Architectural History of the National Museum of the American Indian, 1999



Form/Genre: Cultural expressionism

Date: 1999-2004


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  • Ground breaking for the National Museum of the American Indian took place in 1999. Since there is no one size fits all style of Native American architecture, Venturi, Scott, Brown and Associates consulted with Native American tribes from all over North and South America to determine what elements were essential for the museum. Such elements included a huge skylight to offer a sense of the sky, a large entrance that faced east toward the rising sun, and as much naturally occurring material as possible. The central gathering place, the potomac, lies directly beneath the skylight. The sacred circle of life is repeated over and over on both the interior and exterior of the building, and the buildings curvilinear design has almost no straight walls.
  • The architectural style of this building is one of cultural expressionism, as it does not fit into any particular classic architectural style. Native American elements are interwoven throughout the entire structure, as well as through the exterior grounds. Recognizing the significance of Native Americans' connection to the land, NMAI ground is home to 27,000 trees and plants, a naturally occurring wetland, a cropland where corn, beans and squash grow, and a lush meadow. Forty large uncarved boulders known as Grandfather Rocks welcome visitors in to the museum, and four Cardinal Direction Markers honor the Native peoples of the North, South, East and West.
  • This one of a kind museum opened to the public in 2004.


  • Cardinal, Douglas
  • National Museum of the American Indian (U.S.)
  • Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates
  • Native American Design Collaborative
  • Polshek Partnership


Chronology of Smithsonian History


  • Ewing, H., & Ballard, A. (2009). A guide to Smithsonian architecture. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Water in landscape architecture
  • Architecture
  • Historians
  • Sacred Circle
  • Museums
  • Museum architecture
  • Wetlands
  • potomac
  • Indians of North America


Washington (D.C.)


Cultural expressionism

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