New National Indian Museum Is Native by Design

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
Updated September 24, 2004
When the designers and architects of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., began consultations with native leaders about their project a decade ago, the message was clear: We want the museum to tell the truth, the elders said.

But how do you take such an abstract idea and translate it into architectural reality?

The answer, the designers found, was to let Native Americans' sensibilities and traditions wind their way into every nook and cranny of the site. (See photos of the museum.)

So the Smithsonian Institution's newest museum, which opened this past Tuesday, looks far different than the classical, European-based designs of its neighbors along the National Mall. From the stone exterior walls that appear carved by wind and rain to the shell inlays in benches inside, the museum has a decidedly native character.

While the museum honors the often tragic history of American Indians, native leaders say it perhaps even more importantly shows the vibrancy of their cultures today.

"Native peoples of the Americas are not some mere ethnographic remnant of cultures long passed," said museum director W. Richard West, Jr., at a recent news conference.

"Buffeted though we may have been by the often cruel and destructive edge of colonialism, we are not, ultimately, the victims of that history," West, a Southern Cheyenne Indian, said. "Indeed, we retain a vigorous contemporary cultural presence in the Americas ... and the museum intends to affirm ... this cultural vitality."

Facing East

Nestled between the National Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Botanic Garden, the National Museum of the American Indian—the 18th Smithsonian museum—fills the last empty space on the National Mall.

The 250,000-square-foot (23,200-square-meter) museum cost 219 million U.S. dollars, half of which came from private donations. Its creators hope the museum, with an 800,000-object collection, will attract six million visitors a year.

The design process incorporated suggestions from Native Americans throughout North, Central, and South America.

There are some 35 million indigenous people living in the Americas today, but only about 3 million in the United States and Canada. The rest come from Latin America. In the U.S. there are over 500 different native cultures.

Taking everyone's suggestions into consideration would have been impossible, but the designers quickly found that many native groups had certain hopes and ideas in common. Most people said they wanted the museum to have an organic and handcrafted quality to it, and for its forms to be inspired by nature.

"When people set foot on this site, there should be an inherent understanding that they have arrived at a native place," said Duane Blue Spruce, the facilities-planning coordinator for the museum. Blue Spruce, who is Pueblo, worked as the architectural liaison between the museum and its designers and contractors.

Some conflicting traditions had to be reconciled.

Most Native American buildings have their entrances facing the east, to greet the rising sun. But some Alaskan tribes have their doors facing the beach, generally to the west in Alaska. The museum entrance, however, manages to face both the sunrise and the beach—one advantage to being on the East Coast.

Native Landscapes

The museum is located on a 4.25-acre (1.7-hectare) landscaped site that includes four distinct habitats, another reminder of the importance of nature in Native American culture.

"In native cultures, the animals, plants, and rocks are people," said Donna House, a botanist of Navajo and Oneida descent. She led the design of the museum grounds, which includes some 30,000 trees, shrubs, and other plants.

An upland hardwood forest reflects the forest that once existed in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. A wetlands area includes water lilies, silky willow, and rice. A meadow features species native to the local Potomac River Valley. And the crops area is planted with corn, beans, squash, and other crops first domesticated by American Indians.

Forty boulders, known as grandfather rocks, greet visitors around the museum. The stones were brought from a quarry area in southern Quebec, Canada. Used to offer prayers, the rocks symbolize the native belief that all parts of the natural world are our relatives.

The curvilinear building honors the lack of straight lines in nature and suggests a close connection to the land on which it sits. Construction of the building was especially difficult because workers had no conventional corners to work with.

The exterior walls are made of a rough type of limestone called Kasota, which is meant to evoke natural rock formations. Large chunks of rough stone clad the lower reaches of the museum, offering a distinctly natural texture in the areas where visitors are most likely to touch the building.

"In some regards, the strong relationship between the building and the landscape is inseparable," Blue Spruce said.

The Potomac

Inside the museum, the word "welcome,"—translated into Indian languages and projected onto a 20-foot-wide (6-meter-wide) screen—greets visitors and sets the tone.

The centerpiece of the museum is a circular atrium that soars 120 feet (37 meters) to the top of a dome, aiming to connect the earth and the sky. Known as the Potomac—after the local river and an Algonquian/Powhatan word meaning "where the goods are brought in"—the space will be used for performances and demonstrations.

"The circle is a common native theme," said Kevin Carl, the project manager for Seattle's Jones & Jones, one of the museum's architectural design companies. "It represents the story of life."

Directional stones at each of the cardinal compass points visible outside the building are metaphors for the indigenous people of the Americas. The stones come from Hawaii (west), Canada (north), Maryland (east), and Chile (south).

"Inside the building you can look at all directions, and light is brought in from all those directions," Carl said. "There are layers of subtleties that will make visitors want to wander around and come back again to discover new things."

Among Carl and Blue Spruce's favorite architectural features is the Potomac atrium's 100-foot-long (31-meter-long) handwoven copper screen wall, which evokes Indian basketry and textiles.

They also both noted the fine purple and white tiles crafted from quahog clamshells. Created by members of New England's Wampanoag Indians, the tiles are inlayed in benches in the main museum store.

Both features reflect the human touch that helped make the National Museum of the American Indian a truly native place. "There's such a great sense of handcrafted quality throughout the building," Carl said.

Full Coverage of National Museum of the American Indian
At New National Indian Museum, Artifacts Are "Alive"
Photo Gallery: National Museum of the American Indian
20,000 American Indians to March at National Museum Opening
Photo Gallery: Exhibits at the Museum
Fast Facts: National Museum of the American Indian
16 Indian Innovations: From Popcorn to Parkas
Order Book: Native Universe: Voices of Indian America
Order Book: Spirit of a Native Place: Building the National Museum of the American Indian

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