Museum of Natural History shuts down Native American exhibits in New York

Museum’s move complies with NAGPRA Act with plans to return them to their original tribes

Visitors at the American Museum of Natural Historys Hall of the Great Plains in New York on January 25, 2024. — The New York Times via Redux
Visitors at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of the Great Plains in New York on January 25, 2024. — The New York Times via Redux

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) on Friday closed all its Native American-related displays, causing disappointment among history lovers.

The evacuation began shortly after museum director Sean Decatur announced the changes in a letter to staff, The New York Post reported.

“The halls we are closing are artefacts of an era when museums such as ours did not respect the values, perspectives and indeed shared humanity of Indigenous peoples,” Decatur wrote in the letter.

“Actions that may feel sudden to some may seem long overdue to others,” he continued.

The museum’s move comes in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), with plans to return them to their original tribes.

Many of the remains and objects in question were seized from the native peoples without their consent or were excavated and taken by non-native anthropologists and collectors without regard for tribal traditions, the policy noted.

Dan Shoop, 60, raced to the museum after hearing the news to view the exhibits for the last time.

Shoop said: “People come here to learn and see the displays. If it’s not on public display, it robs the people of a chance to learn about a culture of great historic importance to this country.”

He added: “I think it’s a shame because there’s a lot of history being made secret.”

A museumgoer sits on a bench in front of covered displays on January 26, 2024. — The New York Times via Redux
A museumgoer sits on a bench in front of covered displays on January 26, 2024. — The New York Times via Redux

A museum member said that they opposed how the AHNM went about the closures and wished there had been an earlier warning before the cabinets were stripped.

“I think New Yorkers should have had a chance to say goodbye,” said the person, who asked to remain anonymous. “It would have been much better if they said it was closing two weeks from now. 

“Many people in this hall said they wanted a chance for their kids to see it.”

According to the AMNH, the exhibits will reopen, though it could not provide a timeline.

“Some objects may never come back on display as a result of the consultation process. But we are looking to create smaller-scale programs throughout the museum that can explain what kind of process is underway,” Decatur told the Times.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland stated that changes to the Department’s NAGPRA regulations are “long overdue and will strengthen the enforcement of the law”.

He added that this move would also “help Tribes in the return of ancestors and sacred cultural objects”.

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