New York’s venerable American Museum of Natural History and leading institutions across the country are shutting down major exhibits of Native American artifacts in response to new federal regulations limiting the display of cultural items.
Under the guidelines announced recently by the Biden administration, museums must obtain permission from Native American tribes before displaying or performing research on cultural items, many of which were donated generations ago by archeologists who had stolen them after digging up sacred burial grounds.
The policy led the museum to close two exhibits — the Hall of the Great Plains, which includes jewelry, tools and weapons from the Cree, Cheyenne, Assiniboine, and Crow tribes, and the Eastern Woodlands exhibit, which features items from the Iroquois, Mohegans, Ojibwas and Crees.
The closures go into effect Saturday. The exhibits will be closed to visitors and staff.
“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,” Sean Decatur, the museum’s president, wrote in a letter to the museum’s staff on Friday morning.
“Actions that may feel sudden to some may seem long overdue to others.”
The closures, first reported in the New York Times, represent a seismic shift in how artifacts are displayed.
Along with denying access to the affected exhibits, museum officials are also covering other display cases throughout the museum that feature Native American cultural items.
The rules come out of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was passed more than 30 years ago.
But efforts to return such items dragged on for decades. This month, new federal regulations took effect that were designed to speed up returns, giving institutions five years to prepare all human remains and related funerary objects for repatriation and giving more authority to tribes throughout the process.
“The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is an essential tool for the safe return of sacred objects to the communities from which they were stolen,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said last month when the new rules were finalized.
“Among the updates we are implementing are critical steps to strengthen the authority and role of Indigenous communities in the repatriation process. Finalizing these changes is an important part of laying the groundwork for the healing of our people.”
The new guidelines took effect Jan. 12 and affect museums throughout the country including institutions in Chicago, Cleveland and Cambridge, Mass.
The displays in New York City will be off limits to the nearly five million people who visit the American Museum of Natural History every year.
According to museum staff, student field trips will be rerouted for the foreseeable future.
“The number of cultural objects on display in these halls is significant,” Decatur said. “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.”