National Museum of the American Indian Heye Center

Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 73 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A pair of Christian Louboutin boots laboriously decorated with antique glass beads by Jamie Okuma, of the Louiseño and Shoshone-Bannock tribes.

National Museum of the American Indian, New YorkThe National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center is one of the Smithsonian Institution’s two New York outposts (along with the Cooper-Hewitt).  It could be the museum with the longest name in the city.

You may think, “But doesn’t the Smithsonian have a National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in D.C.?” Yes, it does. The Heye Center in New York came first, though.  It started as the Museum of the American Indian, opening in Harlem way back in 1922, to display George Gustav Heye’s expansive collection of Native American arts and crafts.  In due course, the Smithsonian took over. While it started planning for the D.C. museum (which opened in 2004) in the 1990s, it also opted to keep a New York outpost.

The Building

Today, the National Museum of the American Indian makes its home in a spectacular Beaux Arts building at the southern end of Broadway.  The architect Cass Gilbert designed the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House, which opened in 1907.  (The name is the sole Hamilton connection, but I’m counting it!) A monument to commerce wrought in stone, it’s a far grander and more prominent building than Federal Hall National Memorial, which also was built as a customs house.

Allegorical Figures, Alexander Hamilton Customs House, New York

Truly it’s a magnificent piece of architecture, festooned with allegorical sculptures and heroic traders and all manner of artsy ornamentation. Daniel Chester French, the sculptor of Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, did four figures representing the major regions of the world.  Pictured here, fittingly, is “America.”

Inside some bits of historic grandeur remain, too. A matched set of swirly spiral staircases graces the corners. And the building centers on a –I know I already used the word “spectacular” but I’m using it again deliberately–spectacular oval rotunda.  I wish they did more with that space! It features some benches, ratty carpeting, and brass light fixtures currently. But really it cries out to be a fancy cafe or something.  I suspect the building’s landmark status prevents altering the rotunda to make better use of its potential.  Too bad.  The rotunda perimeter features Reginald Marsh murals of New York City, ships in the harbor, and historic figures important in trade in the United States– people like Columbus and Henry Hudson, whose presence seems more than a little ironic in the context of the building’s current use.

Oval Rotunda, National Museum of the American Indian, New YorkIndeed, the idea of turning a building focused on trade, from an era that unabashedly glorified the commercial impulses that ended up dispossessing the Native American tribes of their lands, into a museum for those nations…well.  I find it pretty ironic.

Or perhaps fair and fitting: why not have a colonization work in the other direction for once?

The Exhibits

The Heye Center divides into three galleries.  One of them hosts a permanent exhibit on the Native American nations. The other two feature changing exhibits.  When I visited, one focused on Central American pottery, and the other looked at contemporary Native American fashion designers.

Native Fashion Now at the National Museum of the American Indian, New York

Dustin Martin, designer, “This is not a peacemaker” T-Shirt. I love an ironic Magritte reference…

I’m particularly impressed that the Heye Center would put on something like the fashion show.  My stereotypical view of a Native American Museum would be all tradition and dusty artifacts.  I like that they care to show how American Indians today carry their traditions forward, creating both beautiful things and successful businesses.  It seems a through-line of the place that the objects on display represent more than just, well, museum pieces.

The permanent exhibit, titled “Infinity of Nations,” is somewhat dense and dusty, and tries valiantly to do  justice to an entire continent’s worth of tribes and traditions in a fairly small space.  That said, as a native of Hawai’i, I felt slightly vexed that the museum sticks just to the continent.

Dark colored texts call out commentaries from tribal members and other experts

However, I did very much like how the permanent collection intersperses descriptive wall texts with occasional signed ones, written by tribal representatives and other experts on Indian cultures. The specific voices create an immediacy that most museum texts lack, reminding visitors that these cultures still value these objects and their creators.  For the same reason, I like how the collection includes contemporary arts and crafts.  Finally, I also appreciate the way the curators deployed just a few touchscreens to offer deeper dives into key objects.  It felt like they chose the right things.

Buffalo Hide Robe, National Museum of the American Indian, New York
Apsáalooke warrior’s exploit robe, Ft. Benton, Montana, ca. 1850.

On balance, the Heye Center seems to maintain a good relationship with Native American communities.  Of course, I’ve only got their word on that.  But (a) Heye paid for all the items in his collection, didn’t just loot them, (b) many seem to realize that had he not treasured and saved these things, they likely would no longer exist, and (c) the Museum allows the tribes liberal access to the collections, for both study and ceremonial purposes.

The Bottom Line

Everyone should visit the Heye Center.  More than I expected, it depicts American Indian cultures as vital, living things.  And it does so in creative ways, via (at least sometimes) inventive, unexpected exhibits. Even if you’ve been to the D.C. National Museum of the American Indian, coming here might still offer new things to look at and to think about.  And the building is, as I may have mentioned, spectacular.

National Museum of the American Indian, New York
Infinity of Nations

For Reference:

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Cost  Free
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