One man�s unique collection of native objects is about to become part of the nation�s inheritance

In the first decade of the 20th century, George Gustav Heye, a man of considerable wealth, began collecting native objects from throughout the Western Hemisphere. For the next half century, he collected diligently, almost obsessively, dispatching teams of anthropologists and archeologists to the far reaches of North and South America to collect native material culture. Entire railway boxcars were sent to New York, where Mr. Heye resided. By the mid-20th century, Heye had amassed approximately 800,000 objects, considered the most comprehensive assemblage of native objects in the world. By the 1970s, however, the Heye Foundation was in serious financial straits, and it had become clear that a more financially secure home was needed for these objects.

After years of complex negotiations, the collection was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. In exchange, the Smithsonian agreed to build three new facilities to house and exhibit the Heye collection and other collections of native objects in New York City and Washington, DC. The United States Congress ratified the negotiated arrangement in November 1989 by enacting federal legislation authorizing the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The legislation provided for the creation of new physical facilities to protect these collections and to make their exhibition to wider audiences possible. In addition, however, Congress made it clear that the National Museum of the American Indian should reflect an unprecedented approach to involving, interpreting, and representing Native American peoples and their objects. By explicit Congressional provision, for example, the Museum�s governing Board of Trustees was to be at least 50 percent Native American.

The three physical components of the National Museum of the American Indian are:

The Cultural Resources Center, a collections study and research facility, located just outside of Washington, DC. The Center opened to the public in 1999.
The George Gustav Heye Center in New York, a satellite exhibition and public programming facility that opened in the fall of 1994.
The National Museum of the American Indian, scheduled to open in 2003 on the National Mall.

The stage was set for a ground-breaking undertaking at America�s most important national cultural institution, the Smithsonian. The new centerpiece Museum would be located on America�s National Mall, the monumental core of the nation�s capital. Moreover, the new addition to the Smithsonian was not merely to be �about� the native peoples and cultures of the Western Hemisphere, but, in a critical sense, was to be �of � them by involving these native peoples systematically in the Museum�s planning, development, and operation.


When I arrived at the Smithsonian in the summer of 1990, the engineers and architects were moving along quickly. Yet nobody had stopped to ask what was to go inside these spaces and, therefore, how the space should be designed.

Thus, the first major decision I made at the National Museum of the American Indian, with the full support of the Smithsonian Secretariat, was to push the construction schedules for our three facilities in New York and Washington, DC, back a full two years. This delay was necessary to allow time to consult with all major stakeholders in the Museum and, in particular, with contemporary native communities throughout the Americas. During 1991-1993, the Museum hosted some two dozen consultations throughout the United States and in Canada, and with representatives from both Central and South America. The hundreds of people who attended these consultations were predominately, but not exclusively, native people. They represented a great diversity of backgrounds and interests, and included native and non-native museum professionals, educators, native elders, native community and political leaders, and native artists.

A distinguished architectural firm, Venturi, Scott-Brown Associates, was charged with developing the Museum�s architectural program for the buildings in Washington, DC. A senior representative of the architectural programming firm participated directly in all of the consultations so that she could hear comments and observations firsthand. The point of these extensive consultations was to guide both the Museum�s programs and the architectural design of its buildings. Those attending the consultations, most of them native persons, were asked how they wished to be presented and represented to the millions of non-native visitors the Museum would host. We further asked how the buildings and spaces that would be home to these col-lections and public presentations should be designed, what they should look like, what messages, as pieces of art and architecture, they should convey. The answers to these questions were recorded by our architectural pro-grammers and subsequently became the National Museum of the American Indian�s definitive public pro-gramming and architectural programming document, entitled The Way of the People.

Photo courtesy of NMAI.
A view of the new National Museum of the American Indian

The messages that emerged from these consultations began to take on a remarkable consistency. With respect to public presentations, programs, and exhibitions, several principles were articulated. First, native peoples wanted to remove themselves from the category of cultural relics and, instead, to be seen and interpreted as peoples and cultures with a deep past who are very much alive today, rather than dead or dying. Second, they wanted the opportunity to speak directly to audiences through the Museum�s public programs, presentations, and exhibits; to articulate in their own voices and through their own eyes the meaning of the objects in our collections and their import in native art, culture, and history.

With respect to the buildings and spaces in Washington, DC, that would be home to the collections and to such presentations, those attending the consultations, again with great consistency, described a number of core design principles. First, the exterior membrane of the buildings should be as visually transparent as possible, allowing those approaching the building to see in and those inside the building to feel a visual connection to the natural environment outside, in recognition of the native proclivity for seeing all of the environment, built and natural, as interconnected and interdependent. Second, elements of the natural world, including water, natural light, and other indigenous materials of the planet, should be integral parts of the design, both inside and outside. Finally, the architecture of the building should reflect and honor the close association between native peoples and the natural world in life and cosmology. The softly stated, but deeply felt, bottom line here was that the building�s architecture, while fully respecting its architectural context on the National Mall, should not be bashful about departing from the right angles and straight lines that typify much of the classical architecture of the surrounding buildings.

These core design principles had a profound influence on the Museum�s exhibitions and public programming. The Museum�s Board of Trustees adopted a policy that required close collaboration with any native community whose culture or objects in the collection were to be the subject of an exhibit. The Museum, in fact, has gone beyond collaboration and is enlisting native communities directly in all phases of the exhibits, from the selection of objects to the development of content and associated educational products. Furthermore, the Museum oversees a comprehensive expressive culture program, the purpose of which is to demonstrate through live performance art, including music, dance, theater, and storytelling, that native peoples are very much alive and their cultures still vibrant.

Second, when it was time to move from the architectural programming phase of planning the two buildings in Washington, DC, to the design phase, we ensured the participation of the Native American design community, nascent though it may be, in that process. The design team for the Museum�s Cultural Resources Center involved the Native American Design Collaborative, a consortium of some 30 Native American design professionals, who worked in association with James Polshek and Associates, the lead design firm. The architectural design team for the Museum on the National Mall included as the project designer the architect for the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, who is himself a descendant of the Blackfoot Indians.


Some may wonder why such pains have been taken to embrace a planning process so thoroughly �bottom up� and �outside in,� which is rarely the way museums are planned since the expertise is assumed to sit within the institution rather than outside of it. Others may question the justification for permitting native peoples themselves to define their representation and interpretation to the new Museum�s audiences.

The answers are not necessarily self-evident or simple, or, for that matter, by any means universally agreed upon. I believe, however, based upon my own upbringing and life experiences as a Cheyenne, that native views of the world, of reality, of cosmology, are profoundly different from those that have grown out of the Euroamerican cultural experience, and that these differences have a deep impact on the meaning and interpretation of the millions of objects sitting in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.

I remember an experience several years ago that illustrates how differently native peoples often see objects. At the Millicent Rogers Museum, near Taos, New Mexico, I was admiring a ceramic pot sculpted by renowned native artist Popovi Da, son of Maria and Julian Martinez, who are largely credited with reviving the Pueblo pottery tradition. Popovi Da�s exquisite ceramic piece was accompanied by a statement from the artist:

     We do what comes from thinking, and sometimes hours and even days are spent to create an aesthetic scroll in design.
     Our symbols and our representations are all expressed as an endless cadence, and beautifully organized in our art as well as in our dance....
     There is design in living things; their shapes, forms, the ability to live, all have meaning....Our values are indwelling and dependent upon time and space unmeasured. This in itself is beauty.

What Popovi Da says about his own work often comes as a considerable shock to those grounded in the traditions of Western art. Quite simply, in Native American material culture, the object itself is secondary to the ceremonial or ritual process that led to its creation. Native objects, in their most profound and ultimate dimension, really were intended to be statements and reflections of collective and communal values, as much or more than they were to be considered individual acts of creativity with a universal meaning.

This fusion of the profoundly spiritual with the otherwise purely physical, this primacy of the process of creating an object over the beautiful object itself, the utter inseparability of the object from the conduct of daily life�all are native ways of viewing objects that arguably are significantly different from the paradigms of Western art and art history. These are also the very reasons why the National Museum of the American Indian needs the interpretive voices of native peoples themselves in its exhibits. I remember the revealing and, indeed, poignant statement made in the catalogue for one exhibit by Tom Hill, who served as the Director of the Woodland Cultural Centre in Ontario, Canada. A Canadian Seneca Indian, he tells the story of how and what he learned, as a boy, about Iroquois ceremonial masks from his relative Ezekiel Hill, an elder in Tom�s community:

Ezekiel told me about the masks, but only when I asked. �Why is the nose crooked?� I would ask. Or, �What do you feed them?� And Ezekiel would explain. He told me how the masks were carved from living trees that consented to sacrificing a part of themselves. He reaffirmed my confidence in what I had seen and experienced: that, in the ceremonies, the masks had the power to focus the attention of all who saw them on natural forces that we experience but cannot understand. Through the masks, I learned about good and evil, the Creation, healing, and respect. They gave me a sense of history, too, a feeling of being part of a long chain of life.
    I realized later that Ezekiel was not the only one who had masks: museums found them irresistible public favorites, amusing displays. But these exhibitions never captured the masks� spirit. Whenever I see a mask in a museum, I think how different it is from those that hung by Ezekiel�s stove. Behind glass, they become [only] objects.

The audiences of the National Museum of the American Indian should know and understand, through Tom and other Native Americans, the meanings of these objects. That knowledge is authentic, it is worthy, and it will add substantial value to the experience of every visitor who walks through the doors of the National Museum of the American Indian.


What are the implications of this type of input on the design of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall? First, the building itself will be a counterpoint, through its organic and curvilinear forms, to the rigorous and elegant geometry of its neighbor across the Mall, the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. The interpretive experience begins not in the Museum itself, but rather as the visitor enters the site. The presence of rocks, plants native to the area, flowing and pooled water, and stones laid in and along a curved entrance path are all components of a design that permit the formal, more rectilinear grid of the Mall geometry to give way gently to a more natural curvilinear landscape. A wetland element at the east end of the site will tie into an identical landscape element being developed across the street as part of the National Botanical Gardens. A water element begins in a waterfall at the northwest corner of the building, making its way over stones beside the entry path to a pool at the entrance to the building on the east.

Inside the building, the natural world continues to be very much a part of the design. The stairs, for example, appear more like a cascading rock outcrop, with irregular landings breaking up the geometry of the circle. Landings will provide no clearly discernible separation between inside and outside: the rocks, plants, outdoor sounds, and an abundance of daylight should extend into the building.

The principal gathering and performance space in the Museum, which is called the Potomac, is perhaps the most powerful and defining architectural space in the building. The opening in the dome, which is an opening to the heavens, will allow direct sunlight during the day. The natural stream of light will work to create drama by tracing the path of the sun within the volume of the Potomac, the natural movement of light perhaps creating a form of solar or cosmic calendar. The Potomac gathering space will have light that filters in, providing an ever-changing backdrop for the different exhibits and performances.

The building itself is akin to a piece of natural sculpture, shaped by wind and water, rising directly out of the ground rather than merely sitting on it. Notwithstanding its monumental scale, the building nonetheless sits close to the ground and almost hugs it with its strong horizontal lines. From the straighter and more formal lines of the cornice, with its polished and consistently sized limestone, the exterior walls descend to meet the ground less formally and more naturally, with limestone of rougher cut and differentiated sizing. The connections between inside and outside are represented by the visual transparency of the glass walls of the Potomac, which sits beneath the dome. They are also represented by the visual clarity with which visitors, walking along the entry path on the north side of the building, will be able to see in the architecture of the building the shape of the domed Potomac area.

The Mall building, as one might expect of something designed on the cusp of the new millennium, is a �smart� building that is wired throughout with fiber optic and copper cable. As an educational institution, the new building will have the capacity to transmit images and text electronically, extending the Museum�s reach far beyond its walls on the National Mall.

Thus, one of the Smithsonian Institution�s 21st century offerings, the National Museum of the American Indian, will soon be a special gathering place. It grows directly out of the Native American cultural history and experience that is the shared cultural heritage of all of us. It strives to reflect the native perception that built and non-built environments should relate to one another, and be seamlessly connected and interwoven. It seeks to reflect a wholeness, where the material fuses with the spiritual, and the seen with the unseen.

The new Museum will be a place for the ages that leaves with all who enter its portals a lasting and definitive impression of the meaning of Native America, past, present, and future.

[photo of W. Richard West]
W. Richard West (CC �95) is the founding director of the Smithsonian Institution�s new National Museum of the American Indian.

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