Federal Regulations Prompt Closure of Native American Displays at American Museum of Natural History - Living Strong Television Network
Federal Regulations Prompt Closure of Native American Displays at American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History recently announced it will close two major halls exhibiting Native American objects in response to new federal regulations regarding the display or research of cultural items.

“The halls we are closing are artifacts of an era when museums such as ours did not respect the values, perspectives and indeed shared humanity of Indigenous peoples,” museum president Sean Decatur wrote in a letter to the museum’s staff on the morning of January 26. “Actions that may feel sudden to some may seem long overdue to others.”

As part of the natural history museum’s efforts to comply with the new federal rules put into effect this month, the institution will close the Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains galleries this weekend, as well as cover several other display cases that feature Native American cultural items.

Some of the Native American objects on display at the museum on January 12, 2023. Photo courtesy of Erin Thompson.

The new federal regulations are part of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a law known as NAGPRA first passed in 1990 that established processes and procedures for museums and other institutions to return human remains, funerary objects and other items to “Indian tribes” and “Native Hawaiian organizations”. However, the law has been criticized by tribal representatives for being too slow and susceptible to resistance by institutions, resulting in efforts sometimes dragging on for decades.

The new regulations that went into effect on January 12 were designed to speed up returns, give institutions five years to prepare all human remains and related funerary objects for repatriation, as well as grant more authority to tribes throughout the process.

“As the purpose of the Act and these regulations is the disposition or repatriation of human remains and cultural items, museums and Federal agencies must prioritize requests for storage, treatment, or handling by lineal descendants, Indian Tribes, or NHOs who will be the future caretakers of the human remains or cultural items.” The Department of the Interior wrote. “These requests may require alterations or exceptions to standard curation or preservation practices.”

The changes at the museum were first reported by the New York Times.

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