Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 22, No. 1, Winter 2002, pp. 66-67.
Setting out to explore the roles of private collectors in founding North American public museums of American Indian materials, the editors of Collecting Native America have assembled discussions of Sheldon Jackson (1834-1909), Alaska's best known late-nineteenth- century missionary collector; David Ross McCord (1844-1930), founder of the McCord National Museum, Montreal, which opened in 1921; Charles Fletcher Lummis (1859-1928) of the Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, chartered in 1907; Rudolf F. Haffenreffer (1874-1954), of Rhode Island's King Philip Museum, established during the 1920s; Phoebe Apperson Hearst (1842-1919), mother of newspaper publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and founder, in 1901, of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley; Clara Endicott Sears (1863-1960) who created a cluster of museums, including the Fruiilands Farmhouse, on her property in Harvard, Massachusetts, between 1914 and 1945; Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) of Santa Fe's Seton Institute, opened in the early 1930s, and Mary Cabot Wheelwright (1878-1958) of the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, launched in 1937, also in Santa Fe; George Gustav Heye (1874-1956) of the Heye Foundation and the Museum of the American Indian, established in New York City in 1916; and Mary Winslow Allen Crane (1902-1982) and Francis Valentine Crane (1903-1968), founders of the Southeast Museum of the North American Indian in Marathon, Florida, in 1958, whose collections ultimately became part of the Denver Museum of Natural History during the 1960s.
The book's foreword notes that "the history of these collections is a part of the history of anthropology, and of the history of art collecting and art appreciation (because Native American materials are now widely recognized as real or high art)." That is news to this reviewer since many of these museums which exhibit such sacred and secular artifacts still do so under the rubric of anthropology which openly expressed a primary belief in the idea of there being such a beast as a "primitive" or "savage" stone-age Indian on the verge of extinction for the better part of two centuries. The book is, nonetheless, a treasure of information on the collecting philosophies, or lack thereof, of some of the most influential non-Natives in the world of the American Indian. And despite the fact that most of these collectors harbored some rather ethnocentric and arcane views on who the American Indian really was, their collections speak volumes about their need to know. Paradoxically, history is teaching us that these collectors ran aground of the very real world of American Indians who today are rewriting much of that part of history from Native perspectives.
I have personally visited many of these museums; however, the Heye Foundation's Museum of the American Indian Warehouse located on six acres of land in the Bronx was especially enlightening and, I think, speaks for them all. The building must be at least half a block square and three stories high. I was given to believe that within its bulging-at-the- seams walls were more than a million pieces of Native art never before put on display at one time for public viewing or analysis. I was fortunate to have been guided through some of that collection by Raymond Gonyea who, as its director, had obtained an insider's knowledge of the place. He revealed Native art that few living people have ever laid eyes on, as difficult as that is to believe. In fact, he related how even the people who collected, curated, and conserved that art did not even know what was there. Apparently, all of that Native art appearing in our popular academic literature is just the tip of the iceberg. Incredibly, whole Indian "libraries" have been stashed away on dusty warehouse shelves in the Bronx-and on other museum shelves as well, I am now learning-for more than a century pages of anthropological text. This was published in a twenty volume, twenty-portfolio set; fewer than 500 copies were printed. The project had taken thirty years to complete.