American Museum of Natural History closing 2 major Native American galleries

NEW YORK — The American Museum of Natural History is closing two major galleries displaying Native American objects in response to new federal regulations that require museums to obtain consent from tribes.

In December, the Department of the Interior expanded regulations implemented under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, NAGPRA, to require tribal consent for the exhibition of and research on artifacts.

On Saturday, the museum’s Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains halls will be shut down. Two displays were already empty Friday.

The museum is also covering seven other display cases as it goes through its collection to make sure it is in compliance.

“It’s such an important part of American history, and not to acknowledge that and have an opportunity to explore it here in New York City, it would be an injustice,” museum visitor Leslie Pramnieks said.

In a letter to staff Friday, Museum President Sean Decatur wrote:

“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. 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.”

Reaction was mixed from museum visitors.

“Totally makes sense. I mean, it’s their stuff, their ancestry, their heritage,” said Shana McCormick, from Cambria, California.

“I think they deserve consent from the tribes. That’s their people, their culture,” another person said.

“I just think it’s a big win for tribal communities in the sense that Native peoples are now kind of having a bigger say in the narrative that is put out,” said Hannah Jimenez, a Native American student at Columbia University who grew up on a reservation.

But some visitors say the new rules are going too far.

“We are tired of it. We just said, what’s gonna go next? Are they gonna change the name of Columbus Circle now?” said Ricky Armstrong, of Union Square.

“I think the whole thing is just too politicized,” Brooklyn resident Ben Brandwein said.

It’s not clear when the exhibits could reopen, and history lovers worry about the missed opportunities to learn about American history.

“I feel like it’s upsetting. The fact that they’re closing, like, representation and stuff that other people could be interested in learning in,” one person said.

The Eastern Woodlands exhibit has been a popular destination for school field trips. Visits will now be suspended. But the museum says it remains committed to supporting teaching about Indigenous peoples.

The museum president said they will share more information as they review the new rules and how to respond.

“We expect that there will be disruption to our established practices and some uncertainty as we work to better understand how to make needed changes, but there is also tremendous opportunity to learn and to deepen our relationships with Indigenous communities,” Decatur wrote.

In the meantime, the sudden closure leaves nearly 10,000 square feet of exhibition space off-limits to visitors and staff, The New York Times reported. 

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