Indian Museum Director Stepping Down in 2007

W. Richard West Jr. will be stepping down as director of the National Museum of the American Indian next November.
W. Richard West Jr. will be stepping down as director of the National Museum of the American Indian next November. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006

W. Richard West Jr. the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, and its public face throughout its planning and its first two years of operation, announced yesterday that he would leave next year.

West says he is very comfortable with his decision.

"I wished to walk through that door, rather than be ushered through the door or carried through the door," says West, 63. Next November, when he plans to leave, West will have spent 17 years helping the world's largest cultural organization plan the first museum on the Mall dedicated to minority culture.

West, a Harvard-trained historian, Stanford-educated lawyer and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, left a lucrative legal career to help make the museum a reality.

From the beginning, he promised that the museum would be different. It wouldn't be a showcase for the work of scholars and anthropologists so much as a window on Native American culture defined, in large part, by Native Americans themselves.

Sitting in his office this week after a grueling trip to Shanghai for the Ford Foundation, West talked about the timing of his decision.

The three buildings that make up the Indian Museum -- the George Gustav Heye Center in New York, the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland and the Mall museum near the Capitol -- are up and running. In 2005, its first full year after opening in September 2004, the Mall museum attracted 2.2 million visitors, and has had 1.2 million the first nine months of this year. West says he thought about leaving after the opening but delayed the action because he thought it would "potentially destabilize" the new effort.

But with a three-year strategic plan and staff reorganization completed, the time seems right for a transition, he says. On a personal note, he says, one of his models for bowing out at the right time was J. Carter Brown, the longtime director of the National Gallery of Art, who resigned after that museum's 50th anniversary.

"It is incumbent upon directors to know when change is appropriate," West says.

Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small said: "The National Museum of the American Indian has risen to international prominence, thanks to Rick West's steadfast dedication, tireless drive and inspired leadership as founding director. He started with an idea and turned it into a reality."

The museum was authorized by Congress in 1989 and was centered on the vast collection of George Gustav Heye, a businessman who collected Native American materials that were given to the Smithsonian. For decades, recalls George Horse Capture, a former curator and special counsel at the museum, Native Americans had wanted some validation, and there were hundreds of ideas on how to achieve that recognition in a museum. "Our constituents were over 500 tribes. At times they had their own agenda, speaking in their own languages. It really was a can of worms," Horse Capture says. "But Rick was cool. It must come from his lawyerness. He would smile and his plans were always thought out."

The day the museum, a grand curvy building wrapped in limestone, opened its doors with a procession on the Mall of 25,000 Native Americans, the exhibitions were so varied that no one knew whether it would be embraced or rejected.

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