The National Museum of the American Indian was a private collection of Native American artifacts — actually the collection was the largest in the world with more than 800,000 artifacts — before it was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1989. The museum has two branches, in Washington, DC, and New York, NY, and a collections facility in Suitland, MD.
The museum is located at the southern tip of Manhattan, adjacent to both Bowling Green and Battery Parks. As you can see in the map below, access to the museum is possible by several subway train lines. The closest express train stop though isn’t shown on the map. It’s the Bowling Green station (4, 5 trains). We recommend using this Google map for directions to the Museum of the American Indian from anywhere in the NYC area.
Being located in Lower Manhattan means that there are many other popular tourist attractions nearby, including the Charging Bull, the Staten Island Ferry, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, not to mention Wall Street and the 911 Memorial.
The National Museum of the American Indian New York is open seven days a week and admission is free; although, be prepared to go through a metal detector such as at the airports. Public tours for adults and families are held most weekday afternoons at 1pm and 3pm and on Sundays at 3pm, and explain the exhibition and the architecture of this beautiful building. The museum’s permanent exhibition, Infinity of Nations, displays over 700 Native American objects from across the continents. For more information on tours, times and exhibits, check out the museum’s visitor’s page.
NMAI-NY is housed in the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. This building was designed by Cass Gilbert (who also designed the Woolworth Building a few blocks north on Broadway) in the Beaux Arts style. Outside are 12 statues along the frieze (If you look right of the center windows, you can see Christopher Columbus), which represent 12 seafaring nations from around the globe. The four ladies seated out front, designed by Daniel Chester French, represent the four continents.
Constructed between 1900 and 1907, the building faces Bowling Green, the first public space in New York City, instead of the port, as was the custom of the times. Upon entry to the building up the massive frontal staircase, the rotunda provides an explanation of the construction and design of the building and the statues out front. The walls of the rotunda are painted with murals and portraits by Reginald Marsh; the skylight of the rotunda is considered a Guastavino masterpiece.
The Customs Service was located in this building until 1971, when it moved into the World Trade Center. In 1976, the U.S. Custom House was declared a National Historic Landmark and in 1979 restoration began on the building.
In 1994, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian moved here. The museum offers a rich variety of things to see. In addition to the 700 permanent objects on display in the Infinity of Nations exhibition, the Diker Pavilion on the ground floor offers the Circle of Dance multi-media exhibition. Explaining the types of and purposes for the Native American dance ceremonies, the video is entertaining as well as informative. Surrounding the seating area are life size displays of the regalia used in these ceremonies.
Also on the ground floor is the Tipi Room. Showing a modern Tipi and its construction, the exhibit explains the origins and purposes of the Tipi in American Indian culture. Two temporary exhibitions are housed upstairs along the rotunda. As of January 2014, on display are Modern Spirit, a retrospective of artwork by abstract expressionist George Morrison, and Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes, a group show.
While this was a private collection of George Gustav Heye, who established the museum in 1916 in New York City, it was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1989. NMAI works with the tribes concerning the safekeeping of their objects and has achieved respect among the tribes.
The museum maintains an active calendar of events and often provides live programs on the weekends. Check nmai.si.edu for up to date information on programs and schedules.
Museum of the American Indian Visitor Tip:
Our Lower Manhattan Tour is a great companion activity to a visit to the museum and a great way to discover the neighborhood. Consider stopping in before or after the tour.