At Princeton, Museum visitors can view the range of artistic production from the ancient American past as well as Native American arts from more recent times. Geographically, the collection ranges from Chile (Diaquita culture) to Alaska (esp. Eskimo and Tlingit) and Greenland (Inuit). The chronological and spatial ranges include hallmark examples from major ancient American cultures and a number of masterpieces of Mesoamerican art, particularly from the Olmec and Maya cultures.

The core of the ancient American collection was formed in the 1960s by Gillett G. Griffin, whose keen eye was attracted to elegant Olmec ceramics and jades as well as Maya Jaina figures in the earliest days of collecting such material. His enthusiasm for small-scale objects—sculpture, jewelry, and other costume elements—has been the source of inspiration for several generations of Princeton alumni and friends to collect ancient American art, many of whom have given significant objects and generously supported new acquisitions.

The museum has organized several important exhibitions of ancient American art, accompanied by scholarly catalogues, including Art of the Northwest Coast (1969); Xochipala: The Beginnings of Olmec Art (1972); Jaina Figurines (1975); Lords of the Underworld (1978); and The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership (1996).