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The WD Interview – John Haworth, Director, George Gustav Heye Center, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

April 10th, 2008 · No Comments · Arts & Culture, The WD Interview



The National Museum of the American Indian that houses the George Gustav Heye Center has occupied the old US Custom House since 1994. Starting in 1903, Heye assembled a personal collection of Native American artefacts over a 54-year period. It formed the basis for a collection that now comprises more than 800,000 objects from indigenous people around the Western Hemisphere as well as a photographic archive of 86,000 images. The collection was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1989.  “I get up very early and start my day reading,” says John Haworth, director of the George Gustav Heye Center. “I read everything from cultural magazines to political discourses to the daily papers. This usually takes me an hour.”  As the centre’s director he has both an operational and managerial responsibility. During the day, Haworth oversees facilities’ issues such as fire and safety, electricity and matters involved in being the caretaker of a landmark building. “The Museum has half a million visitors a year and is one of the top ten tourist destinations in New York City. I want to make sure we are very diligent about safety and we have a clean environment.” 

The other element of his responsibility is more staff-oriented. “Part of my job is to oversee the education staff and ensure the programs are well executed. We want people to have a good time,” explains Haworth. “We want the exhibits to reveal something about what is visited. And if, say, the Wall Street visitor comes in for a short time, we want to provide him with the richest 10 minutes of the day.”


Walking into the glorious rotunda and following the peaceful trail of exhibits throughout the building, the bustle and noise of downtown Manhattan seems light years away. The museum offers a daily packed schedule of children’s programs, film screenings and workshops and houses a resource centre for research. Admission is free and accessibility for wheelchairs and kids’ strollers is excellent.


“I get to the museum at 9 o’clock, but about once a week I have a breakfast meeting with a donors, board member, people from the City Council or the Lower Manhattan Culture Council,” says Haworth. In terms of funding, he singles out some big corporate names from Wall Street for praise. But he makes it clear that there is pressure for more corporate support: “Neighbourhood companies should support their neighbourhood. Merrill Lynch have been great, but we like to encourage more corporate membership.”


The NMAI receives $1mio. from the City, but is primarily funded by the Federal Budget. “Our basic operation costs are supported by that money. Our funding is typical: with receive two thirds from public funding and need to raise one-third from private monies,” says Haworth. The George Gustav Heye Center was not unaffected by the opening of the new NMAI branch in Washington, D.C. is 2004.


In his own words, Haworth is a ‘good downtown citizen’ and very passionate about it. “Downtown is the real thing,” he says referring to its historic roots of today’s Manhattan. “I think now this is an opportunity to reposition and redefine downtown,” he continues raising the issues thrown up by 9/11. He compares downtown New York with cities like Boston and Philadelphia who have rediscovered their historic neighbourhoods and redeveloped them with great success. If Haworth does take staff out for lunch, he prefers to stay downtown. “I love going to the Amish at One Battery Park,” he explains. “And there are lots of take-out places I like.”


 “The museum works is in terms of project management. At the moment the exhibit team is working on gathering all the artefacts and bringing them into the two major galleries and the rotunda,” explains Haworth. “Everything needs to be documented. The last census showed that there are about 200,000 Mexicans in the five boroughs. We are trying to reach all these people.”

 Although Haworth’s life in immersed in the NMAI, he does have time for his other interests: “It’s important to have out-time,” he says. “It’s been very tough for everyone here to recover from September 11. Even now it’s difficult. Past exhibitions have taught me to live now and be connected to one another. As one of the individuals in the Mohawk Ironworks exhibition said: ‘My people have taught me to think back seven generations and look forward seven generations.’” When he is not working, he can be found at other museums, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art or the MOMA or indulging in his other passion – music. “I used to be a professional musician and I am an avid theatregoer. I am a real culture consumer.” Asked to pick a favourite exhibit from the 800,000 objects the NMAI cares for, Haworth doesn’t hesitate: “The Yup’ik Eskimo masks.” The museum honours the Indian heritage to the highest degree and does achieve the wonderful celebration of Indian culture, language, music and its many artefacts. However, visitors will look in vain for the kind of historical backdrop that the downtown Holocaust Museum offers while exploring the persecution of the Jews. It is assumed that the visitor knows why we have to come to a museum to see Native American art since the artefacts are not presented its historical context.  

While Haworth doesn’t comment on this fact further, he does acknowledge this: “This is a museum of the people who were here first. I think it’s wonderful that the NMAI is located on the old Algonquin trail and trading post. We have come full circle.”


For further information, visit http://www.nmai.si.edu/

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