This exhibition considers the ways in which photographers and artists represented Native American life in the late nineteenth century, a period in which the culture of these indigenous peoples was rapidly disappearing. Photographers documented what they believed to be a "dying" culture, while painters and sculptors romanticized the American Indian in a desire to portray an essential part of American history.
The majority of photographs in the exhibition were taken by official photographers and ethnologists working for the Bureau of American Ethnology during field trips to tribal areas. Copies were later obtained from the Bureau to decorate the Indian Grill Room at New York's Hotel Astor, which opened in 1904.
The Grill Room was an unusual, if not unique, combination of restaurant and ethnographic museum. It was divided into eight sections, each containing artifacts relating to a quasi-scientific linguistic group of American Indian tribes. The photographs, which were set into wooden paneling, reinforced the narrative by portraying everyday life, family groups, formal portraits, and the rituals of the tribes. Following its closure in 1937, both the artifacts and photographs were donated to the University of Virginia by Nancy, Lady Astor, and later accessioned by the Museum.