A Must-See: the National Museum of the American Indian (Part 1)

Sunday, May 03 2009 14:30 Paul Lasley   OnTravel in the West / Paul Lasley
There are spectacular artifacts and stunning works of native art in the National Museum of the American Indian, located on the Mall in Washington D.C. But if you expect just great examples of art and artifacts, you'll miss the point.

This is a museum on a mission - to create a link between the past and the present and to reveal to the visitor the vibrant lives and cultures of native peoples of the Americas and how they live today. And that fits with our mission here at OldWestNewWest.Com Travel & History Magazine where we explore those links for all who enjoy the West, past and present.

The National Museum of the American Indian is the 16th museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Opened to the public in September 2004, the collection of works from native cultures is huge.

Some 8,000 items are on display at any one time, from rare Inca gold that the Spaniards somehow missed, to Hopi religious objects. Baskets and carvings as well as useful tools from many cultures highlight the displays. And the curators can draw from the Smithsonian's vast collection of something like 800,000 objects.

The building itself is a work of art rich with cultural meaning. It's oriented to the cardinal points of the compass and designed with swooping curves to reflect the wind and water-eroded sandstone of the Southwest. The five-story, 250,000-square foot, curvilinear building was built on the last open space available on the National Mall.

A stream emerges along one side of the building cascading over a small waterfall from one end and disappears at another, honoring the actual stream that flows beneath the structure. Remember, our capital city is built on a swamp. A hardwood forest surrounds the museum and at the entrance a wetland pond reveals vistas of the Capitol dome through the trees. Its a view that might have been replicated a hundred years ago.

Spend some time outdoors before entering the museum and read the signs that reveal much of the cultural influence and meaning given to the elements on the surrounding grounds.

Forty boulders, known as Grandfather Rocks and brought from Canada, bring the cultural memory of past generations to the present and future. Cardinal direction markers are stones brought to the site from Hawaii (West); Northwest Territories, Canada (North); Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland (East); and Punto Arenas, Chile (South) and represent the wide diversity of native cultures of the Americas.

Plantings include the Wetland outside the entrance and the Forest sheltering the building from the mall but there is also a meadow filled with seasonal native flowers and a cropland planted with corn, beans and squash cultivated in traditional ways.

With the help of a wide range of native cultural guides, the museum really does connect in amazing ways with the outside world. The more time you spend in this environment the more you realize how connected we all are to the natural world we live in. It's not a message imposed on the land and the space, but rather a feeling that begins to emerge as you learn the significance of each detail.

For more information on the National Museum of the American Indian check out
www.nmai.si.edu. The museum is open daily except Christmas and there is no admission charge.

Next: The treasures inside.


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