Skyscrapers are a familiar feature of New York’s busy Financial District, which stretches down to Manhattan’s southern tip where Battery Park offers views across the waters to the Statue of Liberty. A perhaps more surprising attraction amid all this commerce is an outpost of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) at Bowling Green, the city’s first public park, established in 1733. On the other side of the Green from the famous bronze Charging Bull, the grand Beaux Arts Custom House, built in 1902-1907 for the Port of New York’s duty collections, is now home to the George Gustav Heye Center.
Its namesake formed the collection that is at the heart of the NMAI, at both its Washington, DC, and this Manhattan location. Heye (1874-1957), who worked on nearby Wall Street, was keen to build a large and varied collection of artefacts from across the Americas, and to establish a museum to showcase them. He started his collection in 1903, travelling widely and sponsoring excavations in regions that had not yet seen much archaeological research. He did indeed collect a large number of artefacts (including some fakes), but there are reports of illegal excavations of ancient cemeteries, as well as a certain amount of guesswork, leading to inaccurate records that still pose challenges to the NMAI’s curators today.
Thirty years after Heye’s death, the Heye Foundation and the Smithsonian signed an agreement to move the collection to the NMAI, and in 1994 the Gustav Heye Center, the museum’s first facility, opened, with the museum in Washington following a decade later. Curators have been working to fill the gaps left in Heye’s records, return some artefacts, commission new works, and reinterpret old objects. In Manhattan, some of the results of this ongoing work can be seen in the permanent exhibition Infinity of Nations: art and history in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2010.
After an introductory case that presents a selection of headdresses from different cultures, visitors travel from Patagonia in the south to Alaska in the north through a series of geographically arranged displays, traversing a wide range of climates and terrains – Andean highlands, Caribbean islands, the dry canyons and mesas of the American South-west, and the frozen north.
Around 700 objects from more than 200 Indigenous communities give a glimpse of the people who have interacted across these diverse environments over thousands of years. Effigy vessels from pre-Columbian Peru, for instance, offer a look at individuals of note. One Recuay vessel (AD 900-1300) takes the shape of a man with a llama. He is holding a staff and wears an impressive headdress (as well as some large earspools), marking him out as a leader, while the llama by his side reflects the importance of these animals in husbandry or the caravan trade. Juxtaposed with this is an Ica vessel from the Nasca region. Dating from the AD 1400s, this painted clay object shows a person of substance markedly different from the Recuay Andean leader, though also with a headdress. He is tattooed, intriguingly with what resemble long-haired human heads on his knees.
Maya architecture, too, could display portraits of authority figures. Stucco made an important contribution to decoration at Maya sites like Uxmal in Mexico, though due to its fragility (particularly if on the outside of a building) much has been lost. A finely modelled and painted head dating from AD 300-900 presents an outstanding example of such stucco work. This head is thought to represent a member of the ruling family or an ancestor, and likely formed part of the architectural decoration of a building at Uxmal known as the Governor’s House, whose main sculptural scheme consisted of overlapping stone figure-heads of the rain god Chaak.
The natural world – whether on land, in the waters, or in the skies – is represented in many artefacts. A group of mountain sheep is depicted on a petroglyph, perhaps related to a hunting ritual, from an area rich in rock art in California. Elsewhere, a spectacular Chimú cup (AD 900-1470) from Peru showcases aquatic life, a prominent, colourful fish with a turquoise eye at the centre of its design. Some of its materials, too, come from the waters: the wooden base is decorated with mother of pearl, Spondylus shells, and shell from the cone snail. Shells have also been found at Chupícuaro in Mexico, where they were plastered, painted, and played as musical instruments. Caribbean conch shells used to make these ornate trumpets around AD 300-900 travelled far to the inland site.
Two similar biface stone tools sitting side by side draw attention to far-reaching connections at an earlier date. Both are made of Ramah chert, a stone whose only source is in northern Labrador, where several of the tools (which date from around 100 BC to AD 100) have been excavated, but one was found much further south in Vermont.
Some of the smallest artefacts in the museum, from the Woodlands region in the eastern United States and southern Canada, make use of exquisitely worked stone that was often quarried far from where the finished product ended up 6,000 to 1,000 years ago. Banded slate, speckled porphyry, and rose quartz were carved into elegant bannerstones, which were attached as weights to the shaft of an atlatl (spear-thrower). These small finds and Clovis points from upstate New York dating to 11,000 BC offer a glimpse of ways of life in the distant past, as do textiles and wooden finds found preserved in the dry rock shelters and caves at Grand Gulch in Utah, which contain some of the earliest ancestral Pueblo material, dating back to 550 BC.
There is plenty of fascinating archaeological material on view, and with reminders of specific moments in the form of peace medals and ceremonial pipe-tomahawks, as well as contemporary art (including a beautiful fish-covered gourd by Quechua gourd-carver Percy Medina), the displays cover a broad sweep of history up to indigenous peoples living across the Americas today, who remain present throughout the copious exhibits.
National Museum of the American Indian
Address: Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, 1 Bowling Green, New York, NY 10004
Open: 10am-5pm Mon-Wed, Fri-Sun; 10am- 8pm Thur; temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic