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Major museums remove Indigenous exhibits amid new federal rules

Written by The Anand Market

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The American Museum of Natural History will close two large rooms displaying Native American artifacts, its leaders announced Friday, in a dramatic response to new federal regulations that require museums to obtain consent from tribes before exhibiting or conducting research on cultural objects.

“The rooms we are closing are artifacts of a time when museums like ours failed to respect the values, perspectives and even shared humanity of Indigenous peoples,” wrote Sean Decatur, president of the museum, in a letter addressed to museum staff Friday morning. . “Actions that may seem sudden to some may seem long overdue to others. »

The museum is closing galleries dedicated to the Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains this weekend, and is covering a number of other displays featuring Native American cultural artifacts while going through its massive collection to ensure it’s compliant to the new federal rules. which came into force this month. That will leave nearly 10,000 square feet of exhibition space at the famed museum on Manhattan’s Upper West Side inaccessible to visitors; The museum said it could not provide an exact timeline for reopening the reconsidered exhibits.

“Some items may never be on display as a result of the consultation process,” Decatur said in an interview. “But we’re looking to create smaller-scale programs throughout the museum that can explain the kind of processes that are going on.”

Museums across the country hid their exhibits as curators scrambled to determine whether they could be displayed under the new regulations. Chicago’s Field Museum covered up some displays, Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology said it would remove all grave goods from exhibits, and the Cleveland Museum of Art covered up some cases.

The changes are the result of a concerted effort by the Biden administration to expedite the repatriation of Native American remains, grave goods and other sacred objects. The process began in 1990 with the adoption of Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, which established protocols for museums and other institutions to return human remains, funerary objects and other property to tribes. But while those efforts have dragged on for decades, the law has been criticized by tribal officials as too slow and too likely to face institutional resistance.

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This month, new federal regulations Measures to expedite returns went into effect, giving institutions five years to prepare all human remains and associated funerary objects for repatriation and giving tribes more authority throughout the process.

“We are finally being heard — and it’s not a fight, it’s a conversation,” said Myra Masiel-Zamora, an archaeologist and curator for the Pechanga Indian Band.

Even in the two weeks since the new regulations took effect, she said, she has felt the tenor of the negotiations changing. In the past, institutions often viewed indigenous oral histories as less compelling than academic studies when determining which modern tribes to repatriate objects to, she said. But the new regulations require institutions to “rely on the traditional Native American knowledge of lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.”

“We can say, ‘This has to come home,’ and I hope there’s no resistance,” Masiel-Zamora said.

Museum leaders have been preparing for the new regulations for months, consulting with lawyers and curators and holding lengthy meetings to discuss what might need to be covered up or removed. Many institutions are considering hiring staff to comply with the new rules, which may involve extensive consultations with tribal representatives.

The result has been a major shift in practices around Native American exhibits at some of the nation’s largest museums — a shift that will be noticeable to visitors.

At the American Museum of Natural History, segments of the collection once used to teach students about the Iroquois, Mohegans, Cheyennes, Arapaho and other groups will be temporarily inaccessible. This includes large objects, such as the original Menominee birch bark canoe in the Hall of Eastern Woodlands, and smaller objects, including darts dating as far back as 10,000 BC and a Hopi Katsina doll from this which is now Arizona. Students’ field trips to the Hall of Eastern Woodlands are being redesigned now that they will not have access to these galleries.

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“What may seem off to some people is due to a notion that museums put into descriptions of the world in amber,” Decatur said. “But museums are at their best when they reflect evolving ideas.”


The Hall of Eastern Woodlands at the American Museum of Natural History is also closed. Credit…Jeenah Moon for the New York Times

The display of Native American human remains is generally prohibited in museums, so collections under reassessment include sacred objects, burial goods and other cultural heritage items. While the new regulations have been discussed and debated over the past year, some professional organizations, such as the Society for American Archaeology, have expressed concern that the rules go too far in the collections management practices of archaeologists. museums. But since the regulations took effect on January 12, museums have faced little public resistance.

Many of the human remains and indigenous cultural objects were collected through practices that are now considered antiquated and even heinous, including donations from grave robbers and archaeological digs that cleared the sites of the graves. indigenous burial.

“This is human rights work, and we need to think of it as that and not as science,” said Candace Sall, director of the University of Missouri Museum of Anthropology, who is still working to repatriate the remains of more than 200 people. 2,400 Native Americans. Sall said she had added five staff members to work on repatriation in anticipation of the regulations and hoped to add more.

Criticism over the pace of repatriation has put public pressure on institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History. In more than 30 years, the museum has repatriated the remains of approximately 1,000 individuals to tribal groups; it still houses the remains of approximately 2,200 Native Americans and thousands of funerary objects. (Last year, the museum announced it would overhaul practices that extended to its larger collection of some 12,000 skeletons by removing human bones from public display and improving storage facilities where they are preserved.)

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One of the main priorities of the new regulations, administered by the Ministry of the Interior, is to complete the work of repatriating indigenous human remains in institutional settlements, which represent more than 96,000 people, according to federal data published in the fall.

The government has given institutions a deadline, giving them until 2029, to prepare human remains and their funerary effects for repatriation.

In many cases, human remains and cultural objects carry little information, which has slowed repatriation in the past, particularly for institutions seeking demanding anthropological and ethnographic evidence of their connections to a modern indigenous group.

The government is now urging institutions to leverage the information they have, in some cases relying solely on geographic information, such as the county in which the remains were discovered.

Some tribal officials worry the new rules could lead to a deluge of demands from museums that could exceed their capacities and create a financial burden.

Speaking in June to a Committee reviewing the law’s implementation, Scott Willard, who works on repatriation issues for the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, said he was concerned that the rhetoric around the new regulations sometimes made it seem like indigenous ancestors were “disposable objects.”

“This garage sale mentality of ‘give it all away’ is very offensive to us,” Willard said.

Officials who developed the new regulations said institutions can get extensions to their deadlines as long as the tribes they consult with agree, emphasizing the need to hold institutions accountable without overburdening tribes. If museums are found to have broken the regulations, they could face fines.

Bryan Newland, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs and former tribal chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community, said the rules were developed in consultation with tribal representatives, who wanted their ancestors to regain their dignity after death.

“Repatriation is not just a rule on paper,” Newland said, “but it brings real healing and meaningful closure to people. »