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February 25, 2016

One Hundred Years of Museum History

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Museum of the American Indian (MAI), now the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). On May 10, 1916, George Heye—along with trustees F. Kingsbury Curtis, Frederick K. Seward, and William Lare—signed a foundation deed creating the museum as an institution for “the collection, preservation, study and exhibition of all things connected with the anthropology of the aboriginal people of North, South and Central Americas, and containing objects of artistic, historic, literary and scientific interest” (MAI Foundation Deed, NMAI Archive Center B153.3). The basis of the MAI’s collection was the approximately 175,000 objects already assembled by George Heye and informally referred to as the Heye Museum.


P11449 Laying Cornerstone of MAIGeorge Heye laying the cornerstone of the Museum of The American Indian–Heye Foundation. November 8, 1916; New York City. NMAI P11449


George Heye had begun collecting Native American objects in 1897. By 1904 he became serious about founding his own museum, devoting much of his time to acquiring and cataloging large collections. He hired museum assistants, including staff from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) who worked after hours to help clean and organize his collections.


Time card AC001 266-51905 time card for George Lentz, a museum assistant at the American Museum of Natural History, for his evening work for George Heye. NMAI.AC.001, Box 266.5


Heye cultivated relationships with collectors, dealers, and institutions that held Native American collections. He developed a vast network of ethnologists and archaeologists, including George Pepper (AMNH), Marshall Saville (Columbia University), Mark Raymond Harrington (a Columbia graduate), and archaeologist Theodoor de Booy, who collected material for Heye throughout the Americas. 

N10987 Supper at Heye MuseumSupper at the Heye Museum. 1912, New York City. From left, seated: Mrs. Marie Heye (George Heye’s mother), Harmon Hendricks, Thea Knowne Page (later Mrs. George Gustav Heye), and George Gustav Heye; standing: George Pepper, Theodoor De Booy, and Marshall H. Saville. In 1904 Heye rented two floors of a loft building at 10 East 33rd Street to house his growing collections. NMAI N10987


As early as December 1905, Heye sought support to found an institution with two facilities—one for exhibitions and one for storage, with research space for students. His motivation for collecting was not solely to amass a large private collection but to create an institution for the serious study of the people of the Americas. In 1906, after discussing his museum idea with philanthropist Archer Huntington, Heye decided that the time was not right to create an institution that would rival the American Museum of Natural History. Instead, Heye placed his growing North American ethnology and archaeology collections at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. There his objects were cared for and exhibited in two galleries from 1909 until 1916, when Heye withdrew them to create the MAI—much to the dismay of the University Museum staff, who believed he would ultimately donate his collections to their museum.

In the decade between his first conversations about building a museum and laying the foundation stone 1916, Heye was able to generate support for his vision of a new anthropological institution in New York. In 1922, the Museum of the American Indian finally opened to the public at 155th and Broadway in New York, on a site at Audubon Terrace donated by Archer Huntington.


Thea Heye N02173Thea Heye placing the first specimen in a display case in the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation, 155th and Broadway, New York. NMAI N02173


Heye and MAI staff members continued to collect specimens, sending out archaeological and ethnographic expeditions to the far reaches of the Americas, buying from other collectors, and traveling abroad to purchase Native American items that had found their way into European collections. By 1990, when the MAI became part of the Smithsonian Institution, the collection included more than 800,000 objects, the great majority acquired during George Heye’s lifetime.

If not for the determination of George Heye and the MAI staff who expanded on his vision, the National Museum of the American Indian would not exist in its present form. Certainly, it would not conserve, for study and exhibition, the impressive collections for which it is known. This year we celebrate the founding of the Museum of the American Indian and the many individuals involved in buildings its collections. As part of our centenary celebration, the NMAI Archive Center is adding the newly digitized George Heye records and correspondence to the SOVA (Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives). See an earlier blog for more information about using the SOVA and check back here for more blogs about the museum’s history and the people associated with it.

—Maria Galban, NMAI 

On May 11, the National Museum of the American Indian in New York will host the gala evening Legacies of Learning to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of George Gustav Heye's extraordinary collection as the Museum of the American Indian and to toast the museum's century of contributions to scholarship and cultural understanding. For more information about the gala and how it supports the museum's educational mission, or to read about the recipients of the 2016 NMAI Awards who will be honored that night, visit Legacies of Learning on the museum’s website.

Maria Galban is a research specialist on the Collections and Research Documentation staff at the National Museum of the American Indian.

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