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Exploring the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City

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Sitting in the middle of Lower Manhattan, surrounded by towering skyscrapers, the New York Stock Exchange, and the hustle and bustle of New York City is the National Museum of the American Indian.

This museum is located within the Alexander Hamilton Customs House. This customs house was built in the early 20th century on the site of Fort Amsterdam, the original Dutch fort in the area, and the Government House, the home built as the first residence for the President of the United States (but never lived in).

This museum is actually a branch of the much large National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and is officially known as the George Gustav Heye Center.

Exterior of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House in New York City
The entrance to the museum inside the Alexander Hamilton Customs House.

George Gustav Heye was a prolific collector of Native American artifacts in the early 20th century who opened the Museum of the American Indian in Harlem. The museum was open from 1922 until 1994, and much of his collection found its way into the Smithsonian collection.

The National Museum of the American Indian in New York City is home to one large permanent collection exhibition, two smaller permanent exhibit areas, and several temporary exhibition galleries.

The main entrance to the museum is up a large flight of stairs to the museum’s second floor. All visitors must pass through security before entering, though I had no issues bringing in a big backpack filled with camera gear and a tripod.

Rotunda in the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City
The rotunda inside the museum is spectacular.

Given how beautiful the exterior of the building is, it should come as no surprise that the interior is also quite striking. The large rotunda, which houses a series of temporary exhibitions and information about the history of the building is worth taking a few minutes to fully appreciate.

Just beyond the rotunda, you’ll find the museum’s main permanent exhibit: Identity of Nations.

This exhibit features an overview of the entire collection of the National Museum of the American Indian and highlights tribes from throughout the Americas. All told, this gallery is home to about 700 different items.

Exhibits in the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, NY
Items on display inside the museum’s Identity of Nations exhibit.

Walking through the gallery, it really offers an amazing overview of the native tribes that have inhabited the Americas for millennia. The artifacts on display range from old to new, music to culture, and cold-weather to warm-weather. Seeing these pieces all in one gallery offers the chance to really compare and contrast the Native American experience across tribes and geography.

To complement the items on display, there is signage, as well as several videos that showcase the story of items and the tribes they came from.

Displays at the National Museum of the American Indian in NYC
The displays at the museum are varied and offer a great look into the history and culture of Native Americans.

On the two wings of the museum, there are temporary exhibition galleries. The exhibitions here are incredibly well done and look more like permanent exhibitions than temporary ones. Because of this, they tend to be on exhibition for over a year and often take just as long to put together.

No matter what is on display in these galleries, it is sure to offer a great glimpse into the Native American experience.

Temporary exhibits at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York
The temporary exhibit spaces are incredibly well done.

There are also several spaces worth exploring in the museum’s downstairs area.

The first is a large room that displays only about a dozen pieces of modern Native American art. Each piece is crafted by a skilled artisan and signage next to the piece explains to the story of their work and career and how it connects to their heritage.

There is also an interactive area called the imagiNATIONS Activity Center. This area is designed for kids, though mostly for older children as the museum recommends it for those 9 and up. However, I do think there are some interesting exhibits here for both younger children and adults.

Artifacts at the National Museum of the American Indian in NYC
More displays at the museum.

The Smithsonian’s website lists the activity center as only being open on Saturdays and Sundays, but it was open on the Tuesday I visited, so it’s worth seeing if you can pop in while visiting.

Overall, I enjoyed my visit to the National Museum of the American Indian. It’s the sort of place where you could just spend a few minutes or where you could spend several hours enjoying the many displays.

Given that it’s free to visit, it makes for a great spot to pop into while visiting Lower Manhattan regardless of how much time you have to visit.

Looking for more places to visit nearby? Check out the National Lighthouse Museum, Old Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Staten Island Ferry, Hicksville Gregory Museum, and the American Airpower Museum.

You also may want to consider staying at Pod 39 Hotel which is only a short distance away.

National Museum of the American Indian

Hours: Daily 10am-5pm

Cost: Free

Website: AmericanIndian.si.edu

Address: 1 Bowling Green
New York, NY 10004


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