Museums closing Native American areas over new Biden admin law

 January 27, 2024

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York has taken steps to comply with recently updated federal regulations under the Biden administration regarding the display of Native American artifacts.

Following revised regulations under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Nagpra), which came into effect earlier this month, museums must now obtain permission from tribes to display their objects, particularly those related to human remains or cultural items.

The change

In response to the new guidelines, the AMNH announced the closure of two halls – Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains – featuring Native American artifacts.

The move is part of an effort to respect the updated Nagpra regulations, which require obtaining consent from tribes to showcase or research certain cultural items.

The Eastern Woodlands hall displays artifacts from the Iroquois, Mohegan, Ojibwa, and Cree nations, while the Great Plains hall features exhibits from various Plains nations.

Why now?

Sean Decatur, president of the AMNH, stated in an announcement to museum staff that the decision to close the halls is aligned with the museum's commitment to respecting the values and perspectives of Indigenous peoples.

The closures are also seen as addressing outdated exhibits that did not reflect a proper acknowledgment of Indigenous perspectives.

In addition to closing the halls, the museum will cover specific cases outside the Eastern Woodlands hall and in other exhibition spaces displaying Native Hawaiian items. Decatur emphasized that these actions are a response to an era when museums did not adequately respect the shared humanity and values of Indigenous peoples.

Another Biden disaster

The significance of the decision lies in its message to other museums, signaling the need to review and update exhibits to reflect the voices and perspectives of Indigenous communities. The move has been welcomed by Indigenous leaders, emphasizing the importance of collaboration between museums and tribes in accurately representing and preserving Native American heritage.

The closure of the two halls at the AMNH follows the implementation of Nagpra's recent updates, which give more authority to tribes and mandate institutions to obtain consent for showcasing or researching specific cultural items.

The move aligns with a broader trend among museums across the United States to address the legacy of Indigenous artifacts' systematic collection and better engage with tribal communities in the repatriation process.

Critics, however, have raised concerns about the five-year deadline set by Nagpra for institutions to prepare all human remains and funerary objects for repatriation.

The changes usher in a new era, emphasizing collaboration, consultation, and respect for the rights of Indigenous communities in determining the presentation and protection of their cultural heritage.

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