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Museums to close exhibits featuring Native American artifacts, as new federal regulations take effect

The American Museum of Natural History in New York and other museums across the United States are closing or adapting exhibits featuring Native American objects, in response to new regulations from the Biden administration.

The regulations, which went into effect on January 12, require museums and federal agencies to consult and obtain informed consent from descendants, tribes or Native Hawaiian Organizations before displaying or researching human remains or cultural items, according to the Department of the Interior.

The rules aim to provide updated guidelines for the implementation of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act – or NAGPRA – a federal law requiring the identification and repatriation of Indigenous remains. The goal is to speed up the process of returning Native American remains, objects of cultural patrimony, funerary objects and other sacred items to tribes, the Department of the Interior said.

In response to the regulations, the American Museum of Natural History said it will be closing two halls that featured Native American objects on January 27.

The exhibits include large objects such as an Iroquois longhouse and a model of a Menominee birchbark canoe in the Hall of East Woodlands, according to the museum’s website.

Sean Decatur, president of the museum, told staff in a letter obtained by CNN that the Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains Halls will be closing because they contain a significant number of artifacts that, under the new regulations, could require consent to exhibit.

“The number of cultural objects on display in these Halls is significant, and because these exhibits are also severely outdated, we have decided that rather than just covering or removing specific items, we will close the Halls,” Decatur wrote in the letter.

He also acknowledged that the Halls and exhibits ”are vestiges of an era when museums such as ours did not respect the values, perspectives, and indeed shared humanity of Indigenous peoples.”

“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.”

Earlier this month, the Field Museum in Chicago said in a statement that it had covered some cases displaying items from Indigenous communities across the United States in response to the new regulations and pending consultation with the communities represented in the museum’s collections.

The National Park Service maintains a database of Native American human remains and associated funerary objects that institutions have reported to the federal government under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

While the Field Museum said it does not have human remains on display, the database shows the museum’s collection has nearly 1,300 human remains and 964 burial objects.

Last week, the Denver Art Museum said it removed a case with Mississippian/Caddoan ceramics from its galleries “out of an abundance of caution” but had no concerns about its current displays as the museum has followed NAGPRA since its launch.

John Lukavic and Dakota Hoska, two of the museum’s curators, explained in a statement that more than 30 tribes currently claim descent from the Caddoan Mississippian culture and they were notified about the ceramics but not all chose to conduct consultations.

“While the museum doesn’t believe that displaying these items puts its galleries out of compliance with new NAGPRA guidelines, we are reaching out to these communities to give them another opportunity to voice any concerns before displaying these items again,” Lukavic and Hoska wrote.

Some display cases at the Cleveland Museum of Art have been covered as staffers secure consent or confirm whether it was previously given to the museum, Todd Mesek, a spokesman for the museum told CNN on Friday.

“In some instances, we may already have permissions based on historical discussions with Native American representatives. 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,” Mesek told CNN.

When Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the new regulations last month, she described the changes as “an important part of laying the groundwork for the healing of our people” in a written statement.

Haaland is the first Native American to hold a US cabinet position.

“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. Among the updates we are implementing are critical steps to strengthen the authority and role of Indigenous communities in the repatriation process,” Haaland said.

In addition to streamlining the repatriation process and requiring informed consent, the new regulations will also require museums and federal agencies to consult and update inventories of human remains and associated funeral objects within five years.

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