As a result of new regulations set by the Biden administration, The American Museum of Natural History in New York and other museums across the country are closing Native American exhibits. The Biden administration updated the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in December 2023. The updates will require consent from tribes before displaying specific objects and exhibits.
The NAGPRA gives control or ownership rights of Native American cultural items discovered on Federal or trivial lands. The updates to the NAGPRA require that museums and other federal agencies consult and receive consent from tribes, descendants, or Native Hawaiian Organizations before displaying or conducting scientific research on cultural items, including human remains. The goal of the update is to address the colonial injustices that Indigenous people have faced and to speed up the process of returning artifacts to tribes
“Among the updates we are implementing are critical steps to strengthen the authority and role of Indigenous communities in the repatriation process,” said Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior for the US. Haaland said “this is an important part of laying the groundwork for the healing of our people.”
Many museums across the United States have been closing exhibits off to the public or covering up specific objects to comply with the NAGPRA updates.
On Friday, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York announced it will be closing off two exhibition halls. They will be closed off to the public and staff starting Saturday. The Field Museum in Chicago covered a couple of display cases pending consultation with the communities of the artifacts represented in the collection. After a consultation, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science closed its North American Indian Cultures Hall last year.
In a letter to the staff, Sean Decatur, president of the AMNH, said the halls that are closing are a reminder of a time when museums did not respect the values and perspectives of Indigenous people in the country. “Actions that may feel sudden to some may seem long overdue to others,” said Decatur.
These new regulations went into effect on Jan 12, 2024. The update allows for an opportunity for the Biden administration and Tribal leaders to strengthen nation-to-nation relationships. The Federal Register will publish the final ruling within the next few days.
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