Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian

Location: Financial District, 1 Bowling Green

Address: 1 Bowling Green, New York, NY 10004

Date of Visit: March 29, 2017

Open Hrs. ADA Accessbility? Admission Phone # Website
  • F.-W.: 10am-5pm
  • Th.: 10am-8pm
  • Thanksgiving: 10am-5pm
  • Closed Christmas Day
Yes Free 212-514-3700 Website
Front of the Custom House.
Front of the Custom House.

Usually, the Financial District in Downtown Manhattan is packed. The South Street Seaport, World Trade Center, South Ferry, and Wall Street are major tourist hubs. Sometimes when we visit these hot spots, we overlook others that are just as good and memorable. Not far from the Staten Island Ferry, and inside the U.S. Custom House, is the George Gustav Heye Center, home to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Operated by the Smithsonian Institution and one of two NMAI branches (the other in Washington, D.C.), it’s a hidden gem within the historic neighborhood.


Originally, New York’s Museum of the American Indian was inside the Audubon Terrance, a Beaux Arts complex in Washington Heights and originally run by the Heye Foundation. From 1897 to near the end of his life, George Heye — a New Yorker and former Wall Street banker — collected approximately 800,000 Native artifacts, the largest collection ever by a person. As he collected, he founded the Museum of the American Indian-Heye Foundation in 1916 and opened the museum in 1922. He died in 1957, leaving behind his collection. In 1989, his collection and museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Rotunda just prior to closing time.
Rotunda just prior to closing time.

The current site — the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House — has history in and of itself. Established in 1789, the United States Customs Service is the oldest federal agency. For the first century of its existence, it moved from one location to another, but by 1888, it needed a permanent home in response to New York’s booming seaport. In 1892, the government purchased the Bowling Green site and passed the Tarsney Act of 1893, giving the Secretary of the Treasury powers to use private architects to design federal buildings. Cass Gilbert, who eventually designed the U.S. Supreme Court and Woolworth Building, designed the Beaux Arts architecture for the Custom House, too. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and eventually designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1975, the exterior and public interior spaces were declared a city landmark.

Early in the 1970s, the customs service abandoned it in favor of the World Trade Center. Time and nature caused not only the granite and marble to erode, but algae and wild plants to grow on it, too. Creation of the Custom House Institute in 1973 and passage of the Public Buildings Cooperative Use Act of 1976 resulted in Congress pledging $16.5 million for the House’s restoration in 1979. Restoration began in 1983 and completed in 1994. Afterwards, the Smithsonian Institution relocated the National Museum of the American Indian from the Audubon Terrance, taking over parts of the first and second floors.

Diker Pavilion for Native Arts and Cultures

The museum has three floors: the auditorium, first floor, and second floor. Unfortunately, the auditorium is closed, but the others aren’t. Walk through the Diker Pavilion’s double glass doors, and you’ll be in the oval-shaped, level-planed auditorium hosting “Circle of Dance,” an exhibition celebrating the art of movement within Native cultures. Inside each display case are mannequins in Native dance regalia with a wide range of both size and age. Some parts date back nearly a century, some much sooner, suggesting that the culture is passed from generation to generation. A reader rail with map underneath and text panel beside each outfit explain each dance, history, and culture succinctly and clearly.

Mannequin with Lakota dance regalia.
Mannequin with Lakota dance regalia.

Straight ahead is a projector showing us exactly what the dances are, who dances them, and why the dances matter. Each clip is only a minute long, but they’re to the point; and each dance is marked on a map halfway in the clip to tell visitors their location. Also, each projection follows in the same sequence as the outfit/display order, telling us when the dances are coming without wildly guessing.

There is one exception. At least one dance on the projector doesn’t match the location, outfit, and dance type. On another note, this room has a wooden floor with a very loud echo, so even tiptoes can drown out the audio from the speakers hanging above.

Nevertheless, I’m only nitpicky here. The Diker Pavilion is roomy with very legible exhibition typography. If you’re lucky, you might attend the museum where there’s an event held there, but whether they’re open to the public or not, I’m unsure. Regardless, if you’re there on an open day, please drop by and spend a good thirty to forty minutes watching the clips rotate every fifteen minutes.

Now, “Circle of Dance” is a temporary exhibition: It closes October 8, 2017. So if you want to see it, do so before it closes.

Second Floor

Upon arriving at the second floor, you’ll see a breathtaking three-story rotunda. Within the oval are beautiful bronze-cast lamps with permanent references dedicated to the National Archive in the desk displays. But the most striking in this room is the glass oculus ceiling, where light beams through on gorgeous sunny days. Surrounding it are Reginald Marsh’s ship-themed murals that taper to the ceiling, calling back to the House’s original reason for its construction and site. The rotunda has an entrance to each of the floor’s three galleries: the East, South, and West. The South Gallery is permanent, while the East and South wings are rotational. Each gallery is connected, so you can walk from one to the next without having to return to the rotunda.

The newest of them all is “Native Fashion Now” in the East Gallery. It opened on February 17 and will close September 4. This room celebrates contemporary fashion dating back to the mid-20th Century, all designed by Native Americans. The whole purpose of this gallery is to celebrate their culture in a modernistic way. There is a variety of fashion with cloth ranging from vinyl to muslin. My favorite is Carla Hamlock’s “Treaty Cloth Shirt”; made out of the 2009 treaty cloth that the United States government gave to them as part of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua’s bylaws. For more about the treaty, click here.

Greater Nicoya vessel.
Greater Nicoya vessel.

A few years ago, the museum opened “Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed,” a bilingual exhibit in the West Gallery. Researched by anthropologists and archeologists working in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, panels with maps and display cases explain the history of the pre-Contact Natives that once lived in those regions, ranging from Belize to Panama. According to NMAI’s unlisted YouTube video, its purpose is to educate to the masses, younger Latinos in particular, about pre-Contact cultures and religions. Initially, this expo was in the Washington, DC branch, but in 2015, they moved it to New York and will remain there till October 2018.

I’m not Latino (I’m Jewish, actually), but that doesn’t make the gallery any less flooring. Every piece of art featured in the collection and all the panels tell the audience stories of these items, what makes them significant, and why. Historically, pre-Contact Central America is widely misunderstood and often appropriated through revisionist history, so the artifacts and research collected for this project are compiled into a detailed biography celebrating the luscious cultures from within the seven present-day Central American countries. Everything here tells me as a New Yorker and visitor in this museum not to forget about them: While pre-Contact civilization died out, they left behind a past that shall be remembered. The fact that it’s written in both English and Spanish helps communicate its mission statement to its targeted demographics.

Apsaalooke warrior's robe.
Apsáalooke warrior’s robe.

The South Gallery, by far the biggest and most elaborate, houses “Infinity of Nations,” the museum’s only permanent exhibition. Its goal is to showcase its most important and both culturally and historically significant artifacts within specific North, Central, and South American regions. According to its website, 200 out of 700 (many of them from Heye’s collection) are chosen. Some of the most significant — i.e., the shaman’s drum, Willie Seaweed’s headdress, or the Apsáalooke warrior’s robe — are explained in further detail through interactive screens, expositions, timelines, and videos; much of it is explained either by historians or people from within the local tribes. The latter heightens their importance more: By telling the viewer the cultural and spiritual significance of the artifacts from their perspective, the representation becomes both biographical and authentic.

One visit doesn’t give this gallery any justice whatsoever. Each of the treasures within “Infinity of Nations” tells a deep story to the audience. They can range from “Seated Woman” (an abstract bronze sculpture) or a simple drawing out of a notebook. These magnificent artifacts have decades, if not centuries, of stories to tell. Look at one, pay attention to the exquisite detail, and open your mind. Chances are you’ll be overwhelmed by their psychological wealth. The warrior robe is my favorite in not only the gallery, but also the entire museum. Crafted around 1850, this robe tells an autobiography of a respected warrior from the Crow tribe, from the woven timeline to the conflicts visually depicted on the hide. The picture alone doesn’t give it justice.

Maya Bas-Relief Depicting a Ball Player
“Maya Bas-Relief Depicting a Ball Player”

After a day’s worth of exploring, there’s a shop on the floor, too. Every artifact is crafted and authenticated by Natives and their tribes. The prices and values range from about $10 on the desk to about $100 behind the glass vault. I’m not a shopper, but the one I would probably buy if I chose is a hilarious parody of the Cleveland Indians’s “Chief Wahoo” logo. Why? Because I’m a die-hard baseball fan, and the logo is a combination of two hurtful, racist stereotypes: a burnt red skin and having exaggerated cartoon caricature depictions. Cultural appropriation is a major problem in sport, and parody is a good way to open dialogue.

Political Soapbox

Natives are perhaps the most persecuted demographic in the Americas. For centuries, their cultures, identities, and dignities were ravaged, erased, and destroyed by settlers and eventually the governments. Christopher Columbus is the 15th Century’s Adolf Hitler: When he and his crew arrived in North America from Spain, they enslaved, maimed, raped, and murdered thousands of Natives to the point of extinction. Two years ago, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in a damning report that Canada committed cultural genocide against Indigenous people. One of the government’s major avenues for their horrific crimes was building boarding schools — created through the Indian Act in 1876 — on Native ground to brainwash First Nations children into assimilating into non-Native cultures and abandoning their own Indigenous identity.

In the United States, president Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, commencing an era of genocide against Native-Americans by the United States government that leaves its mark today. While many urban communities thrive, one in four Native-Americans currently lives in poverty. Their high school graduation rate is 67%, the lowest of all racial demographics in the country. In 2013, the second-leading cause of death for Natives between ages 15 and 24 is suicide. Inadequate federal programs resulted in a low quality of life, education, and law enforcement. When Senator Bernie Sanders campaigned for president, he made several stops at Native American cities, habitats, and reservations, and pledged to put resources into their communities and cultures. For they normally got little notice, his presence and dedication were a very big deal to them.

Earlier this year, Donald Trump and his corrupt presidential administration permitted the fossil fuel industry — companies that he owned stock in — to build the Dakota Access pipeline underneath Standing Rock, a Dakotan reservation that is considered sacred ground and is also the home of freshwater supply that millions of people (including those at Standing Rock) depend on. While the protests (and the police’s abuse of the protestors) were given focus late in 2016, the mainstream media ignores them today, thus suggesting that their rights, dignity, and lives are worthless. As a Jew whose ancestors fled Czar Russia to escape anti-Semitic pogroms, this treatment is absolutely deplorable. Given the current racial climate in the United States, it’s more important than ever to condemn our governments’ past and current atrocities against them, help them fight for their future, and treat them with the respect they deserve.

What does this have to do with the museum?

  1. Because the museum spends a lot of time recognizing the long-standing history of Native-Americans, whether they’re from the U.S., Canada, Central America, or South America.
  2. This was also a lesson for myself. Besides the fact that it’s severely overlooked, I also wanted to go there in response to the government’s treatment of minorities in this country. Civil rights matter, and going into this museum reminds me to never take anyone’s for granted.


Collectively, Natives have some of the richest cultures that I’ve ever seen. Everything in their languages, arts, colors, spirituality, regalia, and dances is exquisitely thought out. I visited this museum about four times prior over the course of fifteen years, and each time, I’m floored by the experience. This visit — my first in about eight years — is no exception, and considering the current times, it doubles in both awe and importance. The Smithsonian Institution should be applauded for taking the time to not only recognize their arts, cultures, and history, but also inform us that Natives collectively exist, have a rich history, and deserve the love, care, and respect as any other demographic group. As small as it may be, it’s packed with ancient and modern history. Please save a few hours — and perhaps a couple of days — of your time to go see it!

Best Directions:

  • By subway, take the 4 or 5 train to Bowling Green. Depending on where you exit, the Custom House will either be to your left or directly in front of the exit.

    On weekends, the 5 doesn't travel to Brooklyn, so if you're coming from B'klyn on a weekend, take the 4.

    Other subway options include the South-Ferry-bound 1, Whitehall-bound W (weekdays only), or the R from either direction.

Visitation Tips:

  • The museum is completely ADA-accessible. For more information, click here.
  • Outside food and drink forbidden inside the museum. Sealed bottle water is permitted.
  • Admission is free, but everyone is screened prior to entrance. So take off your electronic devices and metal before walking inside.
  • Photography and videography are permitted for noncommercial use only. Tripods, flash, and selfie sticks are prohibited.
  • Floor plans are available online and at the museum. Here is the floor plan in English. Floor plan in other languages are available on site.
  • The transit system changes periodically, usually every quarter, so check the train, bus schedules, and traffic alert before planning.

    Bus options include the M15 (and M15 +Select), M20, and M55. The M15/+Select is the most relible, but the M20 and M55 are the closest.
  • There’s no parking anywhere around the House, so don't drive. Take public transportation (preferably the subway) instead.