New Federal Regulations Close Down Native American Exhibitions at Major U.S. Museums

The American Museum of Natural History in New York, one of the most visited museums in the world, last week became the latest museum to shutter its exhibitions of Native American artifacts. The closure was in response to new regulations promulgated by the Department of the Interior under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The regulations, effective as of January 12, 2024, were part of an effort to strengthen the enforcement of NAGRA by speeding up the return of human remains and related funerary objects to their lineal descendants. In a statement in December 2023 Secretary Deb Haaland described the effort as follows:

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is an essential tool for the safe return of sacred objects to the communities from which they were stolen. Among the updates we are implementing are critical steps to strengthen the authority and role of Indigenous communities in the repatriation process…Finalizing these changes is an important part of laying the groundwork for the healing of our people. 

The new rule requires museums and federal agencies to obtain informed consent from lineal descendants, tribes or Native Hawaiian Organizations before allowing any exhibition of, access to, or research on human remains or cultural items. Where consent has not been obtained or where it is not clear whether consent was obtained, museums all over the country are closing down or covering up questionable displays.