Statement on New NAGPRA Regulations

As of January 2024, the Museum is taking initial steps to implement updated NAGPRA regulations in our exhibitions. Museum President Sean Decatur shared a letter with the Museum community about this important work.

Letter from President Sean Decatur to Museum Staff

Dear colleagues,

Last month, the Department of the Interior issued updates to the regulations implementing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a 1990 federal law that recognizes the rights of federally recognized tribes, Native Hawaiian Organizations, and lineal descendants in regard to human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. Since the new regulations were issued, we have been reviewing them and other guidance from the national NAGPRA office to understand the implications for exhibitions, collections, research, and other activities.

The changes to the regulations are extensive, including new, expanded requirements for consultation and consent for the exhibition of and research on artifacts covered by the law, and implementing them will be a dynamic process. We expect that there will be disruption to our established practices and some uncertainty as we work to better understand how to make needed changes, but there is also tremendous opportunity to learn and to deepen our relationships with Indigenous communities.

I want to share with you some initial actions that the Museum will be making in our exhibitions:

Beginning this Saturday, we will be closing two halls dedicated to Indigenous cultures of North America, the Eastern Woodlands and Great Plains Halls, to visitors and staff. Both Halls display artifacts that, under the new NAGPRA regulations, could require consent to exhibit. The number of cultural objects on display in these Halls is significant, and because these exhibits are also severely outdated, we have decided that rather than just covering or removing specific items, we will close the Halls. In addition to closing these two Halls, we will be covering three cases just outside of the Hall of Eastern Woodlands and two cases in the Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples, which display Native Hawaiian items. In addition, two cases in Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall also will be covered.

One immediate effect of these closures will be the suspension of school field trips to Eastern Woodlands, which for years has hosted local students as part of their social studies curriculum. We remain committed to supporting teaching and learning about Indigenous peoples.

While the actions we are taking this week may seem sudden, they reflect a growing urgency among all museums to change their relationships to, and representation of, Indigenous cultures. The Halls we are closing are vestiges of an era when museums such as ours did not respect the values, perspectives, and indeed shared humanity of Indigenous peoples. Actions that may feel sudden to some may seem long overdue to others. In closing these Halls and covering other exhibits, we are guided by the same interest in addressing the history of our Museum, and natural history museums in general, that led us to announce a new approach to the stewardship of our human remains collection in October, and, as I mentioned then, these actions are part of a beginning, not an end point. We embrace the new NAGPRA regulations’ potential to improve the processes by which museums work with tribes and communities, and we will use this opportunity to continue our own learning and advance our commitment to working in new ways.

To honor our mission, we will share more about this work with our visitors to help them understand the changes they will begin to see in our galleries and the considerations that are shaping changes to our collection practices and the evolving presentations of Indigenous cultures at the Museum.

We will have opportunities to discuss these changes, and what they mean for our work, including during an upcoming all-staff meeting (date and time to be announced shortly). In the meantime, I want to thank our colleagues, particularly those in the Cultural Resources Office (CRO), Anthropology, Exhibition, and Conservation, who have for many years been engaged with Indigenous communities, and everyone who will now be doing the sensitive and important work going forward.