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.

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