Museum Displays Need Consultation
Image source: Anthony Starks via Flickr Creative Commons
The American Museum of Natural History in New York will close two halls dedicated to Indigenous cultures of North America and seven additional cases starting this Saturday while staff review whether artifacts within them need consent, museum President Sean Decatur announced in an email to staff on Friday.
“While the actions we are taking this week may seem sudden, they reflect a growing urgency among all museums to change their relationships to, and representation of, Indigenous cultures,” Decatur said. “The Halls we are closing are vestiges of an era when museums such as ours did not respect the values, perspectives, and indeed shared humanity of Indigenous peoples. Actions that may feel sudden to some may seem long overdue to others.”
When the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act was passed in 1990, hundreds of museums, colleges and private collections contained remains and artifacts from indigenous people that were removed from archaeological sites and graves without the permission of the tribes to which they are associated. NAGPRA was designed to have these remains and objects returned to their tribes. In 1906 the US Congress passed the Antiquities Act, giving the President the authority to create National Monument as a direct result of the looting of Native sites.
While NAGPRA gave the institutions the opportunity to voluntarily return these remains and artifacts, the bureaucracy moved slowly. The Department of the Interior therefore expanded the requirements of NAGPRA to require all who hold these remains and all artifacts to consult with the tribes associated with then to return the items to the tribes or to agree upon and appropriate display. Thus, many institutions, such as the NYC Museum of Natural History are closing their displays until consultation can take place.
For many institutions this can be an arduous task as some remains and artifacts have no documentation as to which tribe they belong, and many tribes have been forced from their homelands. On the positive side, breakthroughs in technology, especially DNA may be able to solve some of the mysteries. Perhaps the long arm of history is bending toward justice.
New York Times: January 27, 2024: New York Museum to close halls featuring Native American Artifacts
Washington Post: January 26, 2024. Museums cover Native Displays after new repatriation rules by Samantha Chery
Chandelis Duster and Nichole Chavez. CNN: Museums to close exhibits featuring Native American artifacts, as new federal regulations take effect.