At the southern tip of the island 'purchased', according to legend, from the Lenape Tribe for $24, stands the impressive Beaux-Arts Alexander Hamilton Customs House, home to the Smithsonian's sprawling National Museum of the American Indian. The building, which once processed the international trade duties for the busy port of New York, is now home to one of the largest collections of Native American art and artifacts in the world. Rotating exhibits celebrate active creativity produced by tribal members across the hemisphere, while the permanent collection focuses on pre- and post-Colombian cultures from Alaska to Cape Horn.
Even after all that has happened to us -- there were thousands [of Lenapes] when the ships first came -- we are still here.
What You Will See
The tribes and cultures lumped into the generic term 'American Indian' are as varied and distinct as the regions they come from. The permanent collection explores dozens of different tribes from North, South, and Central America, displaying clothing, jewelry, religious decoration, weaponry, and tools ranging from Mayan sculptures to Inuit beadwork. The contrast in cultures is striking. But this is not just a museum of lost tribes and civilizations. The permanent collection, as well as rotating exhibits, celebrate the art, dance, photography, and music produced by contemporary Native artists--communities vastly underrepresented in most galleries and museums.
Why You Should Go
This is inexplicably the most under-visited museum in the city. The location is convenient, admission is always free, it is open every day except for Christmas (including Thanksgiving). Its collection is deep but accessible, educational and beautiful. It combines lesser-known history and vanishing cultures with lively, contemporary art. It is housed in one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, both the interior and exterior. The only thing to discourage a visit is the security procedure, but many museums, particularly in Lower Manhattan, have similar processes. And yet you will rarely find a crowd. The is no reason not to include at least a short visit during your time downtown. You will see things here that few other museums in the world carry.