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National Museum of the American Indian travels Internet

Imagine, if you will, tribal delegations, reunited with traditional ceremonial objects, gathered in a forested, round ceremonial space on federal property.

Then picture Native students viewing these same objects on a computer screen and gaining a better understanding of their own culture and the considerable skills of their ancestors.

I am happy to say that all of this is occurring through the Smithsonians National Museum of the American Indian and its new Cultural Resources Center.

Consulting with and reaching out to Indian country and to Native communities throughout the hemisphere is a special and key part of the museum. With a number of Native staff members, the museum is dedicated to diverse tribal communities presenting their own past and present cultures and histories in its exhibitions. Approximately 40 communities will be represented when the Mall Museum opens its doors in Washington, D.C., in just a few years. Many more are to come.

With the loss of so much tribal culture and history through injustices of the past centuries, the National Museum of the American Indian offers Native peoples the opportunity to reconnect with one another and to dispel the stereotypes and misconceptions held by others.

From the beginning a decade ago, we knew that many Native peoples would not be able to travel to our three facilities: the George Gustav Heye Center, our permanent museum in New York City; our Cultural Resources Center, which opened last fall in Suitland, Md., not far from Washington, D.C., and our centerpiece Mall Museum, which will be completed by the end of 2002 next to the U.S. Capitol.

So with this special Native audience and others in mind, we have created a Fourth Museum that has no walls or even a geographic home. Instead, it is open to anyone in the world with computer Internet access who types in

At this virtual address they can tour current and past Heye Center exhibits such as The Art of Being Kuna and Instrument of Change: Jim Schoppert through our Conexus program. They can move through the galleries, study the installations, admire the magnificent Native art and sculpture, and be proud of our contemporary and historic cultural achievements.

As we move more than 800,000 Native-created objects in the collection from the outdated and cramped Research Branch in the Bronx, N.Y., to the spacious and culturally appropriate Cultural Resources Center, staff members are digitally photographing each object so that eventually the entire collection can viewed via the Internet, piece by piece, in a 360-degree view.

From reservations, tribal schools, libraries, and colleges, and homes, this vast and wondrous collection can studied and appreciated. The museum anticipates the move and digital photography project will be completed within a five-year period.

Already students from the Santa Clara Pueblo Day School in New Mexico and other tribal schools traveled to the Heye Center to complete their own digital photography projects. Museum staff members report the students displayed tremendous respect and care in selecting and recording the objects for their own web pages.

On returning home, they consulted with tribal elders about the appropriateness of their choices and the unique histories of the objects.

At the Cultural Resources Center, the Community Services department is preparing radio programs based on museum exhibitions and other National Museum of the American Indian programs. Listeners in Indian country and elsewhere can hear the fascinating and captivating details about Native artists and their work. Via satellite and compact discs radio stations are being offered programs based on our exhibitions, Indian Humor and Memory and Imagination: The Legacy of Maidu Artist Frank Day.

Encouraging contemporary Native artists is another special part of our mission. The stories and works by Pawnee artist Jimmy Horn, Nakota Sioux artist Nelda Shrupp, and Nuxalk artist Silyas Saunders currently are highlighted through our web page.

We invite you to visit us often and get to know the National Museum of the American Indian as we continue the important work that lies ahead.

Editor's note: W. Richard Rick West is director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.