The little-known, and blissfully uncrowded Museum of the American Indian operated by the Smithsonian Institution, showcases highlights from the vast collection of Native art and artifacts assembled by investment banker and oil heir George Gustav Heye in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The small selection of Indian headdresses, moccasins, bows, arrows, masks, and Indian art offers a particularly intimate glimpse into a rich cultural and artistic tradition. Many staff members are Native Americans, from tribal groups across the hemisphere, and their firsthand knowledge (and willingness to impart it) is a far cry from the typical museum experience.
Also atypical is the museum’s setting in the city’s finest example of Beaux-Arts architecture designed by Cass Gilbert, also responsible for the city’s first skyscraper, the nearby Woolworth Building. The four impressive sculptures that flank the facade, representing Asia, America, Europe, and Africa, were the work of David Chester French, the artist who created the even larger statue of Abraham Lincoln for Washington’s Lincoln Memorial. Below the cornices at the top of the building are 12 statues honoring seafaring nations and cities around the world. Inside are soaring ceilings, a beautiful rotunda and marble work, and murals that depict the early explorers of America.
Rounding off your visit nicely, the exceptional museum shop sells beautiful handcrafted jewelry and woolen blankets, and an array of good books and cards.