Two museums debut two new permanent exhibits

By Terese Loeb Kreuzer

 Two permanent exhibits of great splendor are opening this month in two Manhattan museums, and though at first they seem dissimilar, there is much that connects them. The National Museum of the American Indian at One Bowling Green unveiled “Infinity of Nations” on October 23 — a permanent installation of 700 objects from the George Gustav Heye Center’s collection of roughly 825,000 objects. The exhibit includes Native American art work, clothing, ceremonial objects, utensils and more from North, Central and South America, much of it amassed by Heye (1874-1957) between 1897 and his death.

The other exhibit is at the Morgan Library and Museum, financier J.P. Morgan’s “uptown” office at 36th Street and Madison Avenue. Pierpont Morgan, who was born into a wealthy family in 1837, was the quintessential capitalist of his time, growing ever richer as he shrewdly bankrolled American railroads and industries. When he wasn’t busy on Wall Street, Morgan turned his attention to collecting art. In 1902, he commissioned the firm of McKim, Mead and White to build a marble villa to house his large and growing holdings of books, manuscripts, paintings, sculpture, and historical and decorative objects of all kinds. On October 30, the oldest rooms of this villa — Morgan’s library, his office, the office of his librarian Belle da Costa Greene and the imposing entrance hall — will reopen to the public after a $4.5 million restoration. It marks the first major interior refurbishment since the villa was finished in 1906. (This article continues below slideshow.)

At the time that Morgan and Heye assembled their collections, first-rate art and artifacts were abundant and both men had an abundance of money. The 16th amendment to the U.S. Constitution wasn’t passed until 1913 — the year of Pierpont Morgan’s death — making the income tax a permanent part of the national tax system. When Morgan died, he was worth $100 million, causing John D. Rockefeller, who was a billionaire (in 1913 dollars), to scoff of Morgan, “He wasn’t even a rich man!” Both men however, were rich enough.

Heye was born and raised in Murray Hill, three blocks from Morgan’s home and his subsequent library and office and came from Standard Oil money. His friends to whom he turned when he decided to open a museum to house his mammoth Native American collection had made fortunes in copper, rubber and railways as well as in banking and law.

The National Museum of the American Indian, where “Infinity of Nations” is housed, was not the first home of Heye’s museum, which was on Audubon Terrace at 155th Street and Broadway, but it is similar in style and feeling. The Alexander Hamilton Custom House, finished in 1907 and designed by Cass Gilbert, is a masterpiece of Beaux-Art architecture with soaring ceilings and acres of marble. The National Museum of the American Indian moved into the building in 1994. In its opulence and style, the Custom House and museum is very much like Morgan’s library.

Morgan bought anything that caught his eye and did so in a voracious fashion. Many of his purchases were connected to the saints, heroes and kings of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — gilded and bejeweled, often as sumptuous as their surroundings.

The forms and iconography of the objects in the Heye collection are completely different — ceremonial headdresses, robes decorated with the exploits of warriors, water vessels and other utensils, stools, a hand drum depicting the cosmos and the like.

And yet, beneath these seeming differences between the two collections is a common thread — the universal human desire and need to explain the creation of the universe and human origins, to honor the creator and to celebrate the power of rulers and the great deeds of warriors, the skill and knowledge of shamans and the stories of prophets and healers.

Both museums and their collections have sublime examples of this artistic work housed in sublime surroundings.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York, the George Gustav Heye Center, is located at One Bowling Green in New York City, across from Battery Park. The museum is free and open every day (except December 25) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursdays until 8 p.m. For information, call (212) 514-3700 or visit www.americanindian.si.edu.

The Morgan Library and Museum is at 225 Madison Avenue. For more information, call 212-685-0008 or visit www.themorgan.org.