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.
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.
|Dress & corn husk pouch, Walla Walla|
|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.
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. http://nmai.si.edu/visit/newyork/