Wednesday, April 19, 2017


When I was growing up in New York, there was a rather forbidding museum in the no-man’s-land between the affluent upper east side and Harlem, before the latter had been gentrified.  While I visited it a couple of times, it was not the sort of place you would want to frequent:  dusty displays of buckskins and beads notated with typed descriptions you had to strain to read.  Not so today.
The NY branch of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian is now situated in  the magnificent Alexander Hamilton Customs House, a Beaux Arts building close to the ferries to Staten Island, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and therefore an excellent addition to a day of sightseeing if you happen to be in New York. The museum, which concerns all the Americas, consists of three main galleries branching off a central rotunda.This rotunda was where the customs officials sat—prior to regulation, charging whatever they felt like charging for the various goods brought into the country! The south gallery lodges the permanent collection, Infinity of Nations, housing seven hundred Native works of historic importance. 
Dress & corn husk pouch, Walla Walla
The east and west galleries have temporary exhibits of both Native history and contemporary culture.  The exhibit I found of particular interest during my recent visit was Native Fashion Now, displaying everything from street clothing to haute couture, yet still bound to Native identity and tradition. There is also the Diker Pavilion, which at the time of my last visit housed Circle of Dance displaying mannequins in dance costumes from Native people, and an auditorium for film, lectures and concerts including ‘Native Sounds,’ a children’s festival and a Native art market in December.
Couture dress by Orlando Dugi, Dine/Navajo

Sneakers by Wolf Chucks
The highlight of my visit, however, was the two, hour-long tours I joined, free, with not even tipping permitted.  The first was a cultural tour concentrating on the different use of masks in different cultures, how they make an individual into another person or animal, and what such transition can mean or be used for. These cultural tours change depending on the docent. The second tour was of the building itself.  Since this was once the Customs House taking in between $500,000 and one million dollars a day, it reflects the sort of wealth that could represent.  There is rare marble throughout, and the very best artisans were brought in from all over the world to work on the building in ways that would be difficult to replicate today. 
For instance, the ceiling dome of glass is not a raised dome at all but a trompe l’oeil made to look like a dome.  
We were shown the office of the Collector of Customs, a post appointed by the President and once said to be the fourth most powerful position in the country because for 125 years, customs duty was the main source of government income. Now used for events, the focus of the office was the woodwork screen by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the only known woodwork of this renowned  glassmaker.

While the museum does represent all indigenous peoples of the Americas, for me it is good to have the association with our own first nations right here.  Keep it in mind if you visit New York. 


Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Andrea, this place is amazing! I want to go. I love how they've incorporated both historic and contemporary native American design. And the building itself is a treat. Great images, by the way. Thanks for sharing your outing with us.

Hebby Roman said...

What an awesome looking museum, and I'm with Patti, too. I want to go. How cool! Great looking displays. I meant to mention when Caroline did her archeology book for CLAC that the pioneer ranching family near Del Rio that my sister married into had archeology digs on their ranch, and the archeologists found some of the oldest Indian artifacts in the whole state. Many years later, went to the Texas Museum in Austin, which is dedicated to all things Texas, and guess what the very first displays were? The artifacts from my sister's husband's ranch. It was an almost spiritual moment, seeing the stuff properly displayed.

Andrea Downing said...

Well, Patti, there's a guestroom waiting for you and I'll be happy to go again. The tours were really good--and the gift shop was good, too! ;-) I have to say, the info on the building used as a Customs House was just as fascinating as the Native American cultural bits.

Hebby, that is fascinating about the bits ending up in a museum. There's certainly a lot of pride in that. And my guestroom is at your disposal, too!