March 24, 2016

Searching Heye and Low for Museum Documentation

In the 100 years since the founding of the Museum of the American Indian–Heye Foundation (MAI), many of the connections between archival records and objects in the museum’s collections—now the cornerstone of the National Museum of the American Indian—have been lost. The museum has been plagued with a reputation for having little information about our amazing collections. Some critics blamed George Heye, the original collector, and his purported lack of interest in recordkeeping and suggested that whatever documentation once existed was discarded. Over the last several years, however, the museum's staff has been working to correct this problem. A project has been underway since 2010 to reunite archival records with museum objects and ultimately restore their connections to the individuals who made, used, collected, or sold them. As you’ll see below, it has been wildly successful.

In 1999, ten years after the National Museum of the American Indian was created as part of the Smithsonian, the MAI paper records were transferred to the museum's Cultural Resources Center. After the transfer, it took the Archive Center until 2011 to complete processing those records. An earlier post by the Archive Center staff describes that project. When it was finished, the MAI records comprised more than 600 boxes of reorganized material, including correspondence, collector and registration department files, expedition reports, and financial records.

The reorganization of the MAI's archival records provided the museum's Collections Research and Documentation Department with a new opportunity. In the past, research on the collections began with an object and a search through the archives for documentation related to it. This very frequently led to dead ends, especially when people researched objects purchased for the collections. Take, for example, the Seminole coat pictured below. Its original catalog card typifies the limited information recorded for MAI purchases: The card gives no names of sellers or previous owners and no dates of manufacture or sale. And without names or dates, there were seldom any clues about where to start looking in the archives to find documentation about such objects. 

204884 Seminole Coat
Above: Seminole man's coat, ca. 1930. Florida. Cotton cloth, thread. NMAI 20/4884. Below: The coat's catalog card.



The current project uses the opposite strategy: Instead of beginning with objects, we review the newly organized records box by box and match them with objects, photos, films, and other items in the collections. Based on this work, it has become very apparent that the long held belief that NMAI collections were poorly documented is false.

By piecing together bits of information and through plenty of detective work, we are reconstructing how George Heye and the Museum of the American Indian acquired the collections. We have uncovered connections between long-neglected documentation and objects, as well as additional details about objects whose documentation was known but incomplete.

Let's look again at the Seminole coat: In MAI correspondence, we found the letter below from Deaconess Harriet Bedell (1875–1969), an Episcopal missionary teacher who worked with the Seminole people of South Florida from 1933 to 1961, to MAI curator William Stiles. In the letter, which is dated January 19, 1942, Deaconess Bedell states that she is sending a councilman’s coat worn by “Ingram Billy”—Ingraham Billie (1895–1983), a traditional Miccosukee Seminole religious and community leader. 

1942.0103 Correspondence in chronological order
Letter from Deaconess Harriet Bedell to Museum of the American Indian curator William Stiles. NMAI.AC.001 Box 11.2


In a different box from the letter, we found a receipt for the MAI's purchase of the coat from Bedell. Based on the date and description, the documents seem to match a Seminole coat in our collection catalogued in the 1940s (catalog number 20/4884).

In her letter Bedell also mentions sending photographs. Searching in our database for photographs associated with Bedell, we found a photo of Ingraham Billie wearing this very coat, confirming the match between the documentation and the object. 

P15356 ingram billie
Ingraham Billie (Miccosukee Seminole Nation) wearing the coat 20/4884. Deaconess Harriet M. Bedell photographs, NMAI.AC.037 P15356


Although museum catalog records identified Deaconess Bedell as the donor of the photograph, there had never been a clear connection between her and the coat or between the coat and its original owner, Ingraham Billie. Now we not only know how and when the museum obtained this coat, but we have restored a meaningful connection to the Seminole leader who wore it.

This project has greatly changed our perception of the museum's collections and blown a hole in the longstanding belief that they are largely undocumented. In retrospect, the separation of documentation from the objects and other items they represent was more likely a result of the passage of time and evolving museum standards, rather than any lack of interest in recordkeeping on George Heye’s part. To ensure that the connections we're making now are not lost again, the project includes digitizing the relevant archival material and adding it to the collections information database so that it is accessible and can easily be shared.

The newly reconstructed story of Ingraham Billie, his coat, and Deaconess Bedell is just one of thousands of connections made by the project in its first five years. To date, more than 75 percent of the object collections and 40 percent of the photo collections have now been linked to related archival documentation. Not every document we find provides us with as much detail as we might like—it may only consist of a seller’s name and a date—but gaining even the slightest clue about an object’s origin gives us a starting point for research we may not have had before.

As part of our centenary celebration, this month we have added photographs from the Deaconess Harriet Bedell collection to the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive (SOVA). You can now view featured photographs from Deaconess Bedell's collection online.

Check back next month for another blog on museum history!

—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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Very happy to see the progress being made. Do you have any information concerning George Heye's agents' purchase of a large collection from Dr. John McGregor of Waterdown, Ontario, CANADA in 1916?

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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January 22, 2016

One Hundred Years of History: Going Digital

A question I'm often asked as an archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian is, “How do I find what I’m looking for, and once I find it, how do I access it?” The Smithsonian is one of the world’s largest repositories of primary sources, with archival holdings measuring somewhere in the area of 137,000 cubic feet, spread across 14 museums and other research centers within the institution. These amazing resources include letters, journals, scrapbooks, photo albums, and sound and video recordings, with subjects ranging from art and culture to science and technology. The scope can make searching for specific information a daunting task. Luckily, Smithsonian archivists have been hard at work making it easier to find the material you are looking for, and making it increasingly possible to view a digital version of the letter, field notebook, or photograph in question.

In October 2015 the Smithsonian launched the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA). This online interface provides access to archival finding aids—inventory lists that provide context and detail to the many pieces that can make up a collection. Currently the NMAI Archive Center has 101 archival collection records, including photographic, paper, and media collections, available via the SOVA. Of these 101 records, 28 collections have full finding aids.

You can browse the SOVA by Smithsonian unit, making it easier to focus your search on NMAI’s archival holdings specifically.

SOVA homepage


If there is digitized content available within a collection, a symbol will appear in your search results next to the collection name.

Tibbles screen shot


The papers of the journalist Thomas Henry Tibbles (1840–1928)—the husband of Indian rights writer and orator Susette Bright Eyes LaFlesche (Omaha) and a progressive figure in his own right—are one example of a fully digitized collection now available online. You can browse the full collection here.

One of the museum’s largest archival collections is the records of our predecessor institution, the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation (MAI) in New York City. The MAI records include collectors' field notebooks, catalog lists, and expedition records, as well as exhibition and organizational files. (For a more in-depth look into what this massive collection holds, take a peek at the earlier blog post Finding Treasure in the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation Records.)

As many of you may know, in 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the MAI. As a part of a year-long anniversary celebration, every month the Archive Center is putting new digitized content from the MAI records up on the SOVA. These records will be accompanied by stories from the 100-year history of the MAI. As our first offering the Archive Center has made available the MAI’s annual reports from 1917 to 1989. These annual reports give a keen insight into the activities of the museum from its earliest days up until it became a part of the Smithsonian Institution.

The MAI annual reports offer an great opportunity to learn about conducting research using the SOVA. For instance, say you want to know what expeditions the museum funded in 1924. You can easily find this information by following the digitized content boxes in the MAI finding aid to the Publications Series: 

MAI screen shot


You can then select the annual report folder you're interested in. If you're looking for 1924, you’ll want to click on Folder 2.

MAI screen shot3


You can then browse through the annual reports until you find 1924.

MAI screen shot2


MAI exp 1


The annual reports are just one of the many treasures among the MAI records. Make sure to check back with us every month for new and exciting stories from the archives!

—Rachel Menyuk, archives technician, NMAI Archive Center

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Great article!

October 27, 2014

Glittering World: Case (Almost) Closed . . . .

By Joshua Stevens

The National Museum of the American Indian in New York is abuzz as the debut of Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family comes closer. A little less than three weeks before the exhibition opens to the public November 13, people behind the scenes are putting the final elements in place, bringing life to the sketches, blueprints, and mock-ups that designers worked tirelessly to perfect.

A visit to the museum’s East Gallery right now gives a vivid sense of just how stunning the exhibition will be. Vibrant colors of crimson and turquoise give a new personality to the space, almost as if visitors will walk into a life-sized piece of Navajo jewelry. It is also apparent that much more remains to be done as prep work continues in every corner of the gallery.

Standing out among all the work in progress is casework that will eventually hold hundreds of pieces of jewelry made by the Yazzies. It’s easy to be amazed by how much planning it takes for every single case. Each case is inscribed with numbers that categorize it and map what it will contain. The exhibition team—led by Peter Brill, assistant director for exhibitions and programs at the museum in New York—allowed a sneak peek at the construction of the exhibition environment. A few snapshots give a sense of things to come.

Encasements Waiting Encasement Application Wall Section

Left: Display cases sit below panels where they will eventually be hung. Top right: Peter Brill shows how a case front will be fitted to one of the wall panels. Above: Within the recesses of a panel, numbers encode a case's location and contents. 

RetailCase LightingExample

Top left: This unfinished panel will hold several of Lee Yazzie’s best-known expertly designed rings. Above: Cases have been designed to strike the perfect balance of controlled lighting and ambient light, bringing out the brilliance of the jewelry in the exhibition. Right: This case will showcase pieces in the Glittering World Gallery Store, where visitors will have the opportunity to purchase unique jewelry inspired by Navajo designs, as well as work by fine jewelers from other Native nations.

Glittering World
opens Thursday, November 13, at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, and will run until January 2016. The NMAI blog will continue to post exclusive behind-the-scenes content as the opening nears. You can also view the exhibition trailer and join the conversation with the museum on Facebook and Twitter, #GlitteringWorld. Let us know if there’s something you want to know! 

Photos by Joshua Stevens, NMAI.

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

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September 22, 2014

Let’s Begin a New Chapter in NMAI History

This week marks an important milestone for the community of the National Museum of the American Indian —the 10th anniversary of the opening of the museum in Washington, D.C. I’m proud to say NMAI has helped redefine the way our visitors understand the Native American experience and Native Peoples, thanks to the generous support of numerous Native Nations, members, trustees, and staff. More than 25,000 Native Americans gathered for the museum opening in 2004—the largest gathering of indigenous people in Washington, D.C., to date—and we look forward to greeting thousands more over the next decade.

Director Gover NMAI-0283
Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the America Indian.

This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the museum’s landmark founding legislation; the 20th anniversary of the opening of our first location, in New York City at the George Gustav Heye Center; and the 15th anniversary of the opening of our Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland. These are fine accomplishments, and we are proud and grateful for what we all have done together.

There’s still important work to be done. Most Americans have been taught a limited—and often mistaken—version of Native American history. I still remember the stereotypes that defined my childhood: Indians were figures of the past, often pictured on a rocky hillside dressed in feathers and buckskin. It was images like these that made growing up as an Indian child harder than it had to be.

The true story of our heritage is so much more nuanced, complex, and fascinating. Understanding this complexity can help us understand our present and prepare for our future as a multicultural nation. This is where NMAI can play a vital role in the coming decades, and we are committed to taking on this role with greater focus and intensity. 

NMAI-0080 NMAI-0067


NMAI-0335 NMAI-0344




Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, on view at the museum in Washington from September 21, 2014, through fall 2018. A more detailed caption for these photographs appears below.

Over the next quarter century, we’re committed to telling the authentic history of the Western Hemisphere and Native Peoples to citizens, policymakers, and policy influencers nationwide.  We’re embarking on this new effort in a number of ways, including through groundbreaking exhibitions such as Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, which is now open to the public. We’re also accelerating our efforts to work with educators, providing classroom materials designed to instill a richer understanding of our history as Americans. And we’ve launched an ambitious campaign to fund more than $75 million in projects that will sustain the next generation of our work.

We understand that this kind of change cannot happen overnight. It will take time and resources. But it’s my hope that our work over the next 25 years can begin to correct the deep-rooted stereotypes, inaccuracies, and omissions that defined my childhood and continue to contribute to the challenges faced by Tribal Nations.

Please join me as we retell America’s story and build understandings upon which the Indian Nations can achieve their highest aspirations.

                                                                                                —Kevin Gover


For more information on ways you can support NMAI, visit or email

Kevin Gover is the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. 


Photo block above: Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, on view at the museum in Washington from September 21, 2014, through fall 2018. 

Top: Examples of early diplomacy between include (left) the 1682 Lenape Treaty with colonist William Penn and (right) the 1794 Treaty of Canandiagua between the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the United States. The Treaty of Canandiagua, one of eight original treaties that will rotate on exhibit to preserve fragile documents from light damage, can be seen now through February 2015. 

Center: A display of pipe bags, represents both the importance of ceremony to diplomacy and the northern Plains Nations that were party to the Horse Creek Treaty (1861). From left to right: Tsitsistas/Shutai (Cheyenne) pipe bag, ca. 1851 (NMAI 8/8037); Sahnish (Arikara) pipe bag, ca. 1880 (NMAI 20/1400); Yankton pipe bag, ca. 1880 (NMAI 16/7255); AssiniIoine pipe bag, ca. 1880 (NMAI 12/7393); Numakiki (Mandan) pipe bag, ca. 1851 (NMAI 8/8088); Northern Inunaina (Arapaho) pipe bag, ca. 1885 (NMAI 23/1176); Apsáalooke (Crow/Absaroke) pipe bag, ca.1870 (NMAI 14/828); Minitari (Hidatsa) pipe bag, ca. 1880 (American Museum of Natural History 50.1/5350B); Shoshone pipe bag, ca. 1870 (NMAI 2/3294). 

Bottom: From the mid-19th century unti the present day, generations of Indian leaders have traveled to Washington, D.C., to remind successive administrations of the United States' nation-to-nation treaty obligations.

All photos are by Paul Morigi/AP Images for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.