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Bliss Collection, National Gallery of Art, 1947-1962

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Before the opening of the Pre-Columbian Galleries at Dumbarton Oaks, the permanent home of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art since 1963, the collection was on public display in Washington, DC, for about fifteen years. From 1947 to 1962, the Bliss collection was exhibited under the title “Indigenous Art of the Americas” on the ground floor corridor of the west central lobby of the National Gallery of Art at the National Mall.

“Indigenous Art of the Americas” started as an exhibit of 250 objects from the Bliss collection as well as some objects from the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. The exhibit was expanded and modified through the years with new acquisitions from the Bliss Collection and the scholarly input of Samuel K. Lothrop. When the objects were returned to Dumbarton Oaks in July 1962, they numbered 547.

This exhibit pioneered the presentation of archaeological objects as works of art in an art museum at a time when they otherwise were exclusively exhibited at archaeological or natural history museums. The following set of 47 photographs documents the often seemingly odd groupings of Bliss objects at the National Gallery and demonstrates a preference for an aesthetic arrangement over a presentation based on anthropological or archaeological data.