About the NMAI collections

NMAI's current holdings have their foundation in the collections of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation of New York City, assembled largely by George Gustav Heye (1874-1957). The NMAI has one of the most extensive collections of Native American arts and artifacts in the world with more than 266,000 catalog records (representing 825,000 items) spanning over 12,000 years of history and over 1,200 historic and contemporary indigenous cultures and over 300 archaeological cultures throughout the Americas. The Object collections, consisting of Archaeology, Ethnology, and Modern and Contemporary Arts, include all major culture areas of the Western Hemisphere and virtually all tribes in the United States, most of those of Canada, and a significant number from Middle and South America and the Caribbean. Approximately 68% of the object collections originate in the United States, with 3.5% from Canada, 10% from Mexico and Central America, 11% from South America, and 6% from the Caribbean. Overall, 55% of the collection is archaeological, 42% ethnographic, and 3% modern and contemporary arts.

The Museum's holdings also include the Photographic Archives (approximately 324,000 images from the 1860s to the present), the Media Archives (approximately 12,000 items) including film and audiovisual collections such as wax cylinders, phonograph discs, 16mm and 35mm motion picture film, magnetic media of many varieties, and optical and digital media recorded from the late 1800s through the present, and the Paper Archives (approximately 1522 linear feet) comprised of records dating from the 1860s to the present that preserve the documentary history of the NMAI, its predecessor, the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation (MAI), and their collections as well as other documentary and archival materials.

At this time, the collections included in the NMAI collections database and this website are exclusively from the Object collections and the Photographic Archives. For information about Paper Archives and Media Archives, see the NMAI Archives page, or email NMAIArchives@si.edu.

About collections documentation

George Heye began cataloging his personal collection on index cards in 1904. After the creation of the Museum of the American Indian from his personal collection, this system continued and cataloguing of the Photo collection began in 1917. Altogether, both catalog card systems included sparse, unstandardized information. Simple databases were created in the 1980s, incorporating this same minimal information. Between 1999 and 2004, the collections were largely photographed and their catalog cards were scanned. These resources were incorporated into a new database that includes all of the information now available in reports and on this website. Since 2006, NMAI staff members have concentrated on improving the quality of collections information and incorporating data from archival sources, publications, and other resources.

Accuracy and completeness of information

Our goal is to include as many items as possible but objects and photos will be added only when NMAI staff have reviewed the accuracy of accompanying information. For these reviews, we have sometimes relied on information that accompanied items when they came to the Museum or have applied our own knowledge and research to correct it. Within displayed information, the term attributed means that an NMAI staff member assigned a cultural identification, either because the original identification seems to be incorrect or because no culture was ever assigned to an archaeological item. These attributions are a matter of opinion and judgment based on knowledge and research rather than fact.  Attributions will include the words probably or possibly to indicate their relative strength, with probably indicating greater confidence. Please contact us about correcting any errors you may encounter or to provide additional information.

Records for many objects include their original catalog cards, which often date to the early 1900s. These cards may include tribal names and terminology considered unacceptable or offensive today but they have been included to illustrate the information that originally accompanied the objects.

Other Native American collections at the Smithsonian Institution

Since the National Museum of the American Indian became part of the Smithsonian in 1989, NMAI collections and Native American holdings in the Anthropology Department of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) have been maintained as entirely separate collections and are housed in adjacent buildings in Suitland, Maryland. For information about NMNH Anthropology collections, see http://anthropology.si.edu/cm/index.htm or search their online database: http://collections.nmnh.si.edu/search/anth/. For historic photographs and archival materials, see the National Anthropological Archives and Human Studies Film Archives: http://www.nmnh.si.edu/naa/guides.htm.