American Museum of Natural History Closes Native Exhibition Halls

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City will shutter two expansive galleries showcasing Native objects tomorrow, January 27, and cover seven additional display cases, according to an all-staff email sent today by President Sean M. Decatur and reviewed by Hyperallergic. The Upper West Side institution’s decision to close its Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains Halls follows new federal regulations that prohibit the exhibition of Native artifacts without informed consent.

The recently enacted rules, which went into effect on January 12, constitute an updated — and stricter — version of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The legislation mandates that institutions cannot study or display Native human remains, funerary or sacred artifacts, or cultural objects without the agreement of tribal or lineal descendants or proof of legally sound historic transfer of ownership, which can be acutely difficult to produce. 

In response, Chicago’s Field Museum announced earlier this month that it would cover some of its Native display cases. The Cleveland Museum of Art followed suit, and Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology stated that it would remove Native funerary objects from its exhibits.

AMNH’s Eastern Woodlands Hall contains artifacts from the Iroquois, Mohegan, Ojibwa, and Cree tribes. The Great Plains Hall centers Hidatsa, Dakota (Sioux), Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Crow life in the 1800s. Decatur said that both galleries hold objects that “could require consent to exhibit” under the new guidelines. The president also noted that both shows serve as frequent destinations for school field trips.

“The number of cultural objects on display in these Halls is significant, and because these exhibits are also severely outdated, we have decided that rather than just covering or removing specific items, we will close the Halls,” the letter reads.

Chief Executive and Attorney for the Association on American Indian Affairs Shannon O’Loughlin, who is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, expressed a more cynical perspective on the slew of dramatic museum announcements. While institutions often claim they have attempted to work with Native Nations, she said, “it has taken a complete revision of the NAGPRA regulations to make crystal clear to these institutions that they do not have any legal or ownership rights to Native Nation cultural heritage and their Ancestors’ bodies.”

In October, AMNH announced that it would no longer display human remains days before Hyperallergic published scholar Erin L. Thompson’s investigation into the museum’s collection of bodies, over 2,000 of which are of Native Americans. The updated NAGPRA guidelines also close a loophole that allowed institutions to delay the return of human remains by categorizing them as “culturally unaffiliated.”

“Removing exhibits and displays where the institution never obtained the free, prior, and informed consent of those sovereign Nations is the least those institutions can do,” said O’Loughlin. “The Association on American Indian Affairs is not impressed that these institutions want to gloat about something they should have been doing — at least since NAGPRA was passed back in 1990.”

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