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.
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.
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.
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.