NEWS: Museum of Natural History could’ve avoided sudden shutdown of Native American exhibits if it made effort to ‘reconcile’ with tribes: leader
The American Museum of Natural History could have avoided the sudden and shocking shutdown of all its Native American exhibits had it made an effort over the years to “reconcile and work with tribes,” a tribal leader told The Post Saturday.
The museum closed two halls — almost 10,000 square feet of exhibition space — Friday to comply with the revamped regulations made to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, requiring the museum to send human remains and cultural items back to recognized tribes from where they originate.
“These big institutions that are shutting down this many square feet could have taken preemptive steps to try to reconcile and work with tribes — and it took a change in NAGPRA regulations to take them down,” said Sunshine Bear-Thomas, the cultural preservation director and tribal historic preservation officer for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.
She is not aware of any Winnebago artifacts at the AMNH, but said she “wants to bring our items home” wherever they might be kept.
“It should always be up to the tribe what they want to do as sovereign nations,” she added.
A day after the famed Upper West Side museum abruptly stripped its spaces dedicated to the Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains tribes, rolling walls were in place to block off the exhibits.
“The artifacts in this case have been removed from view because the museum does not have consent to display them,” according to a sign posted near the restricted area.
The stunning changes were announced Friday by director Sean Decatur, who said the exhibits are “severely outdated” and that there is a “growing urgency” to change its relationship with tribes.
NAGPRA was passed in 1990 but implementation of the law lagged. The Biden administration has pushed to speed up the process, which led to new rules finalized in December.
The law applies to human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony, according to Decatur.
An immediate effect of the closures will be the suspension of school field trips to the Eastern Woodlands hall, Decatur said.
People flooded the halls on Friday to get their last peek at the exhibits, which featured items such an Iroquois longhouse, a Menominee birchbark canoe and clothing from Cree, Cheyenne, Assiniboine and Crow tribes.
In addition to closing the Native American halls, the museum will be covering three cases just outside of the Eastern Woodlands Hall and two cases in the Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples.
Glass cases near the entrance to the halls will be covered with brown paper and walls will go up near the third-floor staircase, a museum staffer said.
The artifacts are expected to return once tribes have been consulted, giving visitors “proper context,” the staffer said, adding, “These communities still exist … [we] might as well show how vibrant they were, how vibrant they are.”
The museum did not immediately respond to questions from The Post.