Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resources Center

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Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resources Center

The Cultural Resources Center serves as the operational and conceptual locus of the National Museum of the American Indian. Its unprecedented program combines collections storage and conservation facilities with curatorial and ritual practice spaces that provide its Native American constituents with direct access to the living artifacts of their diverse cultures.

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The building is located on the Smithsonian Institution’s suburban Museum Support Center campus six and a half miles southeast of the National Mall. The design’s formal dichotomies articulate and mediate the pervasive dualities of program and site: presenting orthogonal, closed volumes to the institutional and suburban surroundings and curvilinear, open faces to the wooded landscape.

Representing the interests of over 400 tribes, the design team, a collaborative including Native American design professionals, was motivated by the desire to make original, modern architecture, while inspired by the principles of Native American design. The building constitutes a bold experiment in both collaborative practice and cultural interpretation.

Three specific goals structured the design process: to reinforce the natural features of the site and the organic unity of earth and sky; to reflect the Native American understanding of their artifacts as living entities endowed with the spirit of their creators; and to extend hospitality to the members of all tribes, while respecting the traditions of the host Piscataway-Conoy people.

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To that end, the principal entry faces east, while the building as a whole is oriented to the cardinal directions. The circular lobby is the spiritual and functional heart of the building with the three levels of collections storage space radiating off to the west and the public Resource Center to the east. A bridge leads north from the lobby to a circular Intertribal Ritual Space in the woods.

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The structural and circulation systems also originate here, and the spiral roof form over the collections storage spaces responds to both programmatic and symbolic requirements. Its radial structure can be found in a variety of organic forms, including the pine cone, spider web and chambered nautilus, and has its artifactual incarnation in the dream-catchers of southwestern tribes. 

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The roof’s structural steel framework reveals itself as an open canopy over the entry, while it terminates in a soaring sculptural form at the building’s northwest/rear corner. Throughout the building there is a pronounced concern for achieving an organic unity to the design. Details emerge from the overall design concept and the structural materials, such as the diamond-shaped windows created by the intersection of the pre-cast concrete wall panels. 

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The articulation of the design in detail and choice of materials responds to the user experience: wood contrasts with the structural steel and concrete to create warmth and, once again, reemphasize the connection between the man-made and the natural.


Suitland, MD
140,000 GSF
Library, Collections Storage, Curatorial Spaces, Conservation Laboratories and Ritual Practice Spaces


Design Partners
Susan T. Rodriguez, James S. Polshek
Management Partner
Timothy Hartung
Project Architect
Damyanti Radheshwar
Design Team
Minsuk Cho, John Fernandez, Jihyon Kim, Alexis Kraft, Lisa Mann, Craig McIlhenny, Darius Sollohub, David Wallance, Don Weinreich, Kyle Yang
Joint Venture Architect
Metcalf Tobey Partners (now SmithGroup JJR)


  • 2000
    • Award for Excellence in Design, AIA/Northern Virginia
    • Certificate for Excellence in Architecture, AIA/The Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects
  • 1999
    • WBC Craftsmanship Award, Washington Building Congress, Inc.


  • 2004
    • Thompson, Bob. "Spirit Lodge" (The Washington Post, 8/2/2004)
  • 2000
    • Stamler, Bernard. "Taking the Big Tepee from the Bronx to Maryland" (The New York Times, 7/23/2000)
  • 1999
    • Forgey, Benjamin. "Reflection on Indian Culture" (The Washington Post, 8/14/1999)
  • 1998
    • Forgey, Benjamin. "The Best-Laid Plans" (The Washington Post, 4/4/1998)
    • Nobel, Philip . "Other Museums" (Oculus, 2/1998)
    • "Native American Culture Meets Modern Design" (Civil Engineering, 1/1998)
  • 1992
    • Dorris, Michael. "His Mission? An Indian Museum Like None Other" (The New York Times, 9/13/1992)
    • Weintraub, Judith. "The Indian Museum's Design Team" (The Washington Post, 6/20/1992)


Cagley & Associates
Syska Hennessy Group, Inc.
Raamot Associates, Woodward-Clyde
David Garce (NADC), EDAW Architects (Now AECOM)
Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design, Inc.
Salestrom Design
Shen Milsom & Wilke
Steven R. Keller and Associates
Code/Life Safety
Rolf Jensen & Associates, Inc.
Cost Estimating
Anadac Facilities Group
Art Storage
Wendy Jessup & Associates, Inc.
Native American Design Collaborative
General Contractor
Clark Construction
Jeff Goldberg/Esto