George Gustav Heye and the National Museum of the American Indian – Collecting the Collector

Andrea Zittlau

On September 21, 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened its doors to the public on the Mall, the national museum mile, in Washington, D.C. The impressive four level building, designed by Douglas Cardinal (Blackfoot), is home to three permanent exhibitions, one changing exhibition, a café that serves 'native foods,' performance halls, movie installations, a research center, and souvenir shops. Seemingly a museum of ethnology, it reaches beyond being "a palace of objects" (Cobb 520). Instead, it aims to unite different genres in the museum world such as art, ethnology and history. The mission statement promises a new approach to the exhibition of indigenous cultures.1 The museum seeks to surpass a focus on archaeological objects with limited label description. It rather tries to employ a 'native voice' that has been absent in most cases so far to contextualize artefacts from a different perspective. Furthermore, it emphasizes contemporary life and culture of the American Indian to contradict the stereotype of the 'vanished race,' which is often supported by the exhibition of archaeological artefacts. Museums of Natural History such as the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, often romanticize Native Americans, frequently portraying an imagined community of the nineteenth century (in this case next to the section about primates).

Renewals have long been overdue in the museum world, but it rather surprises that the NMAI undertakes them, since the history of that institution is interwoven with the traditional picture of conservative nineteenth century collecting and its collector George Gustav Heye. This article offers a close reading of the representation of him in the exhibition. As such, only a glimpse of the museum will be explored: the part dealing with its own history. It is not understood to be representative of the whole museum concept; on the contrary, Heye's wing is interesting because the museum leaves its otherwise innovative exhibition concepts to go back to its origins, thematically and representation-wise. Among all the collectors of Native American artefacts in the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, George Gustav Heye was surely the most successful one, concerning the number of artefacts he amassed, and the last of his kind, concerning the period of time he began to collect – the early twentieth century when collectors' interest rather turned to other cultures that were perceived as 'exotic,' especially on the art market.

Born in 1874 to Carl Gustav Friedrich Heye, a German immigrant who had made his fortune in the oil business, and Marie Antoinette Lawrence, George grew up in an extremely wealthy environment (cf. Carpenter 2005: 15). In 1897 the young Heye received a degree of Electrical Engineering and was sent to Kingman (Arizona) as assistant superintendent, where he worked with Navajo Indians. His obsession is rooted in this very location, when he, in his own words, was bitten by the "collecting bug":

One night I noticed the wife of one of my Indian foremen biting on what seemed to be a piece of skin. Upon inquiry I found she was chewing the seams of her husband's deerskin shirt in order to kill the lice. I bought the shirt. […] It was the start of my collection. Naturally when I had a shirt, I wanted a rattle and moccasins. And then the collecting bug seized me and I was lost. (Mason qtd. in Carpenter, "Three Chapters" 1)

By the end of his lifetime in 1957, Heye had acquired between 700,000 and close to one million artefacts (depending on the source). His interest included North, Central and South America where he sponsored several expeditions (cf. Kidwell 236). Heye himself also took an active part in excavations, among them illegal digs in ancient cemeteries in Vermont and New Jersey between 1912 and 1915. The latter caught the attention of a local politician who charged grave-robbing 'for mere wantonness.' Heye was fined US $ 100, other members of his crew US $ 10 each. Later the sentence was reversed since Heye "violated the laws of decency and morality" but not out of mere wantonness (Carpenter, "Three Chapters" 3). This example illustrates Heye's approach to the desired objects as well as his lack of respect for their culture of origin, though cemeteries were still a popular excavation site in the early twentieth century.

By 1906 the collection had grown to such an extent it became necessary to rent a room which soon proved inadequate and led to the rental of the whole second floor at 10 East 33rd Street, Manhattan, later including the third floor to store the collection (cf. Carpenter, "Three Chapters" 3). This was the first "Heye Museum" open to a chosen public by appointment only. And, in fact, it was a typical approach to present a private collection at the time. After the death of his mother Marie Antoinette Lawrence in 1915, Heye was heir to several million dollars he could invest freely in his rapidly growing collection. One year before, Heye had withdrawn entirely from his banking firm to donate all possible time to his collection (cf. Kidwell 240). Consequently, in 1916 he established the Heye Foundation and the Museum of the American Indian (MAI) in 155th Broadway upper Manhattan, New York City, which was at that time an elegant neighborhood. Due to the First World War, the opening was delayed until 1922, since the Geographical Society occupied two floors of the building to make maps for the Navy (cf. Kidwell 244).

The museum was not very popular due to unfriendly opening hours and later the environment changed into a low rent area. After Heye's death in 1957, the budget declined significantly and preservation efforts became increasingly difficult. In the 1970s the bad conditions of the collection were alarming. Ten years later negotiations between the MAI and the Smithsonian Institution began. In 1989, George Bush signed public law 101-185 that established the NMAI as part of the Smithsonian Institution,2 which led to the present day museum that finally opened in 2004 (referring to the Mall facility).3

Given the intimate connection to the G. G. Heye collection, the NMAI honors its founder in a special wing which is part of the permanent exhibition called "Our Peoples" that approaches indigenous cultures historically. Each permanent exhibition is divided into a general part and eight community galleries that have been created by community curators and represent thematic issues (religion, land struggle etc.) from their point of view. George Gustav Heye is part of the general exhibition although the display devoted to him is situated at the beginning of the community galleries. The visitor passes big capital letters that announce 'Evidence' and a section about diseases from the New World, before he/she encounters the founder of the museum who shares his space with George Catlin of whom selected paintings are exhibited. Heye is portrayed in a showcase filled with personal objects and labels that inform about his personality:

He was rich and his wealth allowed him to pursue his interests on a grand scale. He loved cigars, expensive restaurant, opening nights on Broadway, and fast cars. More than anything else, he loved the things Indian people made. (Museum Label)

Reduction and simplification on museum labels seem inevitable, geared as they are to arousing interest rather than elaborating on a given topic. However, the information given here reduces George G. Heye to a wealthy, luxurious man who "loved" Indian objects, an ambiguous estimate of Heye's personality which wrongly suggests that Heye actually appreciated the objects in their cultural contexts. His contemporaries had a different impression: "Mr. Heye, who was 84 when he died in 1957, left us little else to remember him except a faded New Yorker magazine article, written in 1960. It quotes an unnamed anthropologist saying that Mr. Heye 'didn't give a hang about Indians individually'" (Fialka 8). Heye's approach stood in open contrast to professional anthropological methods of the time, as his arguments with Franz Boas, the founder of American cultural anthropology, confirm. Boas was at the time head of the anthropology department at Columbia University. He did not focus on collecting but was interested in ethnographic work on languages and mythology. Lacking sufficient financial support, he began to sell parts of his personal collection. Heye bought selected objects and supported the education of young anthropologists by paying their salary. But when Boas realized that Heye planned to open his own museum he strongly objected since Heye could not meet his scientific expectations (cf. Kidwell 241 ff.). Boas' effort to integrate Heye's collection in the AMNH failed.

Heye's obsession with the object as such led him to collect and possess as many 'things' as possible, a trait which Carpenter (2005) and Kidwell (1999) identify as the most significant drive for his extravagant hobby. This is often ascribed to his father's fascination with clocks that filled the Heye home, synchronized on the second. After Carl Heye's death his son replaced them all by Navajo pots (cf. Carpenter, Two Essays 15). Sue Kidwell speculates about a connection between Heye's collecting of Native American artefacts and the German heritage of George's father that might have exposed him to Karl May's novels. These adventurous stories in turn could have triggered an interest in those objects (cf. Kidwell 233). But there is no proof whatsoever that any member of the Heye family owned the novels or read them.

An introductory text to the Heye and Catlin wing, with the promising title "The Making of History" introduces another motive:

Collections like Heye's and Catlin's are the stuff of Native history and what they created continues to shape popular thinking about Native people into the 21st century. Both cared deeply about preserving Indian culture but believed that Indians were not likely to survive. Heye and Catlin sought to record and collect all they could before Native people disappeared. (Museum Label)

Heye collected in the tradition of 'salvage anthropology' as the label suggests. In fact, the majority of collections established at the time were founded on the idea of Native Americans as a 'vanishing race.' The label also implies a deep concern about preserving indigenous culture, not only the artefact, which contradicts Heye's collecting attitude: Most objects were taken out of a context necessary to maintain a complete cultural picture. Objects cannot replace the story around them. When offered by an elderly Osage man to teach rituals connected to bundles and other possessions he was prepared to donate to the museum, Heye refused. Instead he supported the excavations of archaeologists in ancient cave sites. Another time a Potawatomie medicine man came from Kansas to offer his knowledge and his 'prescription sticks' that included all symbols for the herbs used against various diseases. Heye blocked the effort, blaming it on a lack of time (cf. Kidwell 251). These two examples illustrate Heye's interest in the young field of anthropology. But they also show an ignorance towards Native American support and cultural background, which contradicts the label's message. In fact, Heye never chose to embed the artefacts in their specific context; he reduced them to pieces of material culture only. Lacking the knowledge to catalog them correctly, most references are lost today. Though Heye numbered every specimen carefully, he was often superficial and incorrect with naming community and origin of the individual piece (cf. Carpenter"Three Chapters" 5). Kidwell contradicts here and states that Heye "catalogued virtually every object in the collection, and despite his critics, he was concerned with accuracy in describing provenance" (Kidwell 252). But until today the collection has not been fully cataloged and the identification of many objects remains an obscure mission. Although provenance is mentioned, the data is often incorrect due to Heye's lack of knowledge and interest. Museum specialists have difficulties in detecting the pieces.

Heye was not selective in choosing his objects. An associate describes him the following way:

At a reservation, the ordinary cultivated collector will select nothing but the tribe's best Sunday-go-to-meeting things while the everyday scientist will spend his money frugally on a few highly significant objects. But George would be fretful and hard to live with until he'd bought every last dirty dishcloth and discarded shirt and shipped them back to New York […]. (Kevin Wallace qtd. in Kidwell 250)

By the "ordinary cultivated collector" Wallace probably generalizes economically privileged personalities like Rudolf F. Haffenreffer or Phoebe Hearst whose interests also extended to Native American objects. Their focus was on aesthetic value whereas Heye also included what might seem to be banal objects, an almost postmodern approach to archiving. This way also artefacts of every day use were preserved for today, which is of particular interest to scholars of Native American history and culture.

The same method of randomly chosen artefacts can be applied to the Heye showcase at the NMAI. Under glass several personal objects can be admired. Among them:

  • a surveyor's transit that was used by Heye during archaeological field work
  • the keys to the Heye family mausoleum (1930s)
  • vials of soil from the groundbreaking of the Heye Museum New York (1916)
  • Heye's pen knife and fountain pen (ca. 1925)
  • a cigar stump found in his office after his death
  • a photo of the board of trustees of the museum in 1905
  • Heye's document cases (ca. 1915)
  • a medal presented to him by the Explorer's club (1914)
  • his identification badge (1925)

Furthermore, we find a number of instruments Heye used to weigh, measure and access his collection as for example a typewriter, a balance scale and other accessories. Only few of these objects are related to the museum or its establishment, fewer even to the collection or its preservation, none to Native Americans. Indeed, in my interpretation, almost everything exhibited here is directly linked to the person George Gustav Heye. Whereas the medal presented to him by the Explorer's Club and his identification badge illustrate part of his career, the cigar stump and his pen knife and fountain pen remain objects without further reference. They are arranged close to each other, seemingly matching only by shape.

On the one hand, this reflects Heye's methods of collecting and classifying. On the other hand, the glass case becomes surreal or rather antiquated recalling the medieval cabinets of curiosities (Wunderkammern), in which everything perceived to be exotic was shown. Here, the artefacts were arranged by their collector mainly according to personal aesthetic likings or abstract categories as for example their shape. Sometimes these cabinets also had an educational approach (as the orphanage of the Franckesche Stiftungen in Germany) and then arranged the objects accordingly. The NMAI showcase is definitely reminiscent of those very early exhibition techniques and furthermore develops a cult here, the cult of the collector. Heye is celebrated in the form of relics, small and meaningless but touched by him and therefore authentic and worthy of exhibition, resembling other almost ancient techniques of exhibition and honoring the holy that blesses a place. Heye becomes the collected himself, exhibited through artefacts he himself would have acquired, but he also clearly achieves the status of the mighty patron watching over the museum.

Although Heye's dubious collecting methods and ideas are not completely ignored, he is only discussed in a positive way. His illegal activities (grave robbing), half-legal buyings from other collections and fanatic intentions (to possess as many artefacts as possible), but most of all his ignorance towards the peoples he collected from are nowhere mentioned in the NMAI. Instead, the unquestionable benefits of his collection are stressed:

Some Indians saw Mr. Heye as an imperious man who didn't always knew what he was doing. In 1938 leaders of the Gros Ventres tribe from North Dakota came to New York to get back the tribe's "Sacred Bundle," sold to Mr. Heye by mistake. Mr. Heye welcomed them as Sioux, the tribe's ancient enemy. Surrounded by hired anthropologists who called him "chief," Mr. Heye wheedled a sacred buffalo horn from them in return. The Gros Ventres wanted the Sacred Bundle to make rain in their drought-stricken reservation. The rains came the following spring. From Ms. Harjo's point of view, Mr. Heye is still making rain for their tribes. 'He was one of the quirks of history that made a lot of these beautiful things survive.' (Fialka 8)

This again reflects the dilemma of the two sides, the collection and the collector. The same approach can be found in the musem:

Our contemporary sensibilities may not be entirely comfortable with an individual who appropriated, on a massive scale, the evidence of cultures not his. Some may even see in Heye's actions a bloodless re-enactment of earlier great wrongs. And yet, in his unstoppable course, Heye saved an irreplaceable living record that might otherwise have gone to oblivion. Out of his acquisitive passion has come a legacy of inestimable worth, to heirs on whom he never reckoned. Had he been someone other than he was, he would have left us all poor. (Museum Label)

Only two percent of the collection is exhibited, which is not unusual in comparison to other museums. The rest remains in storage in Suitland, Maryland, open to the public by appointment only from Monday until Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Eating facilities are rather far away from the Suitland facility, encouraging visitors to dine before or after their research (as taken from the web page of the Collecting and research Center: cf. http://www.nmai.si.edu 08/07). This seems a facility in Heye's understanding of a museum and resembles the very first institution he created, in the sense of restricting visits. But whereas one might only speculate concerning Heye's reasons for leading the collection the way he did, the NMAI tries to treat the material in culturally sensitive ways exploring new strategies on the museum market. Certain objects can only be viewed by certain people and other objects can only be stored in specific ways, being kept away from the public eye.

Most community curators of the NMAI declined the inclusion of Heye-objects into their galleries and offered newly made artefacts to the museum instead. This has the desirable effect of stressing contemporary lives and the continuance of cultures, but also reduces the possibilities of showing the rich collection, or contrasting the old and the new. In this context it is worth looking at the very first mission statement of Heye's museum. There, the "preservation of everything pertaining to our American tribes" (George Pepper qtd. in Kidwell 245) was the main aim, still true for the collection today, although the personal pronoun might have shifted in use. The museum wanted to assure that "the History of our primitive races may receive the attention that it deserves and that the proper facilities for the study of American anthropology may be presented to the scientist and the general student in the proper way." (George Pepper qtd. in Kidwell 245).

Terms and ideas have changed, but the problem of representing the collector and his collection at the same time in a context of cultures remains unsolved, even unnoticed. The NMAI senses this weakness. Next to the Heye Wing, between Catlin's paintings, there runs a video, honoring Heye and Catlin again for their preservation activities, appreciating the material ready to be studied today. It closes with a serious invitation to the visitor to question the museum and its exhibition: "Here we have done as others have done – turned events into history. So view what's offered with respect, but also skepticism. Explore this gallery. Encounter it. Reflect on it. Argue with it" (Museum Label). A challenge for those willing to read between the lines.


1 "The National Museum of the American Indian shall recognize and affirm to Native communities and the non-native public the historical and contemporary culture and cultural achievements of the Native of the Western Hemisphere by advancing, in consultation, collaboration and cooperation with Natives, knowledge and understanding of Native cultures, including art, history, and language, and by recognizing the Museum's special responsibility, through innovative public programming, research, and collections, to protect, support, and enhance the development, maintenance, and perpetuation of Native culture and community." (Smithsonian Institution Office of Design and Construction 1991)

2 When the British scientist James Smithson died in 1829, he left his money to his nephew Henry James Hungerford. In the case that the latter died without heir, Smithson requested in his will that his estate go to the United States "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Congress accepted the legacy in 1836 under president Andrew Jackson and established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust in 1846 to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian (present secretary is Lawrence M. Small). It is functionally and legally a body of the federal government.
James Smithson's motives remain a mystery to this day, since he had never travelled to the United States in his lifetime and seems to have had no connections whatsoever.

3 In 2004, the museum at the Mall opened. There are two more facilities united under the name of NMAI: the George Gustav Heye Center New York that opened in 1994, to not completely remove the collection and the museum idea from its home location New York City, and the collecting and research house in Maryland, Suitland, that opened in 1999 (cf. www.nmai.si.edu 08/07).

Works Cited

Carpenter, Edmund. Two Essays: Chief & Greed. North Andover: Persimmon P, 2005.

Carpenter, Edmund. "Three Chapters From an Unfinished, Two Volume Study of George Heye's Museum of the American Indian." European Review of Native American Studies 15.1 (2001): 1-12.

Cobb, Amanda. "Interview with W. Richard West, Director, National Museum of the American Indian." American Indian Quarterly. 29.3/4 (2005): 517-38.

Fialka, John J. "George Gustav Heye: Rainmaker for the Indians." Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition) 21 Sept. 2004: 8.

Kidwell, Clara Sue. "Every Last Dishcloth: The Prodigious Collecting of George Gustav Heye.” Collecting Native America 1870-1960. Ed. Shephard III Krech and Barbara A. Hail. Washington: Smithsonian Institution P, 1999: 232-58.

Museum Labels from the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C. written by Paul Chaat Smith and AnnMcMullen for the NMAI in 2003.

Smithsonian Institution Office of Design and Construction. "The Way of the People: National Museum of the American Indian." Master Facilities Programming. Revised Draft Report. November 1991. Unpublished.

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