|George Heye laying the cornerstone of the Museum of The American Indian– Heye Foundation, November 8, 1916 (NMAI P11449)|
While MAI was officially founded in 1916, the seeds of the institution were planted over a decade earlier. George Heye had begun collecting Native American objects in 1897 but by 1904 he became serious about founding his own museum, devoting much of his time to acquiring large collections and cataloging them. He hired museum assistants, including staff from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), to work after hours to help clean and organize his collections.
|1905 time card for George Lentz, AMNH Museum Assistant, for his evening work for George Heye |
(NMAI.AC.001, Box 266.5)
Heye cultivated relationships with collectors, dealers, and institutions with Native American collections. He developed a vast network of ethnologists and archaeologists such as George Pepper (AMNH), Marshall Saville (Columbia University), Mark Raymond Harrington (a Columbia graduate), and archaeologist Theodoor de Booy, who conducted expeditions and collected material for Heye throughout the Americas.
In the decade following his first conversations about building a museum, Heye was able to generate support for his vision of a new anthropological institution in New York and create the MAI in 1916. In 1922, the museum building finally opened to the public at Audubon Terrace at 155th and Broadway in New York on a site donated by Archer Huntington.
|Mrs. Thea 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, purchasing from 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, most of which were acquired during George Heye’s lifetime.
If not for the vision and determination of George Heye and the MAI staff who followed in his footsteps, the National Museum of the American Indian would not exist in its present form nor would it contain the impressive collections NMAI is known for. This year we celebrate the founding of the Museum of the American Indian and the many collectors and individuals involved in buildings its collections. As part of our centenary celebration, this month the NMAI Archive Center will add the newly digitized George Heye records and correspondence to the SOVA. See an earlier blog for more information about using the SOVA and check back here and on the NMAI blog for more information about the museum’s history and the people associated with it!
-Maria Galban, Museum Specialist, NMAI Collections Research and Documentation
 MAI Foundation Deed, 1916. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation Records, Box 153, Folder 3. NMAI Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.
This post also appears on the National Museum of the American Indian Blog