George Heye (pronounced “hi”) was raised in a wealthy home in New York City, and despite finishing college with an electrical-engineering degree in 1896, opted in 1901 to start an investment-banking firm. The considerable amount of money he eventually earned from this successful venture funded what had become his real passion: Heye was fascinated by Native American customs and handcraft. We don’t know the origins of his interest, but he was soon traveling all over the country looking for artifacts. By car, train, or boat, Heye would end up in the most remote places, dig up or buy whatever he could, and send it back to New York. He even bankrolled archaeological digs in Central America. In just a few years, he amassed over a million Native American items; the largest collection ever assembled by a single person.
Heye established the Museum of the American Indian in 1916 in New York to display his collection. After he died in 1957 the museum’s fortunes rose and fell until 1989, when by an act of Congress a National Museum of the American Indian was added to the Smithsonian Institution. Heye’s collection became it’s backbone. The materials he gathered now span three facilities—the George Gustav Heye Center in Manhattan, which opened in 1994, the main National Museum of the American Indian located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., since 2004, and the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, which houses the museum’s conservation and curatorial work.
- National Museum of the American Indian, nmai.si.edu
- Lawrence M. Small, “A Passionate Collector,” Smithsonian (November 2000), smithsonianmag.com/history/a-passionate-collector-33794183/?no-ist