Spectacular "Wall of Gold" by Tuscaroran Artist Part of National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Museum to open Sept. 21, expected to attract four to six million visitors a year

Release Date: September 8, 2004 This content is archived.


Related Multimedia

When the National Museum of the American Indian opens in Washington, D.C., it will feature a "Wall of Gold" curated by UB's Jolene Rickard.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- When the ground-breaking and long-awaited $199 million National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opens in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 21, it will feature a spectacular "Wall of Gold" developed by guest curator Jolene Rickard, Ph.D., associate professor of art history at the University at Buffalo and Tuscaroran photographer, art historian, theorist and essayist.

The "Wall of Gold" speaks to the uniqueness of the museum, which will tell the story of indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere from their point of view. Its collections comprise nearly 800,000 objects made by native artisans from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle during the past 10,000 years.

The wall, consisting of gold objects owned and used by native peoples before their contact with Europeans, is designed to illustrate the enormous wealth that subsequently was stolen from them. It will feature 408 gold figurines dating back to 1490, along with European swords, coins and crosses that were made from melted native objects. The focal point of the exhibit is an area in its center called "The Storm," the glass walls of which change with shifting color and light to showcase the artifacts.

Wealth is not all that was lost, of course. By 1900, the four to six million Indians estimated to live in the continental United States at the time Europeans first landed had been reduced to 250,000. Today, they number approximately two million and, through the museum, the public is about to know them with a depth and from a perspective that we have never known them before.

The "Wall of Gold" will be part of the museum's historical gallery, "Our Peoples," which explores events that shaped the lives and outlook of native peoples from 1491 to the present. It is one of NMAI's six main galleries. Rickard also co-curated the museum's "Our Lives" gallery, which examines the identities of native peoples in the 21st century, and how those identities, both individual and communal, are shaped by deliberate choices made in challenging circumstances.

"People in the U.S. have no notion of a political or cultural framework for understanding native issues," Richard says. She points out that no national U.S. newscast routinely carries stories about treaty rights or native peoples the way Canadian television and newspapers do.

"For this reason alone, the NMAI will have a unique role among American museums," she says. "It is the culmination of a trend that began in the 1980s when the native peoples of North America began to take ownership of the way in which their way of life -- historic and contemporary values, culture and traditions -- is exhibited by museums and galleries."

Quoting the director of the museum, W. Richard West, a Southern Cheyenne, she points out that NMAI "marks a grand turning point in history, a sacred federal site ceded to Indian management and broadcasting a message of hardy survival, not tribal extinction."

Construction on the museum began five years ago on what was once the land of the Piscataway tribe after a blessing by current Piscataway Chief Billy Tayac. Today the arresting, five-story, honey-colored curvilinear building designed by Ottawa-based Blackfoot architect Douglas Cardinal, faces the U.S. Capital building and occupies the last available space on the National Mall. Constructed of Minnesota Kasota limestone, its organic form is an abstraction of a mesa sculpted over time by wind and water.

Rickard says native groups were consulted on every aspect of the museum and its exhibitions and NMAI now is not only the last word on how to exhibit Indian artifacts in the 21st century, but its curators expect that it will be a template for other institutions with aboriginal collections. This is a crucial and significant leap in the ability of Native Americans to define themselves for posterity. The museum is expected to attract four to six million visitors annually.

Long before it was built, the museum was "created" by an act of Congress to take over the collection of New York investment banker George Gustav Heye, who had amassed 800,000 Indian artifacts by the time of his death in 1957.

Heye bought voraciously and his collection includes everything from Sitting Bull's war bonnet and the rifles used by Crazy Horse and Geronimo, to a collection of scalps, knives, headdresses, and beaded bags; tools of the extinct Yahgan tribe of Tierra del Fuego, and worn-out moccasins and cooking pots. He maintained contact with European dealers and auction houses and repatriated many valuable objects.

His collection was displayed until 1993 in the Museum of the American Indian in New York City, which he founded as an ethnographic museum in 1916. Because of its remote urban location, only a few thousand people a year have visited the New York City museum.

Rickard's involvement in NMAI is extensive. Her scholarly work focuses on the aesthetic practice of First Nations and indigenous peoples in a global context. It spans a broad range of issues in historical and contemporary art, including the examination of Native-American iconography, the "trickster" in art, Iroquoian women's beadwork, and the relationship between Native-American and African-American art.

She has written that she regards images made by contemporary natives as "documents of our sovereignty, both politically and spiritually." In her photography, she often works with the concepts of land and earth, which she considers to form our perceptions of reality.

Rickard is a widely sought-after consultant, speaker and author on the subject of the history and aesthetics of Native-American art and is on the board of the New York State Historical Association; a member of the College Art Association, Native Art Association and the Society for Photographic Educators, and a founding board member of the Otsego Institute of Native American Art History.

Her photographic installations have been shown widely across North America at venues that include the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, Canadian Museum of Civilization (Ottawa), The Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto), the McCord Museum (Quebec), Gallery of the American Indian Community House (New York City) and the New York State Museum (Albany).

Rickard lives in Sanborn.

Media Contact Information

Patricia Donovan has retired from University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, call 716-645-6969 or visit our list of current university media contacts. Sorry for the inconvenience.