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November 23, 2010

Behind the Scenes at NMAI's Cultural Resources Center

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The Cultural Resources Center from the wooded north side of the grounds.

By Katy Underwood, NMAI Intern

Ever wonder where the approximately 800,000 archaeological, ethnographic, historic, and contemporary objects from the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian are stored when they aren’t on display? The Cultural Resources Center (CRC) in Suitland, Maryland, is home to collections and research programs for the museum. The staff members who work there specialize in the conservation, research, and cataloguing of objects, media resources, photographs, and paper archives for the museum. 

Before the CRC was built, the museum realized that creating a suitable place for the proper handling and conservation of Native American cultural pieces would require collaboration between architects and Native American cultural leaders. During consultations about what the building should embody, it was decided that the CRC would be a place where Native people could visit and interact with their collections. As the head of conservation, Marian Kaminitz, describes those meetings, “There was a sense that the building should feel more like a home instead of a warehouse.” The museum decided that the CRC should be accessible and welcoming to Native communities and non-Native researchers alike.

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A bronze statue of Chief Joseph, created by artist Doug Hyde (Nez Perce/Assiniboine/
Chippewa), stands near the building's east-facing entrance.

Native communities were directly involved in designing the building and surrounding area. The architects incorporated Native values along with museum requirements. Visitors walk in from the east and enter a wide circular space. For visitors less attuned to those cultural symbols, the most distinct feature of the building is its connection to nature. Large windows provide natural light, and the four cardinal directions align with key locations throughout the building. Materials and colors are inspired by the elements in nature, and native grasses, shrubs, and trees are a part of the unstructured landscape. Outside the entrance, a quiet stream and a fountain encircled in shells emphasize Native peoples’ relationship with the natural elements. This connection with nature is important to Native communities, and these and other sites on the grounds are used for Native care practices, such as blessings.

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The water fountain, ringed with shell.

Walking throughout the building, you feel the flow of the design. The architect, James Polshek & Partners, and the Native American Design Collaborative worked together with the staff to figure out the best areas to put certain work sections to create this sense of flow. The registration space, for example, is placed right next to the photography studio; when a newly acquired object or collection comes into the CRC, it takes a path from accessioning to photography to cataloguing.  A survey of the collections was conducted to determine how much room was needed for storage and care, although some of the original ideas did not hold up. Designers had the idea to place sacred materials high up out of range from the other cultural material. Most Native people, however, wanted their sacred materials to stay with the rest of their cultural objects. So instead of using the mezzanine to store sacred objects, the museum houses the collections by cultures, with their relative storage locations based on the cardinal points.

Objects being conserved by staff at the CRC:

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Foreground: Niuam (Comanche) man's headdress, 2/1294. Background: White Mountain Apache girl's shirt, 20/8053.

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Yup'ik hand drum, 25/9845.

The shirt is being prepared for loan to Nohwike' Bagowa, the White Mountain Apache Cultural Center in Fort Apache, Arizona; the headdress and drum, with its feathers properly attached, will be displayed outside the Rasmuson Theater at the museum on the National Mall.

Native constituents can schedule a visit to the CRC to request to see their specific collections, although viewing is limited for sacred or ceremonial objects. The building itself is worth the journey. It is a complex piece of architecture surrounded by an unstructured, beautiful landscape that honors the Native peoples’ connection to nature.  And it is a wonderful home to thousands of cultural pieces.

Photos by Molly Stephey, NMAI Public Affairs

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