In a city that is known to have some of the greatest museums in the world, it’s a pleasant surprise to find a hidden gem of a museum.
The surprise is the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. The Smithsonian has two locations for this museum, one in New York and the other in Washington D.C. Although the D.C. branch opened with a lot of fanfare, the New York branch has been in existence for longer, its collection is superb, and it is under the radar.
The museum in New York, located in the old U.S. Custom House built in 1907, makes a visit here a double whammy. The museum offers free tours of both the building and the collection, although not necessarily on the same day. I suggest you take both tours, if possible. Check with the museum for tour schedules.
The museum has two huge advantages. First, it’s free! In a city where most museums charge (a lot) for entry, that’s a real plus. Second, the museum is located right next to two wonderful city parks, Battery Park and Bowling Green, and is close to Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange, the 9/11 Memorial, the Statute of Liberty, South Street Seaport and a whole host of other attractions in lower Manhattan. You can easily spend several days just exploring lower Manhattan.
Unless you take a tour of the Custom House, you won’t get to see some of the rooms that are not open to the public. Primary among the not-to-be-missed private rooms is the Collector’s Room. When it was in use, 70 percent of the U.S. revenue derived from taxes on goods passed through this Custom House.
In charge was the Collector, typically a wealthy landowner, whose salary was a tiny percentage of every tax collected. The Collector’s Room was designed to impress, and does, with heavily sculpted white oak, mahogany-stained paneling, parquet floors and wrought iron doors. The Custom House itself shows well with ceiling paintings, marble from France and original electric clocks and lamps. The building was one of the first in New York to have electricity when it was built.
Don’t miss the gift shop of the museum, which contains marvelous indigenous artisan work collected in one place. The gift shop is located in the part of the Custom House that was the old bank where traders would go to get cash to complete customs transactions. The elaborate teller windows now frame different pieces of artwork and jewelry.
The Indian museum itself has one great piece after another, all grouped by geography and tribe. The museum includes tribes from throughout the Americas, not just the U.S. It is interesting to see how different tribes with similar resources each independently developed similar craft expertise.
The museum started with the exceptional private collection of New Yorker George Heye. On his death, his executor sold the collection to the Smithsonian with the stipulation that the bulk of it remain in New York. Although the collection is shared with the museum in D.C., some of the best objects can only be seen in New York, which focuses on artifacts, leaving other aspects of American Indian life to the D.C. branch.
The museum is small enough that you can see it all in a couple of hours. One exhibit that is interactive is perfect for children. Unlike most New York museums where you are elbow to elbow with other patrons, here crowds are rare and on the Friday afternoon when I visited it was nearly deserted. One downside is that the museum has no café, but one is planned. Fortunately, there are plenty of places to eat nearby. Definitely put this museum on your list for a visit.