NYC Museum of Natural History closing Native American exhibits: New tribal consent laws

NEWS: NYC Museum of Natural History closing Native American exhibits: New tribal consent laws

The American Museum of Natural History is closing two major exhibition halls featuring Native American artifacts — to comply with new federal regulations that require museums to receive consent from indigenous groups before displaying or researching objects or remains.

Starting this Saturday, the AMNH will close two halls dedicated to the Eastern Woodlands and the Great Plains, and will also cover other display cases featuring cultural items from North American indigenous peoples, AMNH president Sean Decatur announced in a letter to staff Friday morning.

 “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,” Decatur wrote in the missive obtained by The Post.

“Actions that may feel sudden to some may seem long overdue to others,” he added.

The closures will result in almost 10,00 square feet of exhibition spaces being off-limits to visitors, the New York Times noted.

The museum could not provide a timeline for when the reviewed exhibits will reopen, the outlet said.

“Some objects may never come back on display as a result of the consultation process. But we are looking to create smaller-scale programs throughout the museum that can explain what kind of process is underway,’ Decatur told the Times.

The alterations are a response to new federal regulations that went into effect this month regarding the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Several objects – including this canoe – will be removed from display on Saturday. American Museum of Natural History

Instituted in 1990, NAGPRA sought to provide protocols for museums and other institutions to return indigenous human remains, funerary objects and other “objects of cultural patrimony” to recognized tribes, according to the National Park Service.

Many of the remains and objects in question were notably seized from the native peoples without their consent or were excavated and taken by non-native anthropologists and collectors without regard for tribal traditions, the policy noted.

Over the years, however, critics called out the legislation for possessing too many possible loopholes for institutions while placing unfair requirements on native tribes, a Cato Institute review explained.

The new regulations approved last month aim to alleviate some of that strife — including a stipulation for “required free, prior and informed consent before any exhibition of, access to, or research on human remains or cultural items.”

The revised additions also seek to hasten returns by giving institutions five years to prepare all human remains and related objects for repatriation — and giving more authority to tribes in that process.

“We’re finally being heard — and it’s not a fight, it’s a conversation,” Myra Masiel-Zamora, an archaeologist and curator with the Pechanga Band of Indians, told the Times.

“We can say, ‘This needs to come home,’ and I’m hoping there will not be pushback,” she said, adding that there has been a noticeable shift in conversations with institutions in just two weeks since the new regulations went into effect on Jan. 12.

The two halls at AMNH will be closed to both visitors and staff. Kwong Yee Cheng

Museum leaders have been consulting lawyers and additional curators as they prepare to comply with the policy, the Times noted.

Many institutions will also be hiring staff to help them meet the requirements.

While similar changes are underway at other museums — including the Field Museum in Chicago, according to the Times ‚ the changes at the AMNH, which receives about 5 million visitors per year, will likely be among the most acutely noted.

“What might seem out of alignment for some people is because of a notion that museums affix in amber descriptions of the world. But museums are at their best when they reflect changing ideas,” Decatur told the outlet.

The exhibitions will be reviewed under new federal regulations. Boris Dzhingarov

Some of the objects removed from display include those that were used on field trips to teach students about native tribes, the Times said.

Highlights including a Menominee canoe and a Hopi Katsina doll will now be inaccessible, the outlet explained.

The new regulations have met with some pushback — including concerns from the Society for American Archaeology that the stipulations were interfering with museums’ collections management practices.

Returning native human remains — which typically cannot be exhibited and sit in storage in museums across the country — is a major goal of the new regulations.

As of 2023, the remains of about 96,000 individuals remain in institutional holdings, a federal report revealed.

But there has also been some wariness from tribal leaders who worry that they may not be able to support the flood of new requests from museums, the Times said.

At a committee meeting last June, Scott Willard, who works on repatriation issues for the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, expressed discomfort with how the new regulations could make Native remains sound like “throwaway items,” the paper reported.

“This garage sale mentality of ‘give it all away right now’ is very offensive to us,” he said at the time.

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