« Though Indigenous Eyes: The 2011 Native American Film + Video Festival | Main | An Insider's Look at Tlingit Artist Preston Singletary »

April 08, 2011

Outdoors at the Museum

Suppose you visit the museum on a Washington spring day when it's too beautiful to be indoors, even in the museum's spectacular space. Or you come and find the Smithsonian closed. Why would it be closed? Maybe it's a lovely spring evening. Yeah, that's the ticket: You're spending a lovely spring evening on the National Mall.

Whether you're outdoors at the National Museum of the American Indian by choice this weekend or by virtue of current events, the background information below may help you enjoy this beautiful Native place. Or visit the museum's website to find downloadable audio and video podcasts about the landscape and architecture of the museum and the creation of Always Becoming, a family of clay sculptures by Nora Naranjo-Morse (Santa Clara Pueblo) that stands on the south side of the museums grounds.

NMAI SiteDrawing

Welcome to a Native place

In keeping with Native peoples’ relationship with the environment, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall is surrounded by a Native landscape consisting of four habitats indigenous to the local region: an upland hardwood forest, lowland freshwater wetlands, eastern meadowlands, and traditional croplands. From the moment visitors set foot on the museum’s grounds, they will have the sense of a Native place. Ethnobotanist and environmental consultant Donna House (Navajo/Oneida) conceived the landscape concept in conjunction with the landscape architects at EDAW in Alexandria, Virginia, who participated in the final design.

The grounds surrounding the National Museum of the American Indian are considered an extension of the building and are a vital part of the museum as a whole. Approximately 30,000 trees, shrubs, and other plants, belonging to 150 species, make this surrounding habitat an attraction in itself and a wonderful part of a museum visitor’s experience.

As extraordinary and beautiful as the museum building is, the Native landscape occupies almost 74 percent of the 4.25-acre site. Three hundred trees in 30 different species contribute to the Native landscape of the museum, including bald cypress, chinquapin, and common pawpaw. The site also features 1,000 shrubs from 25 different species, including mountain laurel, buttonbush, greenbrier, spicebush, and deerberry. Meadow leek, wild ginger, winterberry, and Christmas fern are some of the more than 27,000 herbaceous plants surrounding the National Museum of the American Indian.

At the museum’s entrance, the outdoor welcoming area features a paving pattern with the ceremonial birthday of the museum, November 28, 1989. The outdoor welcoming area faces east to greet the morning sun. To the east, it offers views of the U.S. Capitol building, and to the west, views of the outdoor theater. Here, visitors can sit and gather in the shelter of the overhangs formed by the upper levels of the building that were inspired by the Native cliff dwellings of the American Southwest.

Upland hardwood forest

The upland hardwood forest reflects the woodlands that once existed in Rock Creek Park in Washington and contains more than 30 different tree species including red maple, staghorn sumac and spring-blooming bloodroot. The forest is located along the northern edge of the museum site, opposite a long flowing water feature. The estimated surface area of this landscape is 24,000 square feet of xeric (growing in dry conditions), mesic (habitat characterized by a moderate amount of moisture), and hydric (characterized by abundant moisture) forest. Forests and trees have played major roles for many indigenous cultures, providing shelter, firewood, medicines, and decoration.


The wetlands include plant species such as yellow pond lily, yellow marsh marigold, cardinal flower, silky willow, and wild rice. The wetlands are located at the eastern side of the museum site and span more than 6,000 square feet.

Wetlands are culturally important to many tribes because they provide a rich, biologically diverse environment. The Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River and their tributaries have always served as major thoroughfares and settlement areas for the indigenous peoples of this region.

AlwaysBecoming Meadowlands

The meadowlands consist of plant species native to the Potomac River Valley region including buttercups, fall panic grass, and sunflowers. This area is located on the southwest end of the museum grounds and is be approximately 5,500 square feet.

Tribes have used these featured plants as medicinal remedies and food sources. The Iroquois used the buttercup for stiff muscles and stomach troubles, and as a wash for snakebites.

Traditional crops

The traditional croplands contain corn, beans, squash, and other plants used for food and medicinal purposes. The croplands incorporate Native irrigation and agricultural techniques. This area is located along the southern wall of the building and occupies 5,200 square feet.

The croplands demonstrate the vast contributions that Native peoples have made to agriculture and the cultivation of plants for nutritional purposes. Indigenous peoples cultivated an estimated 60 percent of the plants that are used for food around the world. The habitat includes plants that are both ancient and modern.

Kasota stone

The golden-toned Kasota stone that adorns the museum’s façade is a dolomitic limestone from Minnesota. Kasota stone, known for its varying texture, was selected to evoke the feel of a natural rock formation sculpted over time by wind and water. Large roughback blocks form a rusticated 10-foot high base, which reinforces the image of the building emerging from the earth. Blocks with a split-face texture are located above the base and make up the majority of the exterior skin. Smoother, tapestry-finish blocks are used for framed openings where the curves are tightest. 

Grandfather Rocks

Forty boulders, called Grandfather Rocks, welcome visitors to the museum grounds and serve as reminders of the longevity of Native peoples’ relationships to the environment. The Grandfather Rocks, hewn by wind and water over millions of years, were selected from a quarry in Alma, Québec. Before the boulders were moved, a group from the Montagnais First Nations of Québec held a blessing ceremony to ensure that the boulders would have a safe journey and carry the messages and cultural memories of past generations to future generations. When the boulders arrived at their new home in Washington, the boulders were welcomed in a blessing by a member of the Monacan Nation of Virginia.

Cardinal direction markers

The cardinal direction markers are a significant and special design concept integral to the museum landscape. The markers identify the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) and are a metaphor representing all of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. The markers—four large stones, approximately one-cubic-meter in size, placed on axis to one another in each quadrant of the museum grounds—come from Native communities in the Americas: the Northwest Territories, Canada (northern stone); Isla Navariño, Chile (southern stone); Great Falls, Maryland (eastern stone); and Hawai`i (western stone).

Water feature

The Native landscape includes a major water feature that pays homage to Tiber Creek, a tidal creek that originally ran through the museum site when the National Mall area was a swamp. Water begins as a powerful cascade tumbling over large boulders at the northwest corner of the building. It continues to flow beside the entry path, greeting visitors until it ends in a quiet pool beside the main entrance of the museum.

NMAI site plan by Polshek, Toby + Davis, Jones & Jones

Nora Naranjo-Morse (Santa Clara Pueblo), Always Becoming. Photo by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Outdoors at the Museum:


This fact sheet on the museum's Native landscape was posted as Congressional budget negotiations for 2011 continued right up to the deadline to keep the federal government, including the Smithsonian, open. With the shutdown happily averted, please visit the museum and experience the whole enchilada—landscape, architecture, exhibitions, public programs, and café.

We were just there this spring.

What a wonderful place.

We really enjoyed the museum.

Our family has roots with the Blackfoot Indians and it is wonderful to see Indian heritage and culture recognized.

Maybe this is why we love the outdoors so much!

Thank you. This is the information I have been looking for.


I have native blood in me but unfortunately did not have the time to discover this heritage because my grandmother pass to soon ... Reading this I have a chance to learn about my background from my family.

Thank you for this super reading moment


Wow! This place is amazing!! My friends and I and lovers of nature and culture. Is there a guided tour available?


An absolutely wonderful concept, the successful blending of nature and culture is a great lesson for all landscape architects out there!

We visited this just a few months ago and had an amazing time. A few of our staff are thinking about another trip next year.

Awesome stuff :-)

This place is simply astonishing. I had a chance to visit this place along my friends and found out that it has got a rich architectural signage

The comments to this entry are closed.