Home Away From Home

What's behind the new National Museum of the American Indian

By Hampton Sides

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Cultural Resources Center, Suitland, Md.

Credit: NMAI

This fall, with great fanfare, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opens on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a fine, startling edifice of mottled limestone, built with appropriate irony close to the United States Capitol. In terms of architecture, national symbolism, and historic resonance, this high-profile museum is a triumph—as well as conspicuously, almost achingly overdue. But in many ways, the most interesting and poignant part of the story involves the backstage doings on the city's eastern outskirts in the much less heralded Cultural Resources Center (CRC), where a large portion of the Smithsonian Institution's enormous Native American collection—nearly one million objects—is meticulously housed and cared for by a besmocked army of staff curators. With its drab, bureaucratic name and the unprepossessing surroundings of Suitland, Md., this complex is easy to overlook. Yet to understand how the NMAI came to be, you must first understand what goes on here.

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The lobby of the Cultural Resources Center

Credit: NMA

I had expected a generic warehouse when I visited last spring but found that much thought and energy had been lavished on the design of this suburban netherworld of the vast Smithsonian. Bordered by deciduous woods, the site's natural landscape has been spared the contractor's usual zeal for bulldozing, and both structure and grounds are striking in their avoidance of straight lines. Wherever possible, the design adheres to organic patterns—curves, ovals, and meandering paths. Its intriguing symmetry observes the cardinal points of the compass, with an east-facing door, a mainstay of many Native American dwellings. A central dome with a round skylight suggests the smoke hole of a lodge, and a segmented corkscrew roof plan mimics the shape of a chambered nautilus.

An immense bronze statue of Chief Joseph, the Nez Perce leader, seemed to beckon visitors toward the door. Inside, in a gathering room accessible to the public only by appointment, a discreet sign caught my eye: "Please turn on fan when smudging."

The room was designed so that American Indian visitors can hold ceremonies in the same facility where their tribal artifacts—shields, baskets, pots, totem poles, papoose carriers, figurines, spears, pipes, dugout canoes—are housed. Often these visiting tribal members want to look at the artifacts, perform blessings, or just "be" with the objects. (Others come at the Smithsonian's expense to be consulted about certain artifacts.) A group of Crow Indians had held a ceremony a few days earlier, and the room was still fragrant with the tang of burnt sage sticks.

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