American Indian Art and Artifacts

July 23, 2000

Source: The New York Times

On July 23, 2000, The New York Times published an article about the restoration and relocation of more than 800,000 "objects and artifacts that comprise the bulk of the one million items in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian...The move is the last stage of the federal takeover of what was once an independent New York museum, founded by Gustave Heye, a financier. Mr. Heye spent his life acquiring as many Indian items as he could, and single-handedly amassed most of the collection." Heye opened the Museum of the American Indian in 1922, although it was far away from other tourist destinations and received few visitors. After Heye died in the 1957, the museum fell into disrepair. In 1989 the Heye Foundation "agreed to create a permanent home for the collection on the Mall in Washington, and to open a satellite museum at the old Custom House on Bowling Green in Manhattan. The Smithsonian also promised to build a new storage and research center in Suitland, Md., for the bulk of the collection, which previously had been warehoused in the Bronx."

Many of the items are of deep religious significance, so "religious ceremonies must occasionally be performed before they are moved." Museum Curator Scott Merrit explained that the "the ceremonies might involve "smudging," or the burning of small amounts of cedar or grass, accompanied by a prayer and sometimes by the serving of wine or food." Many items also require restoration, because of their "age and, sometimes, because of deterioration suffered in the Bronx warehouse, which has stored items since 1926 and long suffered from leaks and inadequate ventilation. Some items are infested with insects and their larva." The Bowling Green museum opened in 1994, and the Washington Branch will open in 2002.