September 2004

A Potomac on the Potomac: National Museum of the American Indian

A new $200 million showplace for the National Museum of the American Indian opens this month on the Washington Mall

The new building of the National Museum of the American Indian opens this month on the Washington Mall, providing a large exhibition space for the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of 800,000 Native American objects. Occupying the last major available building space on the grassy downtown expanse, the $200 million structure replaces the historic Custom House in Lower Manhattan as the museum’s main venue, although the New York facility will remain open for rotating exhibitions.

Clad in beige Minnesota limestone from a quarry worked by Native Americans, the new building cuts a striking profile. Its creators intended the rough-hewn surface to contrast with the smooth white marble of the surrounding architecture. The design is credited to Douglas Cardinal, an Ottawa-based architect of Blackfoot descent, although he left the project in 1998 in a feud over the design of the interior. The building resembles a geological formation carved by wind and water, with a touch of postmodern panache. Its highlight is a six-story terraced rotunda—known simply as Potomac, a Delaware Indian word meaning a place where goods are gathered—which will be used to show large objects, beginning with a Hawaiian catamaran. The rotunda is illuminated by sunlight passing through prisms arranged across a window, creating a dramatic effect during the summer solstice, when a shaft of light hits a sacred stone embedded in the floor. The rest of the 250,000-square-foot museum has the undulating look of the exterior, with curving spaces producing surprising echo effects, all done in materials that include maple, cedar, and brass.

Most of the collection was amassed by eccentric millionaire George Gustav Heye, known as a “boxcar collector” because of the large number of items he gathered on trips to the American West until his death, in 1957. Including everything from pots to shoes to household objects, Heye’s collection was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1990, prompting the construction of a new storage facility. Seventy percent of the museum’s collection comes from the United States and Canada, the rest from Latin America and the Caribbean.

One of five inaugural exhibitions is a survey of the works of George Morrison, a painter of Chippewa origin associated with the Abstract Expressionists (Franz Kline was his son’s god?father), and Allan Houser, a Santa Fe–based modernist sculptor of Apache origin.Truman Lowe, an artist of Ho-Chunk descent and the museum’s curator of contemporary art, says he wanted to bring the public’s understanding of Indian artistic expression into the present. “One of the reasons for hiring a curator who is also an artist is to take the museum beyond the ethnography material,” he says. “Even though that is the heart of the museum, there is an interest in projecting into the future and showing how people today are translating materials into a visual language.”

Director Richard West, a lawyer of Cheyenne descent, adds that the museum would not distinguish ethnographic material—“pots and beadwork”—from fine art. “Native peoples attach cultural value to artistic objects without making neat distinctions,” he says.

The museum’s design process hit a highly publicized impasse in 1998, when the Smithsonian fired the Philadelphia architecture firm GBQC, which had appointed Cardinal as subcontractor and primary author of the project, for allegedly missing deadlines and clashing with museum officials on allocation of interior spaces. The museum then hired a group of mainly Native American architects and consultants to redesign the interior, but Cardinal’s exterior was essentially left intact. West said that Cardinal’s name will appear on the museum, along with the names of its later designers.

Reached by phone in Ottawa, Cardinal called the building a poor copy of his design. He said he had been invited to the opening but would not attend.

“This could have been my best work,” says Cardinal, who conceived it as a study in circles, the way I. M. Pei’s east wing of the National Gallery of Art works in triangles. “I’m trying to be positive about it, but there is no way someone can copy someone else’s work and expect the end product to come out with the vitality and expression of the original author.”

West calls Cardinal’s departure an “unfortunate parting of ways,” and he says the galleries were redesigned by “people who were with the project from the start.”

—Roger Atwood