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Museums close Native American displays after new regulations take effect


Two exhibit halls at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City just closed permanently today because of updated federal regulations. It's one of the most high-profile examples of museums across the country scurrying to cover display cases and take artifacts off of exhibit. But many are saying this is not a bad thing.

NPR's Jennifer Francisco joins me to talk about all of this. She was at the museum yesterday, hours before the halls closed. Hey, Jennifer.


DETROW: So let's start with this. What are these new regulations?

VANASCO: Well, they're an update of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act that took effect this month. And it basically says, if human remains or ceremonial objects or funeral objects were taken from tribal lands or federal lands, they need to be returned, but, of course, that is complicated. Museums have thousands of objects. An object I saw yesterday, a staff covered in otter skin - it was used for a ceremony - or, say, a medicine bag from a shaman - maybe those were collected, like, 150 years ago. And back then, they didn't really care who an object belonged to. Or some people, I'm sure, cared, but a lot of people didn't. So sometimes it's hard to trace. So the museums still have a lot of these artifacts, and 30 years later, they have thousands of them.

DETROW: So we're talking about a 1990 law here. What happened more recently? What happened in this update?

VANASCO: This update is extensive, but the key points are first, these objects can't be on display or used for research unless there is consultation and explicit permission from the tribe they belong to. And second, the burden is now on the museums to reach out to tribes for that permission. It used to be the other way around.

DETROW: OK. So you were at the museum yesterday when these halls were still open their last day. What did you see? How were people reacting?

VANASCO: So the thing is, is that even though these might be well known, Scott, I have spent a lot of time in this museum, and usually these halls are pretty empty...


VANASCO: ...Because they're kind of boring. But yesterday, there were so many people. It was crazy.

DETROW: What were the people you talked to saying?

VANASCO: You know, there are a lot of people were there just for, like, the Instagram of it, right? They wanted to see these things before they closed. But a lot of people share the sentiment of a woman I talked to, Nancy Krehbiel. She was visiting from Wichita, Kan. She said, it's interesting to see the artistry of these pieces and learn more about the culture. But then she said this.

NANCY KREHBIEL: Yet these items were apparently stolen or ended up in hands that weren't Native American, and they should be returned.

VANASCO: But I also talked to a man there, an archaeologist not affiliated with the museum. He said he was worried that if people can't research these objects, these stories are going to be lost to history.

DETROW: Well, what are museum officials saying about this? Are they concerned that they aren't going to be able to use these objects for research purposes?

VANASCO: It is the concern of a lot of museums, but it's not actually a concern of the American Museum of Natural History. I spoke to Sean Decatur, the president. Here's what he had to say.

SEAN DECATUR: This is a really essential thing for us to do in order to also begin the process of repairing some of the harm and damage and building a new set of relationships that can help to move us all forward.

DETROW: Probably the most important question here - how are Native American groups feeling about this decision?

VANASCO: They're really happy about it. They've actually been working to get these regulations updated for a decade. I spoke with Shannon O'Loughlin. She's the chief executive of the Association of American Indian Affairs, and she's Choctaw.

SHANNON O'LOUGHLIN: I truly believe the NAGPRA regulations, at least at this period in time, are about as perfect as we can get them.

VANASCO: NAGPRA is just the shorthand for the regulations we're talking about. And she says, though, the work isn't over. The regulations still don't cover private collections or auction houses, and she says they need to because a ton of artifacts are there.

DETROW: That's NPR's Jennifer Vanasco. Thank you so much.

VANASCO: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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