National Museum of the American Indian George Gustav Heye Center (Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House)
The George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian is one of three locations of the Smithsonian Institution run museum. The Heye Center is named for George Gustav Heye, a collector and appreciator of Native American objects. Heye acquired a wealth of objects throughout his life and established a precursor to the Heye Center in 1922. The Museum was absorbed into the Smithsonian and moved to the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in the early 1990s. This former custom house is a significant architectural work and was the first major commission of renowned architect Cass Gilbert. The Heye Center’s permanent collection is centered around the Infinity of Nations gallery, which includes works spanning thousands of years and cultures across North and South America. The Center hosts a variety of programs and events including temporary exhibitions, film screenings, lectures, and living culture presentations.
Backstory and Context
The George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian grew out of a collection started by George Gustav Heye. Heye was working as an electrical engineer for a railroad company in Arizona when he acquired his first Native American cultural object; an Apache deerskin shirt. This marked the start of Heye’s forty-five year collecting efforts. At first, Heye purchased single objects as he travelled around the United States and Europe. After a few years, the engineer was purchasing every object he could find and shipping huge quantities of items back to his home in New York City. Initially, the items were stored in an extra apartment room, but by 1922, Heye had opened a museum – the Heye Foundation Museum of the American Indian – for his collection at 155th Street and Broadway. Heye served as director of the museum until 1956, just before his death in 1957. After his death, Heye was recognized for his contributions for Native American history and culture by several organizations, including the American Anthropological Association, the American Museum of Natural History, the American Geographical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and The Explorers Club.
The Heye Foundation Museum of the American Indian continued to operate for fifty years before finally outgrowing the space at 155th Street and Broadway. In 1987, some possibilities considered for the museum included moving to Washington D.C. or finding another space in New York City. Public opinion was strongly against the former option, so U.S. Senator Daniel P. Moynihan instead proposed deeding the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in Lower Manhattan to the museum. This too sparked controversy, as the American Indian Community House also wished to occupy the Custom House space. U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye brough the issue to a head by introducing the National Museum of the American Indian Act, which would have brought the collection to Washington D.C. In 1988, a compromise was reached regarding the future of the museum. The Smithsonian Institution would acquire Heye’s collection, but it would remain in New York at the Custom House. Additionally, a new museum devoted to Native American objects would be built in Washington D.C. The legislation for this compromise was passed in 1989, and the George Gustav Heye Center was established in the Custom House by 1990, though it did not open to the public until 1994.
The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House was built from 1902 to 1907 to house the duty collection operations of the Port of New York. Following a competition to vet architects, Cass Gilbert was chosen to design the structure. The Custom House was Gilbert’s first major commission. He later went on to design many other significant structures like the Woolworth Building, the United States Supreme Court building, and state capitol buildings for Minnesota, Arkansas, and West Virginia. The Custom House is built in a Beaux-Arts style, which is reflected in the classical influences, a mansard roof, and decorative arts pieces. Curiously, the entrance of the five-story building faces away from the water, when it was typical for custom houses to face towards it. Both the interior and exterior of the building are decorated by a variety of sculptures and murals, many of which were born from the Works Projects Administration. The U.S. Customs Service occupied by building from 1907 until 1973, when the department moved to the World Trade Center. For many years, the Custom House sat abandoned and decayed. Senator Moynihan was a tireless advocate for repurposing the space and managed to get a $13.8 million renovation approved in 1984. When the Heye Center occupied the building in 1990, it took possession of the bottom three floors, while the United States bankruptcy court resided on the top two.
Occupying roughly 20,000 square feet of space in the Custom House, the George Gustav Heye Center features a variety of permanent and temporary exhibitions related to Native American history and culture. The museum is centered around a permanent gallery known as the Infinity of Nations, which features seven hundred objects arranged geographically. Items span thousands of years and range from First Nations textiles, to Mayan limestone carvings, to contemporary works on paper by Native artists. The Heye Center’s holdings comprise approximately eighty-five percent of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian’s total collection. Multimedia installations serve to help visitors understand objects and artworks. The museum hosts a variety of lectures, performances, film screenings, and interpretive events. Additionally, the Heye Center supports many living culture presentations for school groups. George Gustav Heye’s personal practices of repatriation have also shaped the way his museum is run. For example, in 1907, Heye purchased a medicine bundle from a missionary. When Hidatsa peoples of North Dakota believed that the removal of the sacred bundle was causing a drought in 1938, Heye returned the object. The Heye Center continues to work with indigenous peoples to ensure that objects are displayed respectfully and returned to their cultural heirs whenever possible.
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