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National museum transfer completed

SUITLAND, Md. - A delivery truck arrived at 4220 Silver Hill Road March 16, bringing an end to one leg of its trip from New York City. With the unloading of four watercraft from the four directions, vessels that plied the water highways of the Americans, a larger process ended - the transfer of more than 800,000 objects over four years from the Bronx to the Cultural Resources Center of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The delivery completed the mandate of Congress to build the Suitland facility and there house the contents of the Heye Center's Bronx Research Branch. Built by George Heye in 1921 as storage for his Indian objects and artifacts, the Bronx building had a leaky roof, dwindled resources and an irreplaceable collection.

Saving it to Suitland "has been a very special project," said Thomas Sweeney, director of public affairs at the National Museum. Just about every museum engages in object transfer processes, but this one may have been unprecedented in scope, Sweeney said. The delivery trucks were blessed before and after each trip, and traveled with a federal marshal on board. Special mounts (a museum term for the structures that cushion and protect an object en route) had to be custom-made by museum staff for every object, from BB-sized baskets to delicate headdresses, stone thrones and a totem pole, the largest single object. If lined up side-by-side, the crates the objects came in would extend for more than five miles.

The care shown for garments gives some idea of the detail work that went into the move. In the Bronx, many garments, some of them fragile, had been rolled and stuffed onto shelves. For the transfer, each garment had to be carefully unrolled, mounted flat, and supplied with special supportive tubes under each seam. In Suitland - where the term "storage" isn't used by the way, as many of the objects are considered living beings in tribal cultures - the garments will be readily accessible on custom-made sliding drawers, with tubes still in place under the seams.

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The last delivery included a blessing of the watercraft and a welcoming dance. The week of March 8, the museum held a ceremony for all staff involved in the move.

The National Museum of the American Indian's main building, on the National Mall in Washington, will open its doors to the public in September.