US Museum of Natural History Closes Two Native Village Halls for ‘Historical Review’

The measure responds to renewed federal regulations on the exhibition of human remains and indigenous cultural objects

The American Museum of Natural History in New York closed two rooms with objects from native peoples of the USA as of this Saturday, recognizing that the exhibitions are “severely dated” and contain culturally sensitive objects.

The massive complex across from Central Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is the latest American institution to remove Native American exhibits to comply with recently renewed federal regulations on the display of human remains and indigenous cultural objects.

The museum announced in October that it would remove all human remains from public display with the goal of repatriating as many as possible to the indigenous peoples and other rightful owners.
Sean Decatur, the museum’s president, said in a letter to staff Friday that the latest move reflects the “growing urgency” among museums to change their relationships with tribes and how they display indigenous cultures.

“The rooms we are closing are vestiges of a time when museums like ours did not respect the values, perspectives and, indeed, the shared humanity of indigenous peoples,” he wrote. “Actions that may seem sudden to some, may seem very late to others.”
Earlier this month, Chicago’s Field Museum covered several exhibits containing Native American artifacts. The Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University has declared that it will remove all Native American funerary objects from its exhibits. The Cleveland Museum of Art is another institution that has taken similar steps.

Shannon O’Loughlin, director of the Association of American Indian Affairs, a national group that has long called on museums to comply with federal requirements, welcomed these measures, but said the real test is what will ultimately happen to the removed objects.

“Covering the exhibits or removing the objects is not the goal,” he said. “It is about repatriation, returning the objects to the tribes. So this is just one part of a much broader process.”
Todd Mesek, a spokesman for the Cleveland Museum of Art, said the institution is consulting with Native American groups to obtain their consent to display certain objects, as well as reviewing archival records to determine if any agreements already exist on record.