NYC American Museum of Natural History Closes Exhibits to Comply with Repatriation Rules

The American Museum of Natural History closes indigenous culture galleries in compliance with updated federal regulations on repatriating cultural artifacts.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York announced it will close two galleries dedicated to indigenous cultures as it reviews exhibits to comply with updated federal regulations on repatriating cultural artifacts.

The closures come after the December update to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Nagpra), which now requires museums to obtain consent from native peoples to display cultural artifacts. Institutions have five years to repatriate items under the new rules.

“The number of cultural objects in those halls is significant, and also because these exhibits are very outdated, we have decided that rather than cover up or remove specific items, we will close the galleries,” said museum president Sean M. Decatur in a letter to staff.

Galleries Closed, Exhibits Covered

The museum will close the “Eastern Woodlands” and “Great Plains” galleries. It will also cover three displays at the doors of the former gallery, two showcases in the “Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples,” and two others in the “Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall.”

Decatur said closing the “Eastern Woodlands” gallery necessitates suspending school field trips that have occurred for years.

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Part of a National Reckoning

The museum joins other institutions grappling with how to update indigenous exhibits, including the Chicago Museum of Natural History and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

In his statement, Decatur agreed with Nagpra’s aims and said the sudden closures “reflect a growing urgency for all museums to change their relationships with and representation of indigenous cultures.”

More Changes to Come

Decatur acknowledged the affected galleries contain “vestiges of a time when museums like ours did not respect the values, perspectives and shared humanity of indigenous people.”

“These actions are only the beginning, not the end. We will take this opportunity to continue learning and advance our commitment to work in new ways,” the president added.