The Heritage Center houses one of the world's largest collections of unrestored 19th century totem poles. The poles were recovered from uninhabited Tlingit settlements on Village Island and Tongass Island, south of Ketchikan, as well as from the Haida village of Old Kasaan. The Center was founded in 1976 to preserve these totems and act as a cultural center. Sixteen of the museum's thirty-three totem poles are on permanent display, although the rest of the collection is available for research purposes.
The Center also exhibits other Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian artifacts and art pieces, including work by world-famous Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson, and renowned Haida weaver Delores Churchill. In addition to functioning as a museum, the Totem Heritage Center preserves and promotes the traditional arts and crafts of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples through a nationally-recognized program of art classes and other activities. Classes are held throughout the year, and the museum is open to visitors year-round, with extended hours during the summer.