The American Museum of Natural History in New York is closing exhibits with Native American objects due to new federal regulations.
The president of the museum, Sean M. Decatur, sent a letter to staff members in which he noted new regulations that include “expanded requirements for consultation and consent for the exhibition of and research on artifacts.”
“We expect that there will be disruption to our established practices and some uncertainty as we work to better understand how to make needed changes, but there is also tremendous opportunity to learn and to deepen our relationships with Indigenous communities,” Decatur said in the letter.
New regulations under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) “clarify and improve upon the systematic processes for the disposition or repatriation of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony,” according to the Department of the Interior.
In part, the regulations require museums to obtain consent from Native American tribes before displaying some types of items.
Decatur said starting Saturday, the museum will “be closing two halls dedicated to Indigenous cultures of North America, the Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains Halls, to visitors and staff.”
“Both Halls display artifacts that, under the new NAGPRA regulations, could require consent to exhibit,” Decatur continued. “The number of cultural objects on display in these Halls is significant, and because these exhibits are also severely outdated, we have decided that rather than just covering or removing specific items, we will close the Halls.”
The new regulations for Native American displays also come amid mounting pressure on museums to repatriate cultural artifacts and antiquities that were stolen or smuggled out of foreign countries.
In June 2022, Smithsonian Institution’s board of regents voted to return Benin bronzes to Nigeria that were taken in a late-19th century raid on Benin City by the British. The same year, the institution adopted a new ethical returns policy that allows each of the Smithsonian museums to return collections under certain circumstances “based on ethical considerations.”