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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July 31, 2015

Museum Interns Take New York: A Photo Journal

On July 10, 12 NMAI interns and fellows visited the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. We arrived at the museum as thousands of fans poured into lower Manhattan to shower us with cheers and admiration, or was that for the U.S. women’s soccer team?

As the crowds dispersed we headed into the museum, but not before taking a picture with a U.S. marshal (below).

Interns & US marshal

We were greeted by Duane Blue Spruce , public spaces planning coordinator (below, wearing a red shirt). After a round of introductions, he told us about his involvement with the Heye Center. His experience began when the museum was the Museum of the American Indian at West 155th and Broadway, before it became part of the Smithsonian and moved downtown. Duane showed us two books he created to illustrate the experiences of Native peoples in the New York City area—Mother Earth, Father Skyline: The Native American Experience in New York City and Concrete Tipi. “It’s fun to come and work here every day,” he said, “because the things we produce represent Native people and educate the public. We’re doing good stuff.”

John Haworth and GGHC staff speaking with interns

We were joined by John Haworth, NMAI assistant director for Museum Programs (above, far right), who told us about the imagiNATIONS project being developed in New York. This new hands-on learning space will be geared towards pre-teens and will demonstrate the ingenuity of Native peoples, including their contributions in food, medicine, and architecture. Connor Bliss, an intern in the Exhibits Department, explained that “being able to witness the progress that is being made on . . . the imagiNATIONS Activity Center has further increased the understanding of the exhibitions process I’ve learned here during my time at the Smithsonian.” 

Peter BrillLater, Peter Brill, deputy assistant director of the museum in New York (right), walked us through the exhibit design process. His enthusiasm for the museum was infectious, and he encouraged us to speak up and present our ideas: “In these projects, you have a voice, and it’s important to think and be responsive to each other, bring your ideas forward, and try not to be fearful of making a silly suggestion.”

Charlotte Basch, an intern in Community and Constituent Services, told me she was impressed by how encouraging the New York staff is: “It was a great opportunity to see that each individual plays an important role in the NMAI and Smithsonian network. . . . Peter and Duane and everyone else were obviously excited about the work they do for both tribal communities and their fellow New Yorkers.”

Carrie Gonzalez 1 Carrie Gonzalez 2
Carrie Gonzalez 3

Carrie Gonzalez, a cultural interpreter on the Heye Center staff, then guided us on a wonderful tour of the museum (above and right). She also led us through three major exhibitions: Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family, Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American, and Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed, as well as Circle of Dance.  

Carrie told us that she leads school groups on tours during the school year, sometimes with over 50 kids! I think we were slightly easier to manage.  

We also got the chance to explore the museum’s activity center (below). Some interns tried their hand at a Yup'ik yo-yo a game that requires the player to take two sealskin balls attached by a caribou-sinew string and swing them around in opposite directions. I ventured into a tipi with Sara Morales, a Collections intern, and spent some time looking at the artwork on the interior. 

Yoyo 1 Yoyo 2 Tipi interior

After the tour was over, the interns scattered across the city—some uptown to see friends, some to Brooklyn. We all left the Heye Center with an appreciation for how the museum is changing understandings of Native lives in New York City.


—Sarah Frost

Sarah Frost spent her summer internship at the museum in Washington, D.C., as a member of the Web staff, working on the Inka Road website and new projects online and in social media. 

Photos: Tipi interior courtesy of Conservation intern Rachel Mochon. View of Manhattan courtesy of Applications intern Abby Malkin. All other photos courtesy of Sarah Frost.

The National Museum of the American Indian's Internship Program offers sessions in the spring, summer, and fall. The next deadline for applications—for the spring 2016 session—is November 20, 2015.

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April 17, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Guayabo and Las Mercedes

Tomorrow, April 18, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This third video, led by Ricardo Vázquez Leiva, an archaeologist who works at the National Museum of Costa Rica, takes a look at two archaeological sites in what is now Costa Rica—Guayabo and Las Mercedes.

Guayabo and Las Mercedes are important for excavation because the scale of the architecture found there suggests that they represent societies where power was highly centralized. In southern Central America, they stand as uniquely monumental examples.

Many of the objects unearthed in this area were excavated in the early 20th century by teams who worked for the American businessman Minor Cooper Keith and his wife, Cristina Castro Fernández, whose family was prominent in Costa Rica. The Keiths amassed a collection of nearly 16,000 objects during their time in Central America. In 1916, Minor Keith became a trustee of the Museum of the American Indian—Heye Foundation, later to become the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. 

Research excavations resumed in the region in 2005. Objects recovered from Guayabo and Las Mercedes continue to provide new insights into the lives and societies of the peoples who lived there.


For more details about the first peoples of Costa Rica, download the free exhibition catalogue. A short article on Minor Keith can be found on pages 72 and 73.

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens

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


Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.


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April 13, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Stone Spheres of Costa Rica

This Friday, April 18, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of the opening, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This third video takes a look at three archaeological sites—El Silenció, Finca Seis, and Batambal—all of which contain stone spheres made by peoples of what is now Costa Rica before AD 1500.

The video features Francisco Corrales, a member of the Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Costa Rica. The three sites he invites us to experience are within the Greater Chiriquí region of Central America, an area that is further explored within Cerámica de los Ancestros.

The sites are unique from one another in terrain. El Silenció houses the largest stone sphere recorded thus far, but years of pasture burns in the grasslands area have taken a toll on the stone's outer layers. In the low-lying river plain of Finca Seis, flooding buried the spheres under many layers of sediment, preserving the only original alignment found to date. Batambal rests high in the mountains, a strategic position for views of surrounding hills and the valleys below.

The reasons for the stones’ creation remain a mystery. Corrales explains that while spheres apparently marked locations with special significance where important events would have taken place, some may have had astronomical purposes as well. Anthropologists and archaeologists continue to survey the areas, and junior members of their fields do much of the cataloguing work, providing a unique learning environment in which to build the expertise of a new generation of scholars.


For more details about the first peoples of Costa Rica, download the free exhibition catalogue

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens

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

Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

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April 06, 2015

The Skábmagovat Film Festival: Indigenous Film above the Arctic Circle

Yoik singer, opening night
A yoik singer opens the Skábmagovat Film Festival. January 2015, Inari, Finland.

As a film programmer you become a seasoned festival-goer, immersed in the cultural landscape of film, new media, and the relationships you build with other filmmakers and film institutions around the world. The Film and Video Center of the National Museum of American Indian thrives on building those relationships, and my experiences with the Skábmagovat Film Festival are some of those unique cultural exchanges.

The village of Inari
The village of Inari, Finland, 2 degrees north of the Arctic Circle.

The Skábmagovat Film Festival is presented in Inari, Finland, a small village in Finnish Lapland just north of the Arctic Circle. The region is known for its sub-zero temperatures during the winter, spectacular Northern Lights, reindeer herding, and community of Sámi, the indigenous people of Scandinavia. The Sámi reside in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and parts of Russia and are the only indigenous people officially recognized in the European Union. They continue to preserve their language and culture in order to better provide for the livelihood of future generations.

The Skábmagovat Film Festival, which celebrated its 16th anniversary in January, is one of the premiere international Indigenous film festivals in the world. Each year the festival spotlights films from all indigenous regions, including First Nations, American Indians, Aboriginal Australia, Maori, and many others. This year the festival’s focus was on Latin America, and featured films came from Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. I was honored to be asked by Skábmagovat executive director Jorma Lehtola (Sámi) to help curate the Latin American indigenous section and serve as an invited speaker at this year’s film festival seminar.

Inari lake troutAs an invited delegate I had the pleasure of eating some traditional dishes, like reindeer and trout with a side of lingonberries, even eating a meal in a Sámi lavvu, a traditional tent or tipi. With other delegates, I had an opportunity to explore the wilderness by visiting a Sámi reindeer farm. Our reindeer adventure included a snowmobile journey over a frozen lake, sitting and observing wild reindeer, drinking coffee brewed over an open fire, and learning about the Sámi people’s nomadic traditions.

In the lavvu

The reindeer farm 

Coffee over an open fire
From top right to bottom: Inari lake trout with lignonberries and herbs, on china decorated with an antler motif. In the lavvu. The reindeer farm. Coffee brewed on an open fire.

I also explored the Sámi Museum Siida, the national museum of the Finnish Sámi people, which offers beautiful exhibitions and displays on Sámi history and culture and serves as an official venue for the film festival.

The most eye-opening experience was being in the Northern Lights Theatre, an open-air theater made completely of snow. Festival hosts lent me a snowsuit and boots, and I sat outside alongside other visitors to listen to festival introductions in Finnish, Sámi, and English and watch films under the moon and stars.

Sámi Museum Siida

Serious film lovers in the Northern Lights Theatre

%22My Legacy%22 on the ice screen at the Northern Lights Theatre
Top: An exhibition gallery at the Sámi Museum Siida, the Finnish national museum of the Sámi people. Photo courtesy of Siida. Middle: The audience seated on snow risers in the Northern Lights Theatre. Photo by Jeanette Paillán. Bottom: The film My Legacy on the big screen at the Northern Lights. 

Director Jeanette Paillan (left) and Cynthia Benitez at the reindeer farmThe film festival seminar was held in Solju, the Parliament Hall in the Sámi Cultural Centre Sajos. During my presentation, I discussed museum initiatives for film and video, ongoing film programs like Native Cinema Showcase, and a step-by-step tutorial on navigating the Film and Media Catalog on the museum’s website. I also listened to some inspiring stories from invited delegates, including Mapuche director Jeanette Paillán, the founding director of CLACPI (La Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Cine y Comunicación), Sámi filmmaker Marja Bål Nango, and Yakutian director Michail Lukachevskyi, on film techniques and resources available in indigenous communities

Other highlights? Watching a new shorts film collective made by young Sámi filmmakers and funded by the International Sámi Film Institute’s Sámi Film Lab, as well as attending the festival’s concerts, which featured performers from various musical genres, including rap, bluegrass and yoik, a traditional Sámi form of song. 

Sámi Film Collective in Sajos

Upper: Jeanette Paillán (Mapuche), the founding director of CLACPI (La Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Cine y Comunicación) and Cynthia Benitez at the reindeer farm. Lower: Young filmmakers supported by the Sámi Film Lab discuss their work.


The Skábmagovat Film Festival was an unbelievable experience for me both as a visitor and as a film enthusiast. The Sámi people were so gracious and kind as hosts that I felt like I was with family. By bringing people from all different backgrounds together in one small village in Finland, the festival gives voice to the power of how film to strengthen dialogue across on all indigenous communities. To say my journey was surreal is an understatement. It’s an experience that will remain with me forever.

—Cynthia Benitez, NMAI

Cynthia Benitez is the Film and Video programmer for the National Museum of American Indian in New York. Before joining the museum staff, she worked as a publicist for international film festivals and Native media organizations, including the American Indian Film Institute, Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum and World Competition, and the Native American Film and Video Festival. She is currently seeking her M.S. in Media Studies at Brooklyn College. 

Photographs not credited above are by Cynthia Benitez, NMAI

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