The Field Museum in Chicago has closed several display cases of Native American cultural items in response to new federal regulations requiring museums to obtain permission from tribes before displaying objects connected to their heritage.
Museums across the country are preparing for new regulations that come into effect on Friday; Officials are consulting with lawyers as curators try to read rules that will affect staffing and budgets in the coming years.
The federal government overhauled rules established in the 1990s, hoping to expedite the repatriation of Native American remains and cultural heritage; It’s a process that tribal officials and repatriation advocates have long criticized as moving too slowly.
The Field Museum’s decision concerns a provision requiring institutions to “obtain free, prior, and informed consent” from tribes before displaying or permitting the study of cultural items or human remains. Museums had to decide whether to leave Native objects on display and risk violating the new rules, or whether to remove the objects while engaging in a process that could require a lengthy process to obtain tribal consent.
The decision, which the Field Museum announced on its website this week, applies to displays in the halls of the ancient Americas, focusing on 13,000-year-old civilizations in the Western Hemisphere, and a hall of about 10 Indigenous nations in the Pacific. Northwest.
Stating that it does not exhibit human remains, the museum said: “In consultation with the communities represented, we have considered all cases that we believe involve cultural items that may be subject to these regulations.”
It was not immediately clear which items were hidden and which tribes the museum planned to consult. Museum representatives did not immediately respond to a request for more information.
Many institutions that display Native American cultural items, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, have not disclosed how their exhibits would be affected.
“It’s clear as day,” said Shannon O’Loughlin, executive director of the American Indian Affairs Association, a nonprofit organization that assists Native nations and Native people with repatriation. “If there is a mismatch, they need to proactively fix it.”
Some of the newfound urgency around repatriation has been fueled by a broader effort at museums and universities to right historical wrongs. The seizure of Native American remains is often linked to grave robbing, archaeological excavation, and development of burial grounds.
Another driving force has been the Biden administration, which has been trying to find ways to speed up the return process since 2021. The remains of more than 96,000 Native American individuals continue to be held in institutions including major museums and small local historical societies.
The new regulations end some practices that return advocates say have caused returns to be delayed. Institutions can no longer label remains as “culturally unidentified”; This makes it difficult for tribes to lay claim to these assets.
The new rules, created in consultation with dozens of federally recognized Native American tribes, also aim to address long-standing concerns about how much tribes are paid for exhibits and research.
“If people had treated that relationship with respect in the first place, there probably wouldn’t have been a need for the rule,” said Bryan Newland, assistant secretary of Indian affairs and former tribal chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community.
Some leaders in the museum and archeology world argued that the new rules were overstepping and that museums should have autonomy to manage their collections. If a museum is accused of not complying with federal regulations enforced by the Department of the Interior, the government can impose fines.
Founded in 1894 after the World’s Columbian Exposition as a repository of items exhibited at the fair, the Field Museum is among the museums that have renewed their commitment to return to their countries in recent years. It has one of the largest collections of Native American remains, with holdings representing more than 1,200 individuals, according to federal government data released in the fall.
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