Behind the Scenes at “Infinity of Nations” in New York City

National Museum of the American Indian

Starting this past Saturday, visitors can now enjoy the expansive "Infinity of Nations," a new permanent exhibit at the American Indian Museum's George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. "Infinity" showcases the museum's vast collections and covers ten regions of the Americas, from as far south as Argentina's Tierra del Fuego to the northern Arctic.

Several months ago, museum staff report, none of the artifacts were in place. The glass cases that now hold the artifacts hadn't left Italy, where they were being manufactured. There wasn't even any carpet on the gallery floors.

The task of creating such an exhibit—let alone unearthing more than 700 objects from the museum's storage facilities and preparing them to go on view for at least the next decade—seems daunting. Last week, I traveled to New York City and toured the nearly-finished show with project manager Duane Blue Spruce, a native New Yorker of Pueblo and Spanish descent, who gave me a bit of the inside story on how "Infinity" has been brought to life.

"It's really a thrill to have this much of the collection on display here now," said Blue Spruce as he showed me into the exhibit hall. The ten-foot tall, custom-built, Italian glass cases gleamed all the way down the hall. A conservator sat on the floor, using a tiny tool to arrange a few intricate beads on a moccasin.

"The museum really wanted this anchor exhibit here in New York," says Blue Spruce. The idea for a survey exhibit of the museum's finest objects is already a few years old, but, the theme for the exhibit design truly began to take shape after curator Cécile Ganteaume came up with the name for the show. In 17th and 18th century French colonial documents, missionaries and governors referred to the peoples of the new world as an "infinity of nations." The title, Blue Spruce says, reflects both the multitude of indigenous tribes and cultures in the Americas, and emphasizes the status of those tribes as sovereign nations. The exhibit features everything from traditional regalia to ceremonial drums to headdresses to contemporary artwork.

With this in mind, the designers went to work on forming a visual concept for the exhibit. "Everywhere you look, you're always getting a sneak peak of what's to come," says Blue Spruce. Between the hall's glass vitrines, curators have selected a number of artifacts that serve as "focal points" for each region. For example, a mid-19th-century Apsaalooke warrior robe from the North American plains region tells a vivid story of internecine tribal warfare. The main gallery is fluid; the carpets undulate in a fluid pattern, ushering guests from one region to the next, while multimedia screens display photos and interviews about how the objects were (and in many cases still are) used in their respective Native cultures.

When the exhibit cases arrived from Milan the day after Labor Day, they were so tall, so delicate and so hard to lift that it required a Herculean effort to assemble them in the museum gallery. "The cases have notches, which are functional but also aesthetic," says Blue Spruce. "They almost mimic New York skyscrapers." (One case in particular, meant for a focal object, was too big to fit in the elevator and a group of staff hauled the one-ton glass apparatus up the main stairs of the stately old Customs House.)

My tour ended in the last gallery, a room of contemporary art by Native Americans from tribes based in each of the ten regions. Only two objects had yet to be installed, one of which was a small sculpture of a sleeping man curled up in a ball, which Apache artist Bob Haozous says is a metaphor for the perils of losing touch with one's Native spirituality. A designer rushed back and forth measuring the sculpture against the space allotted for it. "This represents the transition from this exhibit to the more contemporary exhibitions in the other galleries," says Blue Spruce. "The museum's collection of contemporary art is still very much growing and evolving."

For Blue Spruce, the exhibit encompasses the depth and breadth of Native peoples, but also stands as a tribute to the museum itself. "It really captures the spirit of the museum," he says.

The new permanent exhibition, "Infinity of Nations," is now on view at the National Museum of the American Indian's George Gustav Heye Center in New York City.

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