Museum of the American Indian

During the thirty-nine years I lived on Riverside Drive and 156th Street, I overlooked the Audubon Terrace, the common front yard of a series of small museums. In 1839, James Audubon acquired a large tract of land and built a mansion called Minniesland in honor of his wife. The great naturalist’s home was part of the country estates that bordered the Hudson. During the early 1900s they were replaced by elegant apartment houses. Trinity Church built a large uptown church on 155th Street, and a small cultural center occupied most of the block bordered by Broadway, 155th and 156th Streets. Anna Hyatt Huntington, one of America’s great sculptors, decorated the terrace with magnificent Spanish allegorical figures, and her husband, a museum builder, founded the extraordinary Hispanic Society with its cache of Goyas, Zurbarans and Velazquez. Both are still there and merit a visit.

Audubon Terrace also included the Museum of the American Indian, founded in 1922 by George Gustav Heye. Starting in 1897, he had assembled a magnificent collection of American Indian artifacts, which I visited with my children on many a rainy Sunday. It was filled with Native American clothing, blankets, canoes, pottery, arrowheads, headdresses, totem poles, maps, dioramas, and infinitely more. We never tired of going.

By 1980, the museum had become impoverished and there was not enough money or space to adequately take care of the collection. Besides, the neighborhood had deteriorated and there were very few visitors. After years of legal wrangles, the bulk of the collection went to the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.  However, since the move violated Heye’s will, which stipulated that the collection had to remain in New York City, a compromise was needed. As David Rockefeller was revitalizing Lower Manhattan, he suggested that the now surplus Alexander Hamilton Beaux Art’s U.S. Customs House could serve as a satellite American Indian museum. On October 20, 2010, New York’s George Gustav Heye Center welcomed the return of 700 works of Native American art from throughout North, Central, and South America. David Rockefeller was on hand to celebrate the opening of a permanent exhibition entitled the Infinity of Nations.

I too went on opening day and was impressed by the logic of dividing the exhibits into ten nations ranging from the Andes in the south and the Subarctic and Arctic in the north. The beauty of the baskets, the headdresses, the bas-reliefs and the pottery floored me, and I vividly relived the long-ago rainy afternoon when my then-young children delighted in visiting the museum.

New York, December 16, 2010

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