New federal regulations have reconfigured how American museums can display and possess Native American materials.
The abrupt closure of the American Museum of Natural History in New York’s Eastern Woodland and Great Plains galleries on Saturday might shock, but it should not surprise. A dusty and outdated display featuring dozens of rubbery mannequins in Native American regalia, the only thing more shocking than their sudden shutdown is that they were still open at all.
The movement, institutional and otherwise, toward respect for, collaboration with, and acknowledgement of Native American cultures as alive and thriving is no new thing. American museums of all kinds have been investing significantly in more open, collaborative relationships with Native American nations for years. But new federal regulations are prompting what a simple moral imperative in some cases could not. The December update to regulations governing both the display of Native American materials and their return to the Indigenous nations that request them gave new force to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990.
Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Chicago’s Field Museum, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have all also acted to remove items from view. But the AMNH closure, shuttering thousands of square feet all at once, is the towering signal that the time for American museums’ reckoning with Indigenous culture has finally come.
The new regulations’ hard Jan. 10, 2029, deadline to return human remains and funerary objects to Indigenous groups petitioning for them seems more than generous, and puts on notice museums like Harvard’s Peabody, which has been dragging its feet on requests for such materials, in some cases for decades. The Peabody, which confirmed on Friday that it is removing Native American funerary objects from display, infamously still holds thousands of Native American human remains; a ProPublica investigation published in December detailed how the museum used loopholes in NAGPRA to deny the repatriation of Wabanaki remains to their home communities for almost 30 years.
Funerary objects aside, under the updated mandate, museums will no longer be able to display or conduct research on culturally significant objects without the consent of the Indigenous nation they relate to. The good news is this has been evolving as standard practice in many American institutions for some years, without federal compulsion. Think of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004 with the express purpose of pulling the plug on the lifeless anthropological display of Native American culture in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History across the mall, and returning the narrative to the living Indigenous nations those stories belong to.
Today, the Smithsonian’s American Indian museum is a beacon of Native American creativity and resilience, where ancient cultures represented by astonishing art objects intertwine with their contemporary relations. Right now, “Red Is Beautiful,” an exhibition of the work of contemporary Anishinaabe artist Robert Houle, fills its contemporary galleries, while spectacular examples of centuries-old art like basketry and quillwork, all identified by tribe, region, and, where possible, maker, stand vigil elsewhere in the building.
As you enter the museum, you’re greeted by “Whimsical Eccentric” a lively little 2003 piece by the Inuit/Metis/Scottish artist Michael Massie. Beside it, the museum’s mission is clear: “Welcome to a Native Place,” text on the wall beside it reads. “This museum partners with Native peoples of the Western hemisphere to present the real stories, everyday lives, and powerful achievements that form American Indian histories and cultures.”
In just the past couple of years, institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts have hired curators of Indigenous art for the first time in their histories, bringing the museums in harmony with the SNMAI’s vision that Native American culture be seen as it is — living, thriving, contemporary, and an extension of its ancestral practice. More is coming: This spring, Yale’s Peabody Museum, closed for a five-year overhaul, will open with “natural history” dropped from its name, and with an Indigenous curator, Royce K. Young Wolf, who will bridge between the Peabody and Yale’s art museum to reflect the presence of Native American culture in both contexts. Significantly, too, American art museums have been integrating Indigenous art in their permanent American galleries. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem was among the first, in 2022.
Amid all of this movement, the AMNH’s Eastern Woodland and Great Plains galleries have been notably static. Outstanding objects spanning eras littered dim displays with scant information of their use and source. I’ve been exploring the necessary evolution of natural history museums, and how they’re reconciling the inhumanity of presenting human culture in the context of “natural history” at all. To me, that’s an oxymoron at best, and deeply offensive at worst. Human culture is not natural history, and can’t be studied like igneous rock or plant and animal evolution.
For Native American culture, that context is particularly grim. Ravaged by colonial violence, hundreds of distinct nations, through their own resilience, have not only survived attempts to erase them, but have come to thrive in the current moment. For years, museums in this country, as colonial endeavors, put their cultures behind glass like specimens, a dehumanizing spectacle that moored them as primitive relics of a long-ago past.
“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,” Sean Decatur, the museum’s president, said in an all-staff memo on Friday, published in The New York Times. I was at the museum earlier this month, to see what my rational mind had trouble accepting could still be true. And yet there they were: vitrines crammed with specimen-like displays of Indigenous art, draped over or pinned near mannequins whose faces were a blank cliche of Native American features. They had always chilled me with their rubbery indifference to the living peoples they were meant to represent; surrounded by stunning bead and quillwork on animal-hide shirts and bandolier bags, among other things, they conveyed a false sense of a culture as lifeless as the mannequins themselves.
A case full of spectacular wampum belts and strings, often made as material embodiments of treaties or contracts, was missing even the now-standard credit of “artist once known,” how museums have come to honor the makers that colonial archaeologists didn’t think to be bothered with.
If those galleries embodied everything that’s wrong with the museum’s engagement with Indigenous culture, the museum is getting it almost exactly right in another part of the building. Less than two years ago, the museum opened its completely revamped Northwest Coast Hall, a dazzling trove of some of the very best pieces from the Coast Salish, Gitxsan, and Haida nations, among seven others, that exist anywhere.
This is what collaboration in a real spirit of reconciliation looks like: Fashioned in close consultation with leaders of nine of the Indigenous nations represented, the galleries are alive with sound and video of the region and the dynamic Indigenous cultures thriving there. It befits the nature of the pieces themselves, which most Indigenous cultures see as living beings, not static objects. Their voices dominate while the museum stands by; everywhere, on video screens and text panels, members of the various nations both describe their culture and art and explain the dark history they’ve traveled to arrive here.
Pieces that remain with the museum do so with the nations’ consent, for now, an imperfect solution that many Indigenous nations would prefer to see end. “I still believe that that material belongs to us and it will never be given its true value in any other setting than our own Houses,” Haa’yuups, head of the House of Takiishtakamlthat-h of the Huupa’chesat-h First Nation, on Vancouver Island, told The New York Times when the hall opened in 2022. Until that’s practically possible — the museum has repatriated thousands of objects already — the Northwest Coast Hall is a model of a best-case relationship between Indigenous cultures and the kind of museum that once favored entombment over engagement. The closings in New York, Cambridge, and elsewhere are another necessary step back toward the living.