The center is named for George Gustav Heye, who began collecting Native American artifacts in 1903. He founded and endowed the Museum of the American Indian in 1916, and it opened in 1922, in a building at 155th Street and Broadway, part of the Audubon Terrace complex, in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan. That museum closed in 1994 and part of the collection is now housed at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House on Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan. The Beaux Arts-style building, designed by architect Cass Gilbert, was completed in 1907. It is a designated National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark. The center’s exhibition and public access areas total about 20,000 square feet (1,900m2). The Heye Center offers a range of exhibitions, film and video screenings, school group programs and living culture presentations throughout the year.
The permanent collection of the Heye Center is called Infinity of Nations, and is designed to show the scope of the Smithsonian's collection. Organized by geographic regions (including Central and South America), the exhibit displays over 700 items and crosses the line from ethnology to art. Multimedia interactions include audio and video, and feature commentary by historians on specific objects. The rotunda is frequently used as a performance space, and features murals reflecting the history of the building, done by Reginald Marsh. Other galleries include the Photography Gallery, Special Exhibit Galleries, Contemporary Galleries, the Haudenosaunee Discovery Room, the Resource Center Reference Library, a small theater (which screens daily films), and the museum store. The ground floor of the building houses the Diker Pavilion for Native Arts and Culture and the Education Center (referred to as the Tipi Room).
Beauty Surrounds Us (September 23, 2006 – March 31, 2011), the inaugural exhibit for Diker Pavilion.
A Song for the Horse Nation (November 14, 2009 – July 7, 2011), addressed the importance of the horse since its introduction to the Western Hemisphere in 1493.
Hide: Skin as Material and Metaphor (September 4, 2010 – January 16, 2011), a multifaceted look at race and representation.
Grab (January 29, 2011 – July 31, 2011), A photo exhibit celebrating the Grab Day tradition in Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico.
Preston Singletary: Echoes, Fire, and Shadows (March 19, 2011 – September 5, 2011), Tlingit myths and legends represented in glass sculpture.
Carl Beam (October 29, 2011 – April 15, 2012) Contemporary culture and colonialism juxtaposed in the work of an Ojibwe master artist. Featured The North American Iceberg, which the National Gallery of Canada acquired to begin their collection of contemporary Native art.
Identity by Design (September 26, 2008 – February 7, 2010), Dresses and accessories which highlighted the traditions and identities of Native American women.
Andrea Carlson (June 13, 2009 – January 10, 2010), Narrative story objects which reflected the cultural consumption that museum visitors engage in.
Annie Pootoogook (June 13, 2009 – January 10, 2010), 39 drawings from a 2006 InuitSobey Art Award winner depicting the Canadian North.
Ramp it Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America (December 11, 2009 – June 27, 2010), Celebrated the culture of skateboarding, graphic design, film-making, music, and Native entepeneurship.
Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian (November 1, 2008 – May 17, 2009), Paintings, drawings, and sculptures, focusing on the Luiseno artist's 1980s and 1990s work, when he pursued non-Indian subject matter; controversial pieces from his 1960s and 1970s work were exhibited in the Washington DC facility.
Listening to Our Ancestors (September 12, 2007 – July 20, 2008), Over 400 objects representing Native life, and the relationship between tradition and change, on the North Pacific coast.
Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist (October 20, 2007 – January 20, 2008), Overlapping themes of Shamanism and Catholicism were expressed in the contemporary living art of this highly influential Anishnaabe artist.
The museum created a virtual tour with the 4 Directions Project, engaging Native American youth with the exhibits Creation's Journey and All Roads Are Good, which is available online. Students selected items from the collection, created 3D panorama QuickTime objects, and wrote essays which were used as HTML tags. The Washington DC facility later emulated what was done in New York with students from Weedon Island, creating a virtual tour of objects relevant to their interests and cultural heritage.