Jan 26, 2024 - Politics & Policy

American Museum of Natural History to close two Native American exhibit halls

American Museum of Natural History in New York City

American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Photo: Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images

New York City's American Museum of Natural History announced Friday that it is closing two major exhibit halls containing Native American artifacts.

Why it matters: The decision, explained in a letter to staff obtained by Axios, comes as museums around the country are adjusting how they display Native American artifacts to comply with new federal rules that the Biden administration recently established.

  • The new rules, which took effect this month, require museums and institutions to obtain tribal consent before displaying Native American remains and artifacts.
  • Under the revised regulations, they have a five-year deadline to re-inventory and prepare for repatriation of the human remains and artifacts that they possess, per a December release from the Department of Interior.

Details: The American Museum of Natural History shared plans to close the Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains Halls because they contain a significant number of cultural objects, said Sean Decatur, the museum's president, in the letter obtained by Axios.

  • The exhibits were "severely outdated," he wrote.
  • The closures, which take effect Saturday, were among what Decatur called "initial actions" that the museum is taking in response to the federal rule changes. It will also cover up other display cases in the museum containing Native American cultural items, per the letter.
  • The changes present a "tremendous opportunity to learn and to deepen our relationships with Indigenous communities," Decatur stated.
  • No timeline is in place for when the exhibits might reopen, according to the New York Times, which first reported the closures.
  • "Some objects may never come back on display as a result of the consultation process," Decatur told the Times in an interview.

The big picture: Even before the new federal regulations kicked in on Jan. 12, museums and universities around the country have been reconsidering the objects they have in their archives and on display.

  • Chicago's Field Museum announced earlier this month that it had covered several display cases with Native American cultural objects.
  • "Pending consultation with the represented communities, we have covered all cases that we believe contain cultural items that could be subject to these regulations," the museum said in a press release. "The Field Museum does not have any Native American human remains on display."
  • The Cleveland Museum of Art also covered up several display cases containing Native American artifacts, local news reported.
  • Last year, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science said it would close its North American Indian Cultures Hall, which it acknowledged promoted "harmful stereotypes."

Meanwhile, museums, universities and state institutions in Ohio, Washington, Florida and Texas still possess the remains of Indigenous people in their collections.

Go deeper