Museum
Positioned in a semicircle around a rotunda, the galleries of the National Museum of the American Indian are winding and maze-like, but the bottom line is that due to the semicircle shape, there is no danger of getting lost.

The Collection
Despite the fact that the NMIA New York only occupies two floors, its collection is large and interesting and visitors should schedule at least four hours into their day to see everything that this museum has to offer. The collected items include a relatively high amount of text which makes for interesting reading, but which should be taken into account when budgeting for time.

The museum has a large and excellent selection of artwork by Native American Indians. The collection includes older, traditional artwork, as well as art by contemporary artists.

The cornerstone of the museum’s huge collection of over 1-million items, was created by the wealthy New Yorker, George Gustav Heye. These range from wood and stone carvings from the North West Coast; clothing and other items of a personal nature, including feather bonnets; basketry and pottery, Navajo weavings and many, many others. The museum also houses works collected from further south, including Mayan and Olmec items, gold and textiles from the Andean people and feather work from the area.

All the major cultures of the area are represented in this vast and fascinating collection, which spans an era beginning with the Paleo-Indian and reaching contemporary times.

Besides the collected items on view, the museum also has an impressive collection of 90,000 archived photographs, as well as audio-visual collections, paper archives and more. A biennial Native American film festival is held which showcases indigenous film and video projects.

Besides its permanent collection, the museum is also home to an ongoing series of exhibitions that change quite regularly. Current exhibitions include:

  • “Off the Map: Landscape in the Native Imagination” which exhibits works by artists who examine the concept of landscape from a uniquely Native Indian perspective, encompassing ideas such as home, culture, identity, loss and violence. Artists represented in this exhibition include Jeffrey Gibson, Erica Lord, Emmi Whitehorse and Charles Lavadour.
  • “Beauty Surrounds Us” – As part of the inauguration of the new Diker Pavilion for Native Arts and Cultures, this exhibition presents 77 items from the museum’s collection. Among the items displayed are: An Eskimo cribbage board, a conch-shell trumpet from pre-Columbian Mexico and a pair of stunning turtle shell dance leggings. Two interactive media stations are also part of this exhibition. The exhibition is scheduled to run into 2008 at least.

Public Programs
Visitors can take advantage of a wide range of public programs offered by the museum, including Native American musicians, dancers, hands-on workshops, storytelling and others. Family programs offer the perfect opportunity for families to learn together about the fascinating history of Native Americans and their traditions.

The Store
Visitors have a choice of two stores on the two floors occupied by the museum. Both offer a wide range of ethnic Native American items, including crafts and artwork. The stores are currently under renovation on a rotation basis and visitors should check with the museum’s information desk to see which are open. Essentially, the stores are open daily between 10 am. and 5 pm.

Visiting the Museum

  • One of the most appealing factors about the National Museum of the American Indian is that it is for free.
  • The museum is open every day from 10 am until 5 pm. On Thursdays it remains open until 8 pm.
  • The museum is closed on Christmas Day (December 25 th)
  • The building is fully accessible to visitors in wheelchairs.
  • The museum is easily accessible by public transport.

Visiting National Museum of the American Indian NYC

More than a quarter of a million visitors pass the doors of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. 1 Bowling Green has become synonymous with an institution that thrives to show that Native American culture is alive and in our midst, and not just shown through historical artifacts. While old and traditional items make up a good part of the museum’s collection, its focus is on the vibrant art and creations by contemporary members of this culture. For a fascinating glimpse into a truly authentic world, don’t miss out on a visit to this museum.

Location: at The George Gustav Heye Center, Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, One Bowling Green, New York City, New York
Phone: 212-514-3700

Click here to visit National Museum of the American Indian official website.