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Leading Museums Remove Native Displays Amid New Federal Rules

The management of the American Museum of Natural History announced on Friday that it would close two vital halls housing original American artworks. This is a stern response to the new federal regulations mandating museums seek permission from indigenous communities before displaying or researching cultural artworks. President Sean Decatur sent a letter to employees, stating, “We are closing the halls that represent an era when institutions like ours did not respect the values, perspectives, and shared humanity of the original inhabitants.”

Assessing Compliance with New Federal Regulations

The museum is examining its extensive collection to ensure compliance with the new federal regulations implemented this month. Consequently, it is closing the sprawling Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains dedicated galleries by the end of the week and covering several other exhibits showcasing original American cultural artifacts. The closure affects approximately 10,000 square feet of exhibition space for the public on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The museum has been unable to provide a precise date for reopening modified exhibits.

Decatur mentioned in an interview that “some items may never return due to the consultation process.” Although working on developing more internal programs to educate visitors about the nature of museum processes, institutions nationwide are discreetly hiding curated exhibitions while attempting to determine what can still be presented under the new guidelines. The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Cleveland Museum of Art have all covered some exhibits.

Federal Laws Accelerate the Return of Native American Artifacts

The Biden administration worked diligently to expedite the return of original American remains, sacred objects, and other cultural artifacts, leading to amendments. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), enacted in 1990, initiated this process, providing museums and institutions with guidelines to repatriate human remains, artifacts, and other properties to indigenous communities. However, advocates argue that the law progresses at a slow pace and is significantly weak against institutional resistance.

The recent adoption of new federal regulations aims to prepare institutions for the return of all human remains and related artifacts over a five-year grant period. During this process, indigenous peoples are granted more discretion. Myra Masiel-Zamora, curator and archaeologist for the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, stated, “It’s finally being heard—this is not a fight; it’s a conversation.”

Museums Prepare for Impact on Native American Exhibits

For months, museum administrators have been preparing for the implementation of the new regulations. They have engaged curators, lawyers, held lengthy meetings, and contemplated what needs to be concealed or terminated. To comply with the new rules, several institutions intend to involve employees in lengthy discussions with tribal officials. As a result, some of the country’s top museums have undergone a significant transformation in how they handle their original American exhibitions, which will be apparent to tourists.

Exhibits featuring the Mohicans, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Iroquois, and other tribes at the American Museum of Natural History, usually used to educate students, will temporarily be unavailable. The artifacts in the Menominee-crafted Barkbark Dongi, located in the Eastern Woodlands Hall, and smaller items like Hopi Katsina dolls and darts from present-day Arizona, dating back to 10,000 BCE, will be affected. Due to their inability to reach such depths, reconsideration of field trips to the Halls of Eastern Woodlands for students is underway.

Museum’s Role in Presenting Evolving Narratives

It is believed that museums challenge some individuals by juxtaposing the world’s oldest narratives. As Decatur explained, “Museums do their best work when they showcase evolving ideas.” While museums worldwide strive to adjust, presenting the first-hand experiences and contributions of contemporary indigenous communities, the closure of halls at the American Museum of Natural History represents a significant shift in how these institutions navigate cultural sensitivity.

American Natural History Museum to Close Halls with Indigenous Artifacts

The management of the American Museum of Natural History announced on Friday that it would close two significant halls containing original American artworks. This is a stern response to the new federal regulations, requiring museums to seek permission from indigenous communities before displaying or researching cultural artifacts. The museum’s president, Sean Decatur, sent a letter to staff on Friday morning, stating, “We are closing the halls that represent an era when institutions like ours did not respect the values, perspectives, and indeed the shared humanity of the original residents.”

Works Returning Swiftly under Federal Law

The Biden administration worked diligently to expedite the return of original American remains, burial goods, and sacred artworks, prompting amendments. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), enacted in 1990, initiated this process of repatriating human remains, burial artifacts, and other properties to indigenous communities. Advocates have criticized the law for its slow progress and weak institutional resistance to repatriation efforts.

This month witnessed a swift implementation of the new federal regulations aiming to prepare institutions for the return of all human remains and associated artifacts. These regulations allocate a five-year grant to institutions to prepare for the repatriation of human remains and related artifacts, while granting indigenous communities more discretion during the process. Mayra Masiel-Zamora, a curator and archaeologist with the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, stated, “It’s finally being heard – and it’s not a fight; it’s a conversation.”

Museums Prepare for Impact on Native American Exhibits

For months, museum administrators have been preparing for the new regulations. They have engaged in discussions with curators and legal experts, held lengthy meetings, and considered what might need to be hidden or eliminated. In order to comply with the new regulations, many institutions are planning to involve indigenous officers, requiring extended discussions with tribal officials. Consequently, some of the country’s top museums have undergone a significant transformation in how they handle their original American exhibits, which will be apparent to visitors.

Sections of the American Museum of Natural History featuring artifacts from Mohicans, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Iroquois, and other tribes will be temporarily unavailable for students. The Eastern Woodlands Hall, containing Menominee-made bark baskets and small items like Hopi katsinas and darts from present-day Arizona, which date back to 10,000 BCE, will be part of reconsiderations for student field trips.

There is a belief that museums provide certain individuals with a lens outside the norm, connecting them beyond conventional constraints. As Decatur explained, “Museums do their best work when they present evolving ideas.”

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