Thursday, March 24, 2011

US Customs House: One Bowling Green

The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House is now the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.  I'll first describe the history of the U.S. Customs House and then the Native American exhibits.  You can find out more information about the U.S. Customs House at and information about the museum at  I enjoyed my visit to this site for both the history and features of the building as well as the learning and meaning one can get from the collection exhibited inside.

The building is a great example of Beaux Arts architecture, designed by Cass Gilbert, and completed in 1907.  The building is so grand that it has had numerous cameos in movies, including "Ghost Busters II," "Working Girl," "Batman Forever," and "Analyze This." 

The seven story building (only the first 2 are open to the public) is adorned with stately columns and four large sculptures by Daniel Chester French (better known for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.) representing America, Asia, Europe and Africa.  The sculptures reflect the then-accepted stereotypes of each continent: America and Europe are shown as active, intelligent, capable and ruled by law (see America, above left).  Asia is passive, withdrawn and exotic, while Africa (see above right), leaning on a weathered sphinx, is actually asleep!

The building's interior is beautiful, with its curved stairwells, marble inlays, elliptical rotunda with 140 ton skylight, and murals by Reginald Marsh (whose work can also be seen in the Whitney Museum, the MOMA, and the Post Office Administration Building in Washington D.C.), depicting the "life of a ship entering NYC" (these murals were done as a commission, but with all the work that went into the difficult project, it is said that Marsh was paid a mere $0.90/hour).  The central desks from the time when this building functioned as a customs house remain, and there are numerous placards describing the history and restoration of the building that line the desks--definitely take the time to read these if you can.

The National Museum of the American Indian is very kid-friendly.  There are classes, story-telling, interactive displays (see right), and more (check out their website for events).  I was taken by the wonderful story of the raven who stole the stars, moon, and sun and the stunning glass work by the artist Preston Singletary currently exhibited through September 5, 2011. 

Also, the current exhibit featuring the Horse Nation is incredibly educational while being beautiful.  I learned that in the 1800s native trade routes were established and rates for horses (who were considered to be essential for life and like family pets--like dogs) were steep; for example, a race horse was worth 10 guns and a riding horse could be worth a gun and 100 rounds of ammunition.  The Apsaalooke (Crow) Nation from the Northern Plains of Montana (who rode in the inaugural parade for President Barack Obama) dressed their horses and used highly decorated equestrian equipment as they might adorn themselves (see horse installation above with items circa 1880-1890).   

The detailed bead work of the Inuit parka (c. 1890-1925) from Chesterfield Inlet in Canada (see right) and the Ktunaxa gauntlets from British Columbia, Canada made in 1890 out of deer hide, silk thread and cotton cloth (see below) are made to be not only be used but admired.  There was so much in the normal collection on view that I cannot possibly do it justice here, so I encourage anyone with an interest in beautiful, detailed handiwork to make there way to this museum.  Like the best things in life, visiting this museum is free!

Lastly, I want to make a pitch for the gift shop.  They have a good selection of Native American made jewelry and pottery that is both ethnic and modern.  I particularly liked the Acoma pottery--really beautiful and not too expensive given the quality and authenticity.

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