Publication Date

November 1, 1994

On October 30, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened at the Heye Center in New York City. The center is named for George Gustav Heye, whose collection will constitute the heart of NMAI's many programs. Heye, who assembled his collection between 1897 and 1956, was a New York banker who traveled extensively throughout North, Central, and South America. By the time of his death, he had accumulated more than a million Indian artifacts. His collection represents more than 10,000 years in time and rovers an area ranging from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego in South America. Among the contents of the Heye collection are archaeological objects from the Caribbean, textiles from Mexico and Peru, basketry from California, jade from the Olmec and Mayan peoples, and painted hides and garments from the North American Plains Indians.

NMAI will present three exhibitions to mark the formal opening of the Heye Center. All Roads Are Good: Native Voices on Life and Culture will include objects that Native Americans selected from NMAI’s permanent collection. This Path We Travel: Celebrations of Contemporary Native American Creativitywill examine the continuity of the Native American experience, and Creations Journey: Masterworks of Native American Identity and Belief will feature major works from the permanent collection.

The Heye Center is one of three facilities that will ultimately be part of the National Museum of the American Indian. Another center will open in Suitland, Maryland, in 1997, and in2001, NMAI's principal facility will open on the last available site on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

In addition to its three physical facilities, NMAI will sponsor an educational outreach program called the Fourth Museum, which will be based at the museum on the National Mall. Through the use of interactive multimedia such as touch computer screens, CD-ROM, optical disks, and video and audio tapes, the Fourth Museum will provide information about NMAI's various programs and collections. Schools, libraries, Indian community colleges, and other educational institutions will be able to use the Fourth Museum's resources through computer linkages. Those who live in New York City may participate in the outreach program now through the Heye Center, which has its own resource center.

Because Native Americans have dominated the planning and development of the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian believes that NMAI will significantly improve public understanding of Native American cultures. W. Richard West, Jr.,the museum’s director, thinks that NMAI “represents an unprecedented opportunity to change the way Native Peoples are seen and heard.” Like West, the majority of the museum’s board of trustees and many NMAI staff members are Native Americans, and the museum is engaged in ongoing discussions with Native American tribal leader artists, writers, business leaders, and others. West explained that

the museum must show Indian culture as the vital, living, breathing, changing phenomenon that it is. So much of our cultural image problem is created by the fact that many believe Indians, along with our culture, to be dead, gone, relegated to history. This gem of a museum attests that we are neither dead nor primitive. We are very much alive, and so is our culture ….

Congress mandated the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian by law in 1989. The legislation requires that the Smithsonian provide one-third of the construction cost of the National Mall facility from nonfederal sources; congressional appropriations will account for the remaining two-thirds. To meet its financial obligations and to provide support for its educational programs, the Smithsonian Institution has launched a national campaign for the museum. It has already secured $17 million toward its goal of obtaining $60 million. Those interested in contributing to the campaign or in joining the National Museum of the American Indian should call (800) 242-NMAI.

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