Why are museums closing their Native American exhibits?

New woke rules make it impossible to display anything connected to indigenous tribes.

Elizabeth Weiss

Topics Culture Identity Politics USA

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New federal regulations are forcing museums across the US to scrap their exhibits on Native American history and culture.

At the end of January, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City announced that it would be closing two of its major Native American displays. Navigating the legal maze required to obtain consent from indigenous tribes had made maintaining the exhibits virtually impossible.

Other American museums are sadly following suit. Both the Field Museum in Chicago and the Cleveland Museum of Art have started covering certain display cases. Meanwhile, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University recently announced that it would be removing all Native American funerary belongings from its exhibitions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has already removed around 20 artefacts from its musical-instruments collection.

The scale of these closures is hugely significant. At the American Museum of Natural History – one of the most-visited museums in the world – roughly 10,000 square feet of exhibit space will now be shut to visitors. For now, it is unclear whether some or any of these exhibits will ever be on public display again.

All this chaos is the result of recent regulatory changes to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). NAGPRA was initially created to give indigenous tribes a formal route to reclaim ancestral human remains, sacred objects, funerary items and items of cultural patrimony from museum collections. Repatriation decisions could then be made on the basis of cultural, biological, historical and even oral-history evidence.

Up until now, this system had worked well for all parties involved. Nearly all human remains with a known origin, and any related artefacts, have been returned to their respective tribes. In 2020, the percentage of affiliated remains and artefacts that had been repatriated stood at 91.5 per cent.

The previous NAGPRA rules created a delicate but functioning relationship between Native American tribes and museum curators and researchers. Anthropologists could retain unaffiliated remains and artefacts to be used for research, while indigenous people were empowered to stake their ancestral claims.

All this changed when, late last year, the Biden administration amended NAGPRA. These changes, which came into effect in January, make it significantly more difficult for institutions to keep any kind of Native American artefacts or remains. The new regulations state that museums and federal agencies must defer to the tribes and their ‘indigenous knowledge’. And consent must be obtained from lineal descendants and tribes before human remains or cultural items are allowed to be exhibited or researched. Essentially, this makes it almost impossible for tribes to be challenged on any repatriation claims.

This focus on traditional indigenous knowledge will result in religious myths replacing objective information. Native American knowledge, which often consists of oral traditions revolving around creation myths, miraculous tales and supernatural objects of power, will now be elevated above historical and scientific evidence – a trend that has been on the rise for a while now.

Indeed, we are already seeing the impact of prioritising ‘indigenous ways of knowing’ over rational and scientific thinking. In December, it was revealed that the American Museum of Natural History has been warning visitors of the ‘powerful spirits’ that may be lurking in one of its Native American exhibits. On a case displaying Tlingit shaman masks, a label reads:

‘CAUTION: This display case contains items used in the practices of traditional Tlingit doctors. Some people may wish to avoid this area, as Tlingit tradition holds that such belongings contain powerful spirits.’

At the same museum, curators decided against displaying a Native American bird-bone whistle because of its apparent supernatural powers. Elders from the Nuxalk tribe believe that the whistle can be used as a ‘summoning tool for supernatural beings’. They advised the museum to display the whistle in a closed box, so that visitors cannot view it directly. Museum officials apparently decided that even this would be too risky, and so they removed the whistle from display entirely.

Even when every exhibition is closed, or remodelled to comply with either NAGPRA rules or superstitious beliefs, repatriation activists will not be satisfied. Their next target is contemporary Native American art. In a recent NAGPRA information session about the new regulations, curators were told to consult with tribes over the display of recently purchased modern art created by Native American artists. Given the hassle this would create, it would hardly be a surprise if museums decided to forego these displays altogether. Ultimately, this will harm Native American artists most of all.

Eventually, nothing will be safe from NAGPRA’s reach. During the consultation process for the updated legislation, some groups suggested that ‘casts, 3D scans and all other digital data’ of Native American human remains should also be covered by NAGPRA. Others requested that the definition of ‘human remains’ be expanded to also include ‘any data collected directly relating to a Native American individual’. Needless to say, removing this data from the hands of researchers and academics would represent a monumental loss to our collective knowledge.

This divisive approach to history hinders far more than it helps. Regulations like NAGPRA tie historians and anthropologists up in needless red tape. And Native American tribes are robbed of the opportunity to develop a full understanding of their culture and history. In fact, it deprives everyone of the opportunity to learn about the shared history of the US.

We should be working to excavate and understand the past, not trying to re-bury it.

Elizabeth Weiss is a professor of anthropology at San José State University and is author of Repatriation and Erasing the Past.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture Identity Politics USA


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