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  • A New Thing?The NMAIin Historical and Institutional Perspective
  • Ira Jacknis (bio)

In 1916 George Gustav Heye (1874–1957), a wealthy engineer and financier, founded the Museum of the American Indian in New York City. According to one curator, Heye "managed over some sixty years to acquire the largest assemblage of Indian objects ever collected by a single person, . . . now including more than 800,000 objects."1 Heye served as director of the museum, which opened to the public in 1922, until 1956. In 1989, after several decades of financial problems and declining attendance, the Heye collections were transferred to the Smithsonian Institution, where they became the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).2 The original buildings in upper Manhattan and the Bronx have now been replaced with three structures: the George G. Heye Center, which opened in lower Manhattan in 1994; the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, which was completed in 1998 and fully opened in 2003; and the main exhibit building on the Mall in Washington DC, which opened in September 2004.

As my title suggests, my basic question is to what extent is and was the (National) Museum of the American Indian unique or different or new? In order to answer this question, we must compare the institution to other collections of Native American objects. Museums, however, come in many varieties of size, subject, and mission, and they change and evolve over time. They also have multiple functions. Among the primary aspects considered here are collection, exhibition, and education/outreach. In this essay, I will attempt to place the Museum of the American Indian in varying disciplinal (anthropology, art, history) and geographic (city, region, nation) contexts.

Naturally, this vast undertaking would require many more pages than [End Page 511] I have here, so my approach will be to sketch out the "big picture," composed of broad strokes instead of fine detail.3 Although I consider the basics of Heye's life and subsequent history of the Museum of the American Indian, this essay is meant to relate Heye and the MAI to a larger historical context.4 Taking Heye as our reference point, we can divide the history of the Museum of the American Indian into three periods: the time under Heye, the period after Heye's death, and the present, as the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian.

Native American Collections Before Heye

When Heye began his museum, Native American objects had already been the subject of four centuries of collecting.5 During the first, extended period, from European exploration through the Civil War, collecting was both governmental and personal, and the principal agents were explorers, scientists, and merchants. Given the colonial situation, the very earliest collections are in Europe. One of the earliest American endeavors was the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–6, the first of many national reconnaissance surveys. The objects obtained on the trip went to President Jefferson and to Charles Willson Peale, whose Philadelphia museum served as an unofficial national repository. Like many museums before the Civil War, Peale's was a commercial operation, devoted to entertainment. Another institutional model were the many collections of local amateur societies, devoted to history or natural science. For example, the Peabody Museum, founded in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1799 as a maritime society, has significant Native American collections, especially from the Northwest Coast.6

Although the national collections at the Smithsonian were founded in 1846, it took at least until the Centennial of 1876 until it had accumulated significant American Indian artifacts.7 At the Institution, Native American cultures became the concern of the research Bureau of American Ethnology in 1879, assisted by the related U.S. National Museum, opened in 1881. Soon, the primary venue for Native American collections would become the great municipal natural history museums, most notably New York's American Museum of Natural History, founded in 1869, and Chicago's Field Museum, founded in 1893.

It was also about this time that anthropology became a specialized scholarly profession, in Europe as well as in America. Among the earliest [End Page 512] homes for the discipline were the university museums of anthropology. Founded in 1866, the...


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