Thursday, September 16, 2010
George Gustav Heye, the founder and first director of the Museum of the American Indian, was born on September 16, 1874. The collection he built - over 225,000 objects made by indigenous people from every major cultural area of the Western Hemisphere - forms the heart of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).
Heye began collecting Native American material culture in 1897 when he bought a hide shirt from a Navajo woman in Arizona, near a railroad construction site where he was working. By 1906 his collection numbered over 10,000 objects. Heye was not satisfied with passively buying objects from galleries and dealers. He sponsored field researchers, including Mark Raymond Harrington and George Hubbard Pepper, and frequently traveled and collected objects himself. He developed a sense of connoisseurship and sought out the highest quality examples he could find. In 1916, Heye founded the Museum of the American Indian where, as this video clip shows, he worked daily, hand-numbering and cataloging each new accession himself.
It is fascinating to reflect on how much has changed since George Gustav Heye founded the Museum of the American Indian. In his time, many viewed it as imperative to collect evidence of Native Americans’ traditions because they were “a dying people.” As we well know, Native Americans and their traditions are very much alive today, and the daily programming at NMAI is evidence of how they have thrived and grown in the past hundred years. Heye envisioned the audience for his collection to be white, scholarly researchers. Today, the museum’s collection is heavily used by Native communities, tradition bearers, scholarly researchers, and the public at large.
And to say the least, the care and handling of museum collections has changed a lot! For instance, we don't smoke cigars in the object processing room any more. (For more information about how we take care of our collections, please check out our Conservation Department.)
For more information about the George Gustav Heye and the Museum of the American Indian, please take a look at the history page on the NMAI website.