At New American Indian Museum, Artifacts Are "Alive"

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The museum has a strict policy on human remains, sacred objects, and any holdings acquired illegally. Any such objects will be returned to groups than can demonstrate a cultural affiliation or factual claim to them.

Asked if there is a most valued item in the collections, Lenz replied that it would be impossible to say.

"Many of the pieces are masterworks; many of them have great historical value; many of them would bring big bucks in the auction market. And yet trying to choose one would probably vary from one person to the next. Perhaps like choosing your 'most valued' child," she said.

The collection will rotate regularly, with the majority of the objects kept at the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland. Opened in 1999, the warehouse was custom-built for the collections.

The Collector

Between 1897 and 1957 eccentric oil heir George Gustav Heye amassed what would become the cornerstone of the museum's collections.

Why Heye was attracted to Native American cultures is open to speculation. But "he did collect arrowheads when he was a boy, and his primary interest—at least in the beginning—was in archaeology," Lenz said.

In 1916 Heye established the Museum of the American Indian in New York City, and it continued to collect objects long after his death. In 1989 the U.S. Congress created a National Museum of the American Indian and transferred the collection to the Smithsonian Institution.

While some scientists abhorred Heye's voracious appetite for items, academics today praise the collection. "Because his style was so wide-ranging—he collected both the pristine and the broken and worn-out—it allows researchers a hundred years later to get a fuller picture of people's lives, not just the dressy stuff," Lenz said.

Over the past five years the Smithsonian has acquired several additional large collections through gifts. In a particular windfall, the U.S. Department of the Interior donated its Indian Arts and Crafts Board collection of approximately 6,000 items, which date from the 1930s through the 1980s.

The museum's current collecting focus is on contemporary works from lesser known Latin American groups, Lenz said. American Indians also send in newly made items "because it represents them, and they want to be represented in the museum collection," Trafzer, the University of California historian, said.

According to Trafzer, Native Americans have a love-hate relationship with the collection.

On one hand, they hate it because so many items are in the museum and not in their communities. On the other hand, they love it because so many items are there and thus still alive and protected. Indians also appreciate that they can go to the museum and handle the artifacts, he added.

"That is remarkable, to have such sensitivity," Trafzer said. "It reflects the community-based thinking of the National Museum of the American Indian. They are listening to the community. They want to be in partnership with the people."

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