Several museums across the country are covering displays of artifacts from federally recognized Native American and Native Hawaiian groups, in response to newly bolstered regulations that require museums to obtain consent for such exhibits from the communities, and to hasten the return of human remains and other culturally significant objects to them.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was enacted in 1990, requiring museums and federal agencies to identify and send back stolen sacred items to their respective cultural groups, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in a statement. But after widespread complaints of poor compliance, the Department of the Interior issued new rules this month that strengthen the law, setting a deadline of five years for the federally funded entities to ensure their collections comply.
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.”
Penn Museum, at the University of Pennsylvania, didn’t cover artifacts in its exhibit, “Native American Voices: The People — Here and Now” because it was developed with the help of tribal representatives, said Laura Hortz Stanton, the museum’s director of collections. But the museum has increased staff in its NAGPRA office and welcomed the changed regulation, she said.
“We’ve worked both within the letter and the spirit of the law here,” she said. “Our point of view is really to speed up the process of working with tribes, and be able to repatriate things on a clearer and more defined timeline, which only benefits everybody in the long run.”
The law’s updates were based on input from more than 180 individual submissions, many from members of Native American tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations, museums and students who want human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and other culturally significant objects to be returned quickly to their ancestral communities.
Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology apologized for its slow pace in repatriating human remains in 2021. It was reported to still have remains of 7,000 Native Americans and enslaved people the following year, according to a report leaked to the Harvard Crimson. Museum representatives didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about how the updates affected its current collection, but the university said in October that it has doubled its staff dedicated to complying with the 1990 law in the past year, and invested more resources into consulting with tribes and descendants to return hair clippings.
Smithsonian institutions, such as the National Museum of the American Indian in D.C., are excluded from the new federal regulation. NMAI instead must follow the similar National Museum of the American Indian Act, created in 1989. As of last August, however, the Smithsonian had returned only 6,300 of the nearly 35,000 sets of body parts of Indigenous people it had collected.
Some museums, such as the Field Museum in Chicago, have emphasized that they have no human remains on display but are covering other relevant items out of caution.
The Field Museum said earlier this month in a news release that it had covered several display cases in two areas, its Robert R. McCormick Halls of the Ancient Americas and the Alsdorf Hall of Northwest Coast and Arctic Peoples, that contain “cultural items from Native American communities throughout the United States.”
The Cleveland Museum of Art has also removed some items from display to consult with relevant parties, the museum’s chief marketing officer Todd Mesek said in an emailed statement.
“In some instances, we may already have permissions based on historical discussions with Native American representatives,” he said. “We’re reviewing archival records to determine if consent consistent with the regulations has been obtained and, in instances where there is no record of consent, determine which parties need to be consulted.”
Nicole Dungca and Claire Healy contributed to this report.