This is Mary Tillotson.
And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program, EXPLORATIONS. Today we tell about plans for the new Museum of the American Indian. It will open in two-thousand-four near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
“This museum is being given birth, not being planned … The land where it will sit has a spirit … This museum has to be connected not only to us, but to our children.” These are the words of a Hopi Indian talking about the new National Museum of the American Indian. The building is rising along the National Mall in the center of Washington, D.C.
The museum is to be a gathering place for living cultures. Its goal is to save, study and show the life, languages, history and arts of the Native people of North, Central and South America.
The most important words in the museum’s goal are “living cultures.” Museums usually are storehouses of objects from the past. Museum experts and scientists are responsible for explaining and describing objects in the museums.
This museum will show American Indian objects from the past, and also from the present. The explanations about the meaning and importance of the objects will be provided by Native people. Members of these living cultures are playing an important part in creating the new museum and deciding what will be shown to the public and how it will be shown.
Richard West has been the director of the Museum of the American Indian since nineteen-ninety. He is a member of the southern Cheyenne tribe. Mister West says the museum will show the success of Native people in keeping their way of life and overcoming pressures against them. He says it “will be a place to show and tell the world who we are and to use our own voices in the telling.”
Building the museum in the very heart of the nation’s capital represents a kind of cultural justice. It is considered a sign of a long delayed cooperation between people whose ancestors came to these shores and people who were already here.
The National Museum of the American Indian contains about eight-hundred-thousand objects. They are from the collection of one man, American businessman George Gustav Heye (HIGH). He spent the first fifty years of the last century gathering American Indian objects to create one of the largest collections in the world. The material he collected from the far northern Arctic Circle to the southern tip of South America has great artistic, historic and cultural meaning.
In nineteen-twenty-two, the Heye Foundation opened a private museum in New York City to show the collection. However, the museum had space to show the public only a small part of the collection. The foundation did not have enough money to expand the museum or to correctly care for the huge number of objects being stored. After years of negotiations, agreement was reached to make the Heye Foundation Museum of the American Indian part of the Smithsonian Institution. Congress passed legislation approving the move in Nineteen-Eighty-Nine.
In nineteen-ninety-four, the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian opened in the old Custom House in New York City. It is one of the most visited museums in New York. It will continue to offer major exhibits and public programs.
Thomas Sweeney is the head of public relations for the National Museum of the American Indian. He says tribal representatives from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America were asked for their ideas about the new building. Their suggestions were recorded in a guide called “The Way of the People.” They said the building needed roundness, light and open space, natural materials, water and plants.
The finished design includes all this. The building will cover only about twenty-five percent of the two hectares of land that surrounds it. It will fit into the setting on the Mall, yet show traditional American Indian values. The outside wall is made of different size blocks of gray limestone. It looks like waves of stone. The wall seems to flow as if formed by wind and water. Glass window areas extend the length of the stone wall to provide light and a connection between inside and out.
The main entrance to the building faces east, like the doorway in a traditional American Indian home. The building will be surrounded by trees like those from a local hardwood forest and a grassy area called a meadow. Native American crops – beans, corn and squash – will be grown.
Water will be very much a part of the building’s surroundings. It will flow over and around some huge rocks and continue down to a small, round lake area. The rocks are called grandfather rocks. They show the respect of Native Americans for ancient things that existed in the area long before people arrived.
Visitors to the museum will enter a large central circular space. It has a rounded top more than thirty-three meters up that is similar to the dome of the nearby Capitol building. This area is called Potomac, which in the native local language means, ”place where the goods are brought in.”
Live demonstrations like canoe building, story telling, music, and dance will take place here. The public will be able to experience the living traditions and skills of Native people.
The exhibition areas are called Our Universes, Our Peoples and Our Lives. Our Universes explores Native peoples’ theories about the world around them and their spiritual worlds. It will contain objects and stories to educate visitors about the values and beliefs of eight different native cultures.
In Our Peoples, twelve different Native communities will present their tribal histories. They will choose the objects, pictures, songs and other materials from the museum’s collections to tell about their past and their present.
Our Lives will examine the differences among Native cultures. It will look at relationships in the family and community.
The new Museum of the American Indian will have two theaters. In the performing arts theater, three-hundred people will be able to watch Native dance theater and other performances. The other theater will show a film explaining the museum.
Hungry visitors will be able buy food at the Mitsitam (MIT-zi-tom) Café, whose name in the local Indian language means, “Let’s eat.” Handmade Native arts and crafts, books and games will be sold in the museum’s gift shop.
Another important part of the National Museum of the American Indian is the Cultural Resources Center. It opened in nineteen-ninety-eight in Suitland, Maryland, near Washington, D.C.
The Heye collection is being moved from the place where it is stored in New York City to the new center. In preparation for the five-year move, museum employees began to develop a record of the condition and description of everything in the collection.
The Cultural Resources Center is designed to honor the wishes of Native people about how they want the objects cared for and protected. Native and non-Native people can do research there. And training will be given to people who work in tribal museums.
The resources building itself shows a Native desire to connect architecture to the environment. The roofline and the walls suggest forms commonly found in nature such as a spider web, a butterfly wing and a shell.
Thomas Sweeney says the resources center helps both tribal communities and museum employees. Tribal members visit the center to share their stories about the meaning and use of tribal objects. These stories educate non-Natives, sometimes correcting theories developed years ago by collectors and non-tribal people.
One of the most important parts of the new National Museum of the American Indian is called the Fourth Museum. This is not a physical structure. It is the Community Services office, a link between the museum and Native communities throughout North and South America.
Native people have been employed to work with individuals, communities and organizations to develop museum programs. They are creating travelling exhibits, educational materials and an Internet Web site. The address is www.americanindian.si.edu. The National Museum of the American Indian will use these to inform people around the world about the living native cultures of the Americas.
This Special English program was written by Marilyn Christiano and produced by Caty Weaver. This is Steve Ember.
And this is Mary Tillotson. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the Voice of America.