Opening Set for Indian Museum—Week-long Festival to Mark Sept. 21 Launch on Mall
The staff of the National Museum of the American Indian began moving into its new building on the Mall yesterday. And in nine months, the Smithsonian's newest outpost will open to the public, with an unmatched collection of artifacts and displays designed to set the record straight on the history and contributions of native peoples.
That will culminate a 20-year push to establish a museum on the Mall that would enshrine 10,000 years of Native American life and culture as a central chapter of history, said the museum director, W. Richard West Jr.
In a speech at the National Press Club yesterday, West said the museum would be ready to open Sept. 21, with traditional Native American blessings, pageantry and a week-long "The First Americans Festival." He also said that the museum had raised $95 million in private funds, more than required. Of that, $33 million came from tribes that generate substantial revenues from casinos. Federal appropriations paid for the rest of the $214 million project.
The museum, West said, represents "the long overdue and entirely appropriate recognition and affirmation of the vast cultural contributions that native peoples and communities have made and continue to make to all that we define as 'civilization' . . . I think a case can be made that Native America, as the originating element of American heritage, should have been among the first to be acknowledged with a museum on the National Mall--and yet we arrived last."
The 250,000-square-foot building west of the Capitol and the Botanic Garden was designed to be in tune with native beliefs and culture, including an entrance that faces east, "to meet the morning son." The five-story, somewhat-circular building is swathed in limestone from Minnesota. The stone has been treated to suggest it has been shaped by decades of wind and rain. Light spills into the interior through a series of prisms, reflecting the importance of sun and light in Indian cultures.
The core of the museum's collection is the 800,000 items gathered in the first half of the 20th century by George Gustav Heye. When it opens, the museum will have 7,000 objects on display, from gold figurines that predate Columbus, to beadwork, baskets, blankets, garments and pottery. Tribes from the Arctic to Patagonia will be represented.
From the beginning the planners have included native officials in their decisions--more than 500 people from 300 communities. The permanent exhibitions will be divided into "Our Universes," an examination of native philosophy and cosmology; "Our Peoples," a review of central events in native history; and "Our Lives," a look at individual and tribal identities.
West said yesterday no topic "would be dodged"--from the "efforts of the federal government to eliminate native people" to questions about casinos on Indian reservations to repatriation of native artifacts. Asked whether the stories of betrayal would be represented, West said they would be but he didn't want those stories to overshadow others. "This is an aspect of our history that we must not avoid," he said. West said the exhibitions would include documents from the National Archives--even the treaties that were worth only the paper they were written on. "There is no treaty between the tribal nations and the U.S. government that was ever completely honored," he said.
But he wants the stories that aren't as well known to be appreciated and highlighted, as well, he said.
West was asked how he felt about sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins, that adopt Indian names and symbols.
He responded indirectly, pointing out that the more people know about a culture, the better they understand and can move toward his goal of reconcilation. West said exposure is "one of the most significant ways to rid ourselves and our culture of one-dimensional pictures of who we are. We are full human beings," he said.
West said he expects 4 million visitors in the first year. The museum is following the example the Holocaust Museum used and is organzing an advance pass system. The passes are available on the museum's Web site, www.americanindian.si.edu or at www.tickets.com. Admission is free.
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