Behind the scenes

Visiting the archives 

When you visit the Smithsonian museums (and there are a lot) you see only a fraction of the objects from the huge collection. The remaining artifacts are placed in storage, and in the case of the National Museum of the American Indian, an entire warehouse is stocked with the collection amassed by George Gustav Heye (1874-1957). 

That makes the NMAI collection unique: think about the National Museum of American History, for example. This is the museum that gets lots of buzz because you’ll find Julia Child’s kitchen (as seen in the film, “Julie and Julia”), Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Archie Bunker’s armchair and Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. Truth is, they have more stuff than they can exhibit, so the Smithsonian tucks away the lion’s share of holdings in the archives. 

I asked the archivists at the National Museum of the American Indian if I could examine holdings that would help my exploration of Native Science. But the George Gustav Heye collection isn’t organized that way—there are no cases labeled “science.” 

Heye, who came from a wealthy family that acquired a fortune in the oil industry, became passionate about American Indian culture and began collecting artifacts at the turn of the last century. One of the archivists told me that Heye lived by the principle that, if collecting one item was a good thing, then stockpiling ten was even better. 

In other words, if Heye found one buffalo hide, he wanted the entire stock of buffalo hides. His collection grew so big that he opened a museum in New York City in 1922 and called it the Museum of the American Indian. And it’s this collection that was given to the Smithsonian and formed the basis for the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened on the Washington DC mall in 2004. 

The archives are located in Suitland, Maryland, and I received permission to visit the Heye collection. The archives are situated in an impressive (and secure) structure that also houses the library, staff offices and the conservation efforts—where objects are lovingly repaired. 

Librarian Lynne Altstatt (Cherokee) arranged for me to view the Osage artifacts and photographs, and took me to see some of the conservation projects (since I couldn’t really see “science”). I began my first visit with a tour of the Osage clothing, including ribbon-work and finger-weaving. Museum Specialist Thomas Evans (Pawnee) opened drawer after drawer of skirts, shirts, moccasins, breech cloths, belts, hats, buckles, coats and cradle boards from my tribe. I just took it in, eyeful by eyeful, asking Tom questions: How hold is this belt? Did the Osages really use heart motifs? How did they do the ribbon work without sewing machines? Tom, who’s from Oklahoma, knows a lot about the Osages, including the fact that they didn’t have a drum, which they received from the Kaw (or Ponca, depending on who’s telling the story). 

He then showed me hundreds of images of studio shots of Osage folks (actually I pored over high quality photocopies because the actual photographs are kept in storage). I couldn’t locate any relatives because most of the collection doesn’t name the individuals. For example, a caption typically reads “Osage family.” I found a few captions that were oddly labeled, like, “Osage woman with textile on lap.” But that’s not a textile, I told Tom. That’s the ribbon work on her skirt: maybe it looks like she’s got something on her lap, but she doesn’t. 

I wrapped up the visit with a tour of the conservation room, where several men and women were painstakingly repairing artifacts. Luba Dovgan-Nurse was unraveling a bit of ermine tied to a shaft of human hair on a shirt and explained that the shirt was exquisitely made, and most likely a gift given to Crazy Horse. She pointed out that the ermine helped hold the hair in place, and noted how perfectly the fringe was created, probably with a knife because scissors—even if they were to be had—could not cut through the leather. The shirt was embellished with hand-painted geometric patterns of reds and blues and yellows. 

I tried to imagine the indefatigable warrior wearing the shirt, sitting astride his horse, and viewing the landscape of the cherished Black Hills.

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About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. She is enrolled with the Osage tribe.
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