January 28, 2011

"Infinity of Nations"

One of the jewels in the Smithsonian Institution's crown of museums is the George Gustav Heye Center, a branch of the National Museum of the American Indian located at the tip of Manhattan Island in the former U.S. Customs House.

The Center's namesake was born into a wealthy industrialist family in New York in 1874 and after dabbling the fields of electrical engineering and investment banking devoted himself to acquiring what became the world's largest collection of native American artifacts. As early as 1916 he had enough material to open The Museum of the American Indian at 155th Street and Broadway and was lending pieces to other museums for exhibitions. Eventually his massive collection, over 800,000 objects, became the basis for the National Museum of the American Indian and the Heye Center was opened by the Smithsonian in 1994.

In an homage to the perspicacious Mr Heye a new permanent exhibition has been unveiled that allows visitors to view over 700 works from North, Central and South America. This comprehensive survey of native art and artifacts is divided into 10 geographical regions covering Patagonia through the Arctic Circle and is aptly titled "Infinity of Nations".

The exhibition begins with a display of headdress', one from each of the regions represented in the show. While a headdress may be a universal symbol of status and mystical powers, the construction and appearance varies significantly by area and resources available. A Haida frontlet from the North West Coast of British Colombia is fashioned of painted wood with shell, sea lion whiskers and ermine as decoration. Farther south in Panama, a Kuna Kantule hat looks more like a woven crown of palm leaves with macaw and harpy feathers giving majesty to the headgear while a Peruvian Tiwanaku four cornered hat made of dyed alpaca wool offers both prestige and warmth to the wearer.

While I wouldn't call this exhibition a "Greatest Hits" of native art, it is a very comprehensive and informative look at societies from across the Americas. Lovely examples of utilitarian objects such as a woven Hopi Manta Blanket from Arizona, a Ute antelope skin cradle board with beaded decorations from Colorado and Inuit ivory snow goggles from the Arctic are side by side with more fanciful pieces like an Algonquian miniature house made of birch bark from the Upper Great Lakes and Karajá ijasò mask and rattles of grass and feathers from Brazil.

There are many fabulous items on display and most are interesting from both historic and artistic perspectives. But for me, the strength of the show is as a whole - an exploration of native cultures' similarities and differences across geographic and chronological borders - truly an "Infinity of Nations"!

1 comment:

Margie Barclay said...

Ah, I remember when the collection was uptown - a stuffed treasure house of items! When they moved the displays seemed too spare and so I'm looking forward to seeing this new exhibit.