100 Years And Counting: Reflections About A Collection, A Collector And The Museum Of The American Indian (Before There Was An NMAI)
MAN founder George Gustav Heye
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When I moved to New York City from Phoenix in 1975, little did I know how extensive the local American Indian collections were – awaiting my discovery – at the Museum of the American Indian (MAI), American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and the Brooklyn Museum. What an enriching experience it was for me to visit these major museums and see objects from their treasured collections.

On first impression, what especially struck me visiting MAI was seeing so many cases in the galleries jam-packed with Native objects. These cases were organized by language group and geography, or by clustering similar objects, such as beadwork, baskets and silverwork. Though the cases were crowded and the interpreting information was minimal, it was clear to me that these remarkable objects on view were historically significant. Most were visually stunning.

And while I had much appreciation for seeing Indian-made material from all over, I certainly didn’t fully appreciate the breadth and depth of the items on display at the MAI, at the core of which was the massive collection of George Gustav Heye, nor had I realized how much of the collection was in offsite storage somewhere, nor was I aware of the operational complexities of caring for one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of American Indian cultural material. And I certainly had no clue whatsoever who this man Heye was. Over the years, I heard colleagues who work in museums, as well as Native friends express both glowing appreciation and deep concerns – and sometimes outrage – about the MAI.

Little did I know back then how my perspective and worldview about Native arts, cultures and collections in general – and about Native American museums in particular – would change so appreciably based on having the opportunity to work at the National Museum of the American Indian (the Museum, for short) these last two decades. Little did I realize the extent of what I would learn both from my professional colleagues at the Museum and the esteemed group of Native and non-Native scholars, educators and community and civic leaders who worked tirelessly with imagination and passion to ensure that this collection would find a permanent home at the Smithsonian. I am honored and humbled to offer my reflections with respect for these founding leaders, as well as the Museum staff, supporters and Trustees of today, who care for and honor the Museum’s collections on a daily basis. 

Our Present Purpose And Complex Legacy

The Museum is now celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, on May 10, 1916. MAI’s founder George Gustav Heye (1874–1957) was a fascinating, passionate and intellectually curious (some would say obsessed) collector who over his lifetime amassed what is regarded as the most comprehensive and important American Indian collection in the world, hemispheric in scope, with cultural materials from hundreds of tribal communities. Heye’s collection is also the largest such collection ever compiled by one person. Upon Heye’s death in 1957, MAI staff member, archaeologist, and curator of Harvard’s Peabody Museum Samuel Kirkland Lothrop wrote in the obituary in American Antiquity that, “his museum was his monument.”

This centenary year affords the opportunity for all of us involved with the Museum to honor Heye’s significant contributions. On the one hand, Heye has been criticized for having taken objects from the Indians, and on the other, his collection has become a primary source of information about Indian cultures and histories. This also is a time to reflect on lessons learned over the years about MAI’s complex institutional history. MAI certainly had its share of challenges, most especially in caring for this world-renowned collection, coupled with tremendous operational and financial hurdles over the decades.

As most readers of American Indian magazine know, the collection of the MAI was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1989 under the care of a newly established National Museum of the American Indian, more than 30 years after Heye’s death. With regards to the MAI collection, the new Museum was grounded in a belief that Indians are necessary to understanding, interpreting, managing, conserving and exhibiting this unique collection of art and artifacts made by Indian people. The legislation calls for the Museum to serve Indian communities with educational and cultural programs and with repatriation of human remains and funerary objects that would be returned to the tribes. The focus shifted from the cultural past to the cultural present and future as the Museum emerged as a hemispheric institution of living cultures.

Admittedly, there were ups and downs in the nearly three-quarter century from MAI’s founding in 1916 to the Museum’s establishment in 1989, and the approaches to interpreting and displaying the collection at MAI and the Museum remain in sharp contrast. Though there certainly has been a fair amount of criticism of Heye, there is no argument that his deep commitment to collecting throughout his professional life until his death in 1957 is a profoundly important legacy, without which the Museum that we know today would not have been possible. As Delaware elder Linda Poolaw stated, had Heye not collected these things back then, we would not have them today. And, as Musuem curator Ann McMullen articulates in her essay “Reinventing George Heye,” he “was – like anyone – a man of his time.” His story is “more complex and more honorable than how it has been told.” Having this collection under the Museum’s stewardship certainly increases the opportunities for Native people to see what their ancestors made, not only in public exhibitions, but also through being welcomed by the Museum to visit their collections.

The Museum has put into focus the broader questions regarding the role Native peoples would play and the authority they would have – questions arguably informed by the work of Heye and the MAI. 

George Gustav Heye

Born Sept. 16, 1874, George Gustav Heye came from a family that made a fortune with the Standard Oil Company. With significant inherited wealth and social privilege, he was in a position to choose a career devoted to building a significant collection that led to the establishment of a very special museum. As a 23-year-old in 1897, Heye bought a Navajo man’s deerskin shirt while working as an assistant to an engineer on a railroad construction project near Kingman, Ariz. This marked the beginning of his collecting. It was also the first time in his life that he met and worked alongside American Indian people, including some of the railroad construction workers on his project. These early experiences launched what became his life’s work and passion.

Shortly thereafter, he was accumulating Native-made objects and sending them back to his home on East 48th Street in Manhattan. He also started reading extensively about Indians, and wherever he travelled for work, he was on the lookout for objects to add to his collection. In those first years of collecting, he mostly obtained individual objects but, in 1903, he started purchasing larger collections, including major pottery collections excavated from the Tularosa Canyon in New Mexico and the San Juan region of Arizona.

Over the years, he bought extensively from collectors, hired specialists to organize collecting expeditions and subsidized excavations at ancestral Native sites, all under the auspices of not just a personal collection, but what would become the MAI, a functioning museum in its own right. Heye was once labeled a “boxcar collector,” both because of the great volume of material he and his staff collected from so many Native communities and also because of his interest in collecting everything from the most utilitarian and ordinary objects to the most spectacular and treasured Native-made items that came his way.

Heye both underwrote and participated in expeditions, working with prominent ethnologists, archeologists and museum professionals from the AMNH and his alma mater Columbia University. Through his work with professional colleagues, his collecting became far more systematic, and though his work wouldn’t come close to the professional practices in place today, he was mindful of the importance of preserving and documenting his collection. He had a very hands-on approach to his work. He personally assigned catalogue numbers to the entire collection and had excellent recall about most objects in it.

 From 1904 to 1908, he kept his collection in his New York apartments on Madison Avenue, then in a rented room on Fifth Avenue and 39th Street, and later in a loft building at 10 East 33rd St. There simply wasn’t sufficient room at home for this ever-growing collection. Heye struck an agreement with the museum at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia by 1908, and in 1910 three exhibit galleries opened to the public. This arrangement lasted until 1917, when the MAI collections were moved to the newly constructed Audubon Terrace. This landmarked cultural complex of early-20th century Beaux Arts buildings was located in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan between West 155th Street and West 156th Street and Broadway, where John James Audubon’s farm had been located. World War I delayed the opening of the museum itself until 1922.

With enormous inherited and investment wealth already at age 40, in 1914 Heye gave up his Wall Street career to focus entirely on building his American Indian collection. By the time the MAI was established, Heye’s collection had grown substantially to nearly 60,000 objects. In his dual roles as chairman of the board and museum director, Heye not only provided an endowment to support the museum, but was also able to attract a prominent group of wealthy friends to serve as trustees. Although he donated his entire collection to the Heye Foundation, he maintained tight control over it, stipulating that he and only he might appoint the trustees. The MAI flourished in its fieldwork, research, publications and collecting in those years just prior to the financial crash and the Depression. For many years, Heye enhanced the collection during trips to Europe, where he purchased collections at auction and from dealers in several cities, including London and Paris.

In the two years preceding the establishment of MIA, 1914 and 1915, Heye oversaw excavations of a Munsee-Delaware cemetery in Sussex County, N.J. and the Nacoochee Mound in White County, Ga. (where incidentally, Heye and Thea Kowne Page spent their honeymoon after having been married in Atlanta). Similarly, Heye displayed his keen interest in fieldwork when he enlisted the support of an MAI trustee, copper magnate Harmon W. Hendricks, to underwrite the excavation of Hawikku, an ancestral village in New Mexico, where the Zuni first made contact with Europeans. This excavation, conducted from 1917 through 1923 uncovered about 25,000 artifacts, including human remains, and up until this time, was one of the most extensive archaeological investigations in the United States. During this excavation, MAI also sponsored filmmaking, including eleven films of the Zuni of New Mexico.

Shortly after the MAI opened, it ran out of room onsite to house this ever-expanding collection. Coming to the rescue, Heye’s wealthy colleague Arthur Milton Huntington donated a six-acre private park site on Bruckner Boulevard in the Pelham Bay neighborhood in the Bronx as a site for desperately needed storage. MAI’s Research Branch, or as it was informally called, the “Bronx Annex,” opened in 1926. Huntington also paid for the expansion of the Huntington Free Library and Reading Room nearby as a new home for the Heye Foundation library. When the Research Branch first opened, it was a first-rate facility. However, as the collection continued to grow and resources to care for it proved inadequate, the lack of storage space reached a critical point, as did the environmental challenges for properly caring for the collection. Still, it was viewed as one of the most, if not the most, valued primary repositories for American Indian archaeological and ethnological materials anywhere. 

The Museum In Hard Times

Although Heye both provided and raised significant amounts of money for MAI’s work, the costs of operating and maintaining this high level of collecting, research and fieldwork were beyond the museum’s capacities. Heye was forced to make considerable reductions following the stock market crash and the Depression, even curtailing his own personal expenses in order to keep the MAI open. These leaner days continued through the mid-1930s. Although Heye was not able to support a scientific staff (all of the anthropologists and researchers were dismissed), and research and publications were curtailed, he pursued private collections that came to the market during these years.

In 1956, a year before Heye’s death, the MAI began a renovation project to upgrade the case work in the galleries, thus improving how collection objects were exhibited, and to address how museum visitors, including school children, were served. Although Heye suffered a series of strokes, he nonetheless continued to serve as MAI’s board chair and director until his death. MAI’s assistant director Edwin K. Burnett was promoted to director in 1955 during Heye’s illness, and served after his death until 1960. Frederick J. Dockstader, an art historian, became assistant director in 1955. He succeeded Burnett as director until 1975.

Following the trend set by Heye, Dockstader added works to the collection, changed its exhibitions and published books about the collection. At the same time, however, MAI and Dockstader were under investigation by New York Attorney General Louis J. Lefkowitz and Assistant Attorney General Joel Cooper for allegations concerning the deaccessioning of items and collection sales. Given the gravity of these charges, which came at a time of other tremendous challenges in operations, finances and collection care, the MAI’s reputation was in decline within the museum field. Dockstader was removed, and the trustees were replaced. The MAI was placed in receivership (under the City and State) for a time.

Following Dockstader, Roland Force, who came from the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, became MAI’s director at a time when the museum necessarily had to deal with court-ordered collection inventories, continued financial stress and the obligation to figure out how to address these dreary circumstances. MAI somehow managed to direct its attention to programmatic developments, including the increasing of public programming, the establishing of a Native American Film and Video Festival and work with contemporary Native artists and communities.

Only a few years earlier in 1965, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee activist Suzan Shown Harjo and her mother visited the MAI. She recalls having seen a mummy and shrunken heads and False Face masks with medicine bags. Such encounters at MAI strengthened her resolve to advocate for another kind of museum, a responsibility she shared with her fellow Museum founding trustees, many of whom had similar experiences. When she was appointed as President Carter’s liaison to implement the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, Harjo’s position was that museum and other collectors must stop robbing Indian graves, displaying and experimenting on our dead relatives, lying about us and mocking our ways.

When Harjo was executive director for the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in the 1980s, she and other Native leaders dealt with the Smithsonian through its Secretary Robert McCormick Adams about the care, treatment, exhibition and repatriation of Native material. Shortly after the NCAI began its work with the Smithsonian on these issues, the MAI started its conversations about becoming part of the Smithsonian.

During this period, MAI had a remarkable and inspiring board chair in Julie Johnson Kidd, who personally provided significant support to keep the museum afloat. It was a very difficult and demanding period. Funders at the time were hesitant to support a museum with such a bad track record. And yet, the collection was remarkable and the MAI continued to produce some excellent public and educational programs, film festivals and exhibitions.

Several major museums and city and civic leaders in various parts of the U.S. were vying for the collection. The wealthy Texan H. Ross Perot offered significant financial support and proposed establishing a new, world-class museum in Dallas. Within the Smithsonian, the NMNH was considered as a home for the collection. No one stepped up to the plate financially, however, and MAI’s finances were nearly gone. The Democratic Senator and respected veteran from Hawaii, Daniel K. Inouye, after having visited the Research Branch and witnessing the bad state of the collections, introduced legislation to create the current Museum. From the view of the New Yorkers, it was essential to establish a permanent museum in New York as part of these politically complicated negotiations.

The Smithsonian itself played a significant role in the story of the NMAI. Its NMNH opened its doors in early 1910, with capital support provided by a Congressional appropriation of 1903. The nation’s two most prominent natural history museums – AMNH in New York and the NMNH in D.C. – played key roles in housing specimens and material culture. Though this matter is far more complex and nuanced, and beyond the scope of this article, in a general sense, natural history museums came to represent the cultural perspective of the “outsider looking in,” whereas the Museum turned things around with its focus on Native and non-Native collaboration and repatriation.

The particular creation story of the National Museum of the American Indian, and its emergence from Heye and his collection, and from the MAI and its Bronx Annex, has become one of survival and transformation. Now that it has reached 100, all of us involved with the Museum have much to celebrate and lots more work to do moving forward.

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