The American Museum of Natural History recently unveiled its brand new exhibit, The Secret World of Elephants, which examines the 60-million-year evolution of the elephant family. But as one door opens, it seems like another door closes.
According to The New York Times, AMNH has closed two of its major halls exhibiting Native American objects and artifacts amid new Biden Administration regulations that require museums to obtain consent from indigenous tribes before placing their cultural items on display.
On Saturday, January 27th, the museum closed the doors to its halls dedicated to the Eastern Woodlands and the Great Plains, accounting for approximately 10,000 square feet of museum exhibition space. Additionally, a number of other display cases featuring Native American cultural items will be covered.
The museum’s president Sean Decatur wrote a letter to the museum’s staff on Friday, January 26th, stating:
The halls we are closing are artifacts 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.
Decatur added that though some objects may never come back on display, they’re “looking to create smaller-scale programs throughout the museum that can explain what kind of process is underway.”
The Times reports that the closures are the direct result of Biden administration efforts to speed up the repatriation of Native American remains, funerary objects, and other sacred items. The effort has been over 30 years in the making, with the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 which called for museums and other institutions to return human remains and other holdings to tribes.
Tribal representatives, however, criticized the law, stating the process was too slow and too susceptible to institutional resistance.
Earlier this month, new federal regulations went into effect that gives cultural institutions five years to “prepare all human remains and related funerary objects for repatriation and giving more authority to tribes throughout the process,” in order to speed up the return process.
The regulations also require museums to obtain consent from tribes before displaying their cultural items.
Myra Masiel-Zamora, an archaeologist and curator with the Pechanga Band of Indians stated, “We’re finally being heard — and it’s not a fight, it’s a conversation,” according to The Times.
Both halls closed on Saturday, January 27th, 2024. As of now, the museum can’t provide a timeline for when the areas will reopen.