Since its debut in 2004, I have been a fan of the building that houses the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Although I had been inside, lured by friends who insisted that the NMAI cafeteria is absolutely the best place to eat on the Mall (it is), I had not yet explored the museum itself. An opportunity presented, therefore, when my daughter’s teacher was looking for chaperones for a class field trip. Subsequently, my first official visit to the NMAI involved a cramped ride in a yellow school bus and the company of 25 enthusiastic fifth graders.
As dramatic as the exterior of the building is, the interior is similarly fantastic, with entry into a vast open atrium. The open design embraces the possibility for experiential learning through performance and event space. Native American themes permeate the architecture and interior, not in an overt sense, but in references to natural materials and color palette, organic forms, the use of circular spaces, and significant ties to directional points.
We enjoyed a film presented in the round, with projection on small screens at the center and on the ceiling. The rich images were of daily life in various Native cultures, all emphasizing connection to the natural environment and sense of community.
Displays span the geographic and climatic conditions of the wide range of cultures that exist among Native American people. An effort to honor the history of each of the entities is balanced by a permanent exhibit that focuses on contemporary Native life. The multi-media exhibits include artifacts, photographs, models, music, and video presentations.
My favorite part of the interior of the museum was the collections exhibit that features handmade tools, pottery, dolls and icons, beadwork, arrowheads, and a history of the use of gold. The exterior of the museum and the related landscaping is worth spending some time appreciating, as well. In my notes, I wrote down a quote by Laura Lee George, a Hupa Indian:
In their prayers, people ask for the trees to have plenty of acorns. We also pray for a lot of fish and deer, for the world to be balanced, for babies to grow older in a good way, and for the people to walk in a balanced way on this earth.