Volume 19 • Issue 19 | September 22 - 28, 2006

Indian Museum turns unused space into new wingSeaport Museum receives Andrea Doria medallion

By Nicole Davis

For the past year, the National Museum of the American Indian at one Bowling Green has been busy adding a new wing to the institution — without actually adding on to the Beaux Arts building in which they’re housed. Such an architectural feat was possible because the museum simply repurposed an enclosed inner courtyard within the century-old, former Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House, and transformed it into a sleek exhibition space that will double as a performance center. Visitors will get their first peek on Saturday, September 23, when the new Diker Pavilion for Native Arts and Cultures opens to the public.

“I have to pinch myself to remind myself it’s finally happening,” said John Haworth. Last week, the museum’s blue-eyed director, who is actually part Cherokee, stood within the elliptical room on the museum’s main floor, as workers around him put finishing touches on 6,000-square-foot addition. Papers still covered the white, maple wood floor, and labels had yet to be hung outside the ten glass display cases, but Haworth was clearly excited by how close he was to realizing his vision for what was once an unused storage room.

“I always had a glimmer in my eyes for this space,” said Haworth, who in 1995 became director of the George Gustave Heye Center, the New York branch of the Smithsonian museum. In fact, five years ago, on September 11, he and board members planned to meet with an architect to discuss the renovation, but understandably, the project was shelved until Lower Manhattan began to recover, and funding could be secured. Ultimately, the Smithsonian Institution and the City of New York allocated $2.1 million, and the remainder of the $5 million renovation came from individual donations, including those of board co-chairs Charles and Valerie Diker, for whom the pavilion is named.

What that support made possible, said Haworth, is an even greater education center for kids. “We’re already very popular with school children,” he said, describing the 40,000 school kids who come through the museum each year, one of the byproducts of a state curriculum heavy on Native American history. “But we had a capacity issue, and now we can serve tens of thousands more kids.”

The curved, wooden space, which suggests a basket or bowl, has a standing room capacity of 600. All the materials used—from the cherry wood on the columns and walls, to the flagstone flooring at the entrance­­—are all native to New York State. But the items on display in “Beauty Surrounds Us,” the pavilion’s inaugural exhibition, hail from all over the Americas. The 77 artifacts, drawn from the National Museum’s permanent collection in Maryland, all illustrate the importance of aesthetics in daily Native American life. Even simple tools are breathtaking, like a knife from the Lenape of Delaware, whose handle is covered in a rainbow of porcupine quills dipped in dye and woven around it like gossamer-thin thread. Visitors will be able to get an even closer look at certain artifacts, like a gorgeous, hand painted Nahua mask from Mexico, by uploading its image on one of the pavilion’s two interactive screens, and rotating it, virtually, 360 degrees.

The new space has other hi-tech bells and whistles, like a projector and drop-down screen for movies, which will augment the museum’s film and video center, set for a renovation next year.

“There were 11 Native American films in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival,” said Haworth, indicating the growing popularity of the genre. It’s possible Tribeca will take advantage of the new space for future festivals, but in the meantime, the pavilion will be available for the museum’s biennial Native American Film and Video Festival ­— “probably the most significant and largest Native film festival in the world,” he added. It opens on November 29.

The pavilion will become the home for evening performances at the museum. Unlike the marble floors throughout this ornate, Cass Gilbert-designed building, the pavilion’s springy, wooden dance floor will have more bounce for Native dances. Lit up by the translucent, concave glass wall at the far end of the pavilion, the first scheduled performance on October 21, the Thunderbird Dance Social, should be quite a homecoming.

For more information on the new pavilion, visit


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