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Friday, February 26, 2016

One Hundred Years of Museum History

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Museum of the American Indian (MAI), the National Museum of the American Indians’s (NMAI) predecessor institution. 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, 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” [1]. The basis of the MAI’s collection was the the approximately 175,000 specimens already assembled by George Heye and informally referred to as the “Heye Museum.”

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.

Supper at “the Heye Museum,” 10 East 33rd Street, NYC, 1912. From left, seated: Mrs. Marie Heye (George Heye’s mother), Harmon Hendricks, Mrs. Thea Page (later Mrs. George Gustav Heye), and George Gustav Heye; standing: George Pepper, Theodoor De Booy, and Marshall H. Saville. (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 instead to create an institution for the serious anthropological study of the people of the Americas. In 1906, after Heye discussed 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 the collections 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 collection to their museum.

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

[1] 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

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