National Museum of the American Indian. The Smithsonian's newest museum, opened in 2004, stands apart visually and conceptually from the other cultural institutions on the Mall. The undulating exterior, clad in pinkish-gold limestone from Minnesota, evokes natural rock formations shaped by wind and water. Inside, four floors of galleries cover 10,000 years of history of the thousands of native tribes of the Western Hemisphere. However, only 5% of the museum's holdings
are on display at any one time, and they are arranged to showcase specific tribes and themes, rather than a chronological history. Some visitors find this approach confusing, but touring with one of the Native American guides can help bring the history and legends to life.
Live music, dance, theater, and storytelling are central to experiencing this museum. Tribal groups stage performances in the two theaters and sunlighted ceremonial atrium.
The Our Universe exhibit tells the unique creation legends of eight different tribes, with carvings, costumes, and videos of tribal storytellers. The stories rotate to give exposure to the different tribes of the Americas.
Central to the native story is the transformation that convulsed the tribes of America in 1492, the year of first contact with Europeans. The exhibits focusing on the native world before and after "first contact" are among the most compelling.
Visit between 10 and 2 on a sunny day to see the central atrium awash in rainbows created by the light refracted through prisms in the ceiling aligned with Earth's cardinal points.
From roasted venison and Peruvian seviche to pork pibil tacos and quinoa salad, the museum's Mitsitam Native Foods Café offers a modern perspective on foods that have been grown, raised, and harvested in North and South America for thousands of years.
Free tours are offered daily, and the museum's 6,000-square-foot family-friendly imagiNATIONS Activity Center includes hands-on activities throughout the year, including an interactive quiz show modeled after Jeopardy! and an igloo-building exercise. 4th St. and Independence Ave. SW, The Mall, Washington, DC, 20560. 202/633–1000. www.americanindian.si.edu. Free. Daily 10–5:30. L'Enfant Plaza.