The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), a Smithsonian Institution museum on the National Mall filled with Native artifacts and representations of contemporary Indian experiences, is coping with the aftermath of a tragic death there November 23.
The apparent suicide occurred while the museum was open with hundreds of visitors inside. Witnesses told local news outlets that an adult male jumped from a top floor of the building onto the main atrium of the space, where traditional Indian ceremonies are regularly held.
The museum was evacuated after his fall, and the museum re-opened the following day for regular business hours.
John Gibbons, a spokesman for the Smithsonian, told the Associated Press the man was visiting the facility with his family. “He was visiting with his family, but was alone at the time,” Gibbons said. His family was someplace else in the building.”
One concern that museum staffers are working to address—beyond the immediate safety and clean-up issues—is making sure the space won’t be emotionally affected into the future.
“We did have a smudging on Sunday and we will have a blessing on December 5 for all staff to attend,” said Leonda Levchuk, a spokeswoman for the museum. Smudging is a part of many traditional Native American ceremonies, in which tobacco and cedar and other herbs are used to purify and cleanse.
The museum, which opened in 2004 as part of the Smithsonian after decades of planning and fundraising, is a space that deals with Native religion and spirituality.
No staffers want Native Americans who regularly visit the space to feel that its energy has been negatively affected. Real estate agents have talked about similar concerns when trying to sell properties where tragedies, like suicide, have occurred.
Some who have coped with such circumstances have gone so far as to hire priests and other religious experts to exorcise spaces after suicide, as did singer Olivia Newton-John after a contractor died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at her house in August.
Beyond this emotional aspect, there is concern among some staffers that the suicide could potentially affect tourists desire to visit if they fear safety issues at the museum. The man would have had to climb over a four-foot wall and rail at the area he was seen by witnesses, according to news reports.
The Metropolitan Police Department is investigating the incident.