A Tale of Two Architectures: NMAI NY & Washington, DC

A museum’s collection often outshines the structure that houses it. Visitors may be more interested in the objects on display than the museum’s architecture. Of course the exception is when starchitects are commissioned (such as Frank Gehry for the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain and Fondation Louis Vuitton in France) to design new museums. In some of these cases the architecture elevates a fledgling collection. Marabou draws attention to the architecture of the National Museum of the American Indian’s two museum locations, New York and Washington, DC, to illustrate how museum buildings, the physicality of their spaces and they way they are designed, are just as impactful, communicative, and important as the objects within the museum.

The roots of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) go back to the collecting habits of George Gustav Heye (1874-1957). Heye was the child of German immigrants who made their money through the petroleum industry. While in Arizona supervising railroad construction in 1897, Heye obtained an animal hide shirt from the Navajo nation. From that year onward, Heye grew his collection of objects from indigenous communities across North, Central, and South America and sponsored excavations. In 1904 Heye formally started cataloging his objects and opened the Museum of the American Indian in 1916 with the help of wealthy friends. (The official opening was in 1922 because of World War I.) The museum was located at 155th Street and Broadway in New York City and boasted over 58,000 objects. Throughout his life Heye continued to build his museum’s collection. At the time of his death, the museum had 225,000 catalog numbers totaling over 700,000 items. According to NMAI’s website, these items make up 85% of NMAI’s current collection. In 1989 President George H.W. Bush signed legislation making the NMAI part of the Smithsonian. The new iteration of the institution would have three elements, a small museum in New York where George Gustav Heye had grown his collection, a study center in Maryland, and the main museum along the National Mall in Washington, DC. The New York location moved into the Alexander Hamilton Custom House in 1994. For the Maryland study center and main DC museum, a collaborative plan was developed between indigenous communities and architectural consultants Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates resulting in a document called The Way of the People. The collection study center, known at the Cultural Resources Center opened in 1999. Its structure honors the wishes of indigenous communities and is a response to the needs of the objects in the collection, for example accommodating when a ceremonial object needs to face a certain direction or needs to be exposed to natural light. For this post Marabou is focusing on the New York and DC museum locations since they, of the three structures, are the most visited by the public. The DC museum on the National Mall opened in 2004. The development of the structure reflected the new mission of NMAI. Heye’s Museum of the American Indian was about collecting and preserving objects that help explain the culture of indigenous people from the Western Hemisphere. Smithsonian NMAI’s mission adds an important element missing from Heye’s mission, the involvement and perspective of indigenous people whose cultures are represented in the museum’s collection. NMAI’s mission states,

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere—past, present, and future—through partnership with Native people and others. The museum works to support the continuance of culture, traditional values, and transitions in contemporary Native life.

The DC museum structure represents NMAI’s mission as native communities were consulted in determining important elements required in and around the new museum building. The New York location, at the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House, tells a very different story, but one that is more representative (perhaps unwittingly) of indigenous/settler relations in the United States.

NMAI Washington, DC

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. The sandy colored stone facade of the building undulates to represent the natural erosion of rock caused by centuries of contact with water and wind.

NMAI’s DC museum building and land are considered a comprehensive whole, all elements hold equal value. The area surrounding the museum structure is not about aesthetics, but is an intentional landscape representing different indigenous cultural connections to the land and the reciprocal relationship between indigenous people and the environment. The landscape design is also an act of reclamation. The museum states, “By recalling the natural environment that existed prior to European contact, the museum’s landscape design embodies a theme that runs central to the NMAI—that of returning to a Native place. Four hundred years ago, the Chesapeake Bay region abounded in forests, wetlands, meadows, and Algonquian peoples’ croplands. The NMAI restores these environments and is home to more than 27,000 trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants representing 145 species.” Forty rocks, referred to as grandfather rocks, surround the museum building serving as reminders of the history of native connection to the land and as protection, the ancestors watching over the people. From the rocks to plants to the building and the museum collection, all elements are believed to embody a spirit, are alive and interconnected, and are to be protected. (Listen and watch an audio/visual tour of NMAI’s DC museum grounds here, narrated by actor and physician Evan Adams, of the Sliammon First Nation (Powell River, BC, Canada).)

Marabou stands at the east-facing entrance of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. They are under the cantilevered roof that was inspired by natural rock formations used by indigenous cultures as natural protection from sun and rain.

The NMAI’s DC museum structure contrasts with the many neoclassical buildings that line the National Mall. Its sandy-colored curvilinear exterior, conceived by Douglas Cardinal (Blackfoot), evokes the look and feel of rock that has been naturally shaped by wind and water through the centuries. The main entrance faces east with sun symbols etched onto the glass doors, expressing gratitude for all the sun provides. The entrance is protected by a cantilevered roof inspired by natural rock formations utilized by native communities as protection from harsh sun, wind, and rain. Entering the building means stepping into the four-story-tall Potomac Atrium. Standing in the space feels like standing in a canyon. The organic lines of the exterior are echoed on the inside, there are no straight lines in the space, the walls undulate. Navigating the space feels more like you are flowing through instead of merely walking. When Marabou was visiting, an open forum to ask museum staff questions was held in the atrium. The conversation travelled all the way up to the 4th floor balcony and people on any floor could listen. The acoustics are balanced so you will hear atrium discussions (amplified by a mic) when you are on the balconies or in the hallways, but not within the exhibition spaces. Overall the museum building and landscape creates a sense of ease and flow. Disrupting the typical straight-line way we are usually directed to move through space, the curving paths and walls required Marabou to focus on the present moment. When you know you just need to keep walking straight, your mind can easily wander off. The openness of the atrium and hallways encouraged lingering and sitting, and not just because of the usual museum fatigue. The goal for the space to be a living museum was achieved. Instead of feeling like a visitor and outsider, Marabou felt part of the experience. The architecture and landscape are grounding and inspire mindfulness as you move throughout the museum’s 4.25 acres.

NMAI New York

The National Museum of the American Indian in New York housed in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House.

In great contrast to NMAI’s DC building, NMAI New York is housed in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House, a nationally landmarked Beaux-Arts structure dating to 1907. As a federally owned building, NMAI shares the space with the National Archives and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Where NMAI in DC was custom built to reflect NMAI’s new 1989 mission, the New York location is taking up residence in a building that is the embodiment of the very ideologies that led to the displacement and murder of Native Americans: greed over resources and land. NMAI’s NY location, close to the shore of southern Manhattan, was a center of colonial commerce, first under the Dutch and then under England. Beaver pelts and the accessibility of New York harbor enticed Dutch fur traders to settle on Mannahatta, home to the Lenni Lenape. The land and resources of what is now New York enticed colonizers to come to the area, creating a global trade center. On the land where the Customs House stands, resources, objects, and human bodies were traded. Quickly following the establishment of the United States, the U.S. Customs Service was established in 1789 and is the government’s oldest federal agency. Up until 1916, when income tax was initiated, customs was the largest single source of revenue for the U.S. government. Previous iterations of the customs house burned down and were in other locations, but at the turn of the twentieth century a new customs house would be built to reflect the wealth that came into the United States through trade from around the world.

The Alexander Hamilton Customs House was designed by Cass Gilbert (best known for designing the Woolworth Building). The exterior and interior reflect the grandeur of the Beaux-Arts style. The facade of the seven-story building references a classical Greco-Roman temple with corinthian columns, dentil, pediments over the first floor windows, and a complex sculptural program. The building is surrounded by 44 corinthian columns topped with the head of Mercury, god of commerce. Each window pediment has a sculpted head representing a different race of humanity. Above the entablature of the building are twelve statues that represent historically powerful seafaring nations. The main sculptural focal point is “The Four Continents,” a set of four statues created by Daniel Chester French (most famous for the Lincoln Memorial) between 1903 and 1907. The statues depict four women who, in their body language and the symbols that surround them, are meant to represent Asia, the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

“Asia,” Daniel Chester French (1903-7), in front of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House, NY.

When looking at the Customs House, “Asia” is seated to the far left of the building. Her eyes are closed and her hands rest in her lap. She wears a hat similar to the shape of a fez, a beaded necklace, a low-cut blouse, and flowing robes. She holds a tulip in her right hand. A statue of Buddha sits in her lap. Her feet rest on a pedestal supported by human skulls. To her left there are three people crouching, one completely kneeling with their head to the ground. Behind her right shoulder is a Christian cross. To her right sits a tiger with its chin resting on her shoulder.

“The Americas,” Daniel Chester French (1903-7) in front of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House, NY.

“The Americas” is one of the two center statues, standing to the left of the grand entry staircase. She wears her hair pulled back and is fully clothed in a draped robe that is gathered at each shoulder. The throne she sits upon has Mayan glyphs on either side. Her body is active, moving forward. She holds a lit torch in her right hand. Across her knee are stalks of corn tied together, representing plenty, unity, and strength. Her right foot rests on a sculpture of Quetzalcoatl, an Aztec god. The man kneeling to her left is thought to represent labor, he moves the winged wheel representing progress (and the god Mercury). Behind her stands a crouching Native American in a war bonnet worn by Northern Plains nations. To her lower right is an eagle.

“Europe,” Daniel Chester French (1903-7), in front of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House, NY.

“Europe” is to the right of the main staircase. She sits confidently on a throne, looking into the distance. She wears a crown, chest armor, and flowing robes. Her left arm rests on a large book that is on top of a globe. An eagle, similar to that of Germany or the Holy Roman Empire is behind her right shoulder. Her right hand rests on the bow of a viking-type ship with carved animal heads. The bottom of her throne depicts reliefs from the Parthenon in Greece. A shrouded man holding a skull wearing a laurel wreath representing philosophy sits behind enthroned Europe.

“Africa,” Daniel Chester French (1903-7), in front of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House, NY.

“Africa” is positioned to the far right of the building. She wears her hair in a loose braid that falls over one shoulder. Her right arm rests on the head of a sphinx and the left on a head of a lion. Her head hangs downward, she looks tired and is sleeping, and/or defeated. Her upper body is fully exposed, a piece of fabric falls across her lap. Behind the sphinx head sits a cloaked figure, perhaps representing desert nomads who wear cloaks and scarves to protect from the sun and sand. The lion sits atop architectural ruins with imagery relating to the Ancient Egyptian goddess, Isis.

If casually passing the Customs House, one may not feel the impact of the ideology reflected in the four statues. Marabou wonders how many people take the time to examine each closely and think of what they communicate as a set. It’s clear that “The Americas,” more specifically the United States, represents a young upstart, active, and the face of the future. “Europe” is grandma who has laid the groundwork for her progeny, luxuriating on her past successes. “Asia,” who French symbolically credits as the location where many of the world’s main religions were founded, has her eyes downcast and is passive. She is not considered a major player when it comes to global economic trade. “Africa,” semi-nude, languishes in her seat. French’s sculptural interpretation reflects how Africa was referred to as “the dark continent” or “sleeping continent” and was supposedly considered mysterious with untapped potential by turn-of-the-century Europeans and Americans. The only clear reference to Africa, aside from the lion, is through objects from Ancient Egypt that date to over a millenia before the sculptures are created. The “Four Continents” accurately reflect their time period and capture a very specific American view of the world. Marabou thinks it is important that the statues are put into context with some explanation provided. The ideas reflected in the statutes should be understood within their time period and not perpetuated. Especially for a building that houses collections from the National Museum of the American Indian, an institution that is supposed to celebrate indigenous cultures, it seems strange and disrespectful that a sculpted female representation of “The Americas” literally steps on the head of an Aztec god while a Native American man who is stereotypically depicted peers out from behind her. This lack of context and explanation continues as visitors enter the building.

The grand rotunda of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House (NMAI) in New York. The ceiling is lined with murals of activity in New York harbor during the 1930s and full body portraits of famous explorers including Christopher Columbus.

After climbing many stairs and entering the Customs House doors, visitors are greeted by high ceilings, marble floors and walls, and gilt brass fixtures. The most attention grabbing space is the main rotunda. An oval oculus hangs over the location where customs agents used to collect money. The room gleams with white marble veined with grey. Green marble columns reflect the money and wealth amassed by the Customs House. Sea shells, bows of boats, dolphins, and faces of Neptune are carved into marble and molded in plaster throughout the building, adorning lintels of doors and referencing the international trade made possible by the sea. In 1937 Reginald Marsh was commissioned to create murals in the space between the marbled walls and oculus in the ceiling. There are two sets of murals, one set is full-color and captures scenes from the New York Harbor during the 1930s. The second set is grisaille depictions of famous explorers. (Marabou heard from a tour guide that Cass Gilbert had gone over budget and the explorers were supposed to be relief statues. To complete Gilbert’s vision 30 years later, the explorers were painted to look like statues.)

Marabou looks at the murals on the ceiling of NMAI NY’s (Alexander Hamilton Customs House) rotunda, which includes a full body portrait of Christopher Columbus.

Christopher Columbus is one of the explorers portrayed. The presence of Columbus is noticed by most who walk into the rotunda. Marabou believes that for many, there is a moment of confusion. Why would a portrait of Christopher Columbus be in a museum that celebrates indigenous cultures? This became a much more glaring dissonance once the “Taíno” exhibition opened in 2018. (Read about the Taíno exhibition.) The Taíno encountered Columbus upon his arrival in the Caribbean. As with other problematic historical pieces of art, people question what should be done? Take down the image of Columbus? Currently, there is no acknowledgement by NMAI that the presence of Columbus is questionable in the rotunda that leads to the three main museum exhibition halls displaying indigenous objects. Instead of taking down the mural, Marabou would like to see the NMAI use this as an opportunity to address the history of exploration. The museum should complicate the commonly celebrated European “Age of Discovery” by acknowledging that “discovery” involved murder, erasure of culture, and stealing of land. Marabou thinks this type of context and dialogue between the explorer murals and exhibitions lives up to NMAI’s mission and would even reinforce the importance of a museum about indigenous cultures.

NMAI’s NY building speaks volumes about indigenous/colonist relations through United States history. The lack of dialogue between the Customs House’s history and architectural symbolism and NMAI’s collection and mission mirrors the lack of acknowledgement of and overdue apology for US government transgressions against native populations. Marabou hasn’t seen any acknowledgment, such as signage, that the building stands on Lenni Lenape land. Although NMAI NY’s exhibitions explain indigenous histories from native perspectives and celebrate contemporary native art, it can be a jarring experience to transition from spaces, like the rotunda, that celebrate and are inspired by Europeans to galleries that honor the cultures European settlers tried to erase.

In conclusion

Marabou is intrigued that the National Museum of the American Indian is housed in two very disparate structures. However, Marabou finds that the two structures, if you consider them closely, reflect two different parts of Native American history. The Customs House tells the story of the affects and ongoing impact of colonization and capitalism on indigenous cultures, how interest in native cultures very much started off as a fetish of white collectors, and the continued silence from the US government regarding crimes against native people. NMAI Washington DC shows the active reclamation of cultural space by native communities who are fueled by the ongoing work done by generations of indigenous people who refused to be forgotten and erased.


NMAI, Washington, DC

Open 10 AM–5:30 PM; closed December 25. Exhibition spaces and the store begin closing at 5:15 PM.

Located on the National Mall between the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum and the U.S. Capitol Building.

Metro: L’Enfant Plaza (Blue/Orange/Green/Yellow lines), exit Maryland Avenue/Smithsonian Museums

NMAI, New York

Open 10 AM–5 PM daily, Thursdays to 8 PM. Open 10 AM–5 PM on Thanksgiving; closed on December 25. Admission is free.

Located on the south side of Bowling Green, in lower Manhattan, adjacent to the northeast corner of Battery Park.


  • 4 & 5 trains to Bowling Green
  • 1 train to Rector Street or South Ferry
  • R (& W on weekdays) trains to Whitehall Street
  • J & Z trains to Broad Street
  • 2 & 3 trains to Wall Street

Bus: M5, M15, M20

Note: When visiting NMAI in New York, since it is a Federal building, you will go through TSA-like security. So if you are crafty and carry scissors in your bag, or are a pocket knife enthusiast, leave those sharp things at home.



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