Native Americans slam New York Museum of Natural History over slow restitution

American Museum of Natural History. Photo: Ingfbruno | CC BY-SA 3.0

Native American groups in the US say they have not heard from the Museum of Natural History in New York over its inventory of sacred objects and human remains – despite the institution closing the relevant galleries months ago to comply with federal restitution laws.

Incoming director Sean Decatur locked the doors to 930sqm of the museum’s floorplan in Janaury, just hours after informing staff of the decision. Decatur said he was acting in compliance with Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which forces institutions to either return artefacts to the respective tribes or seek express retospective permission to display an object.

As well as the 2,039 human remains and 3,884 funerary objects in the collection (numbers estimated the Association of American Indian Affairs), included in the displays were objects that do not necessarily have a spiritual purpose, such as some basketry, tools, weapons and boats, which may not be covered by legislation, as well as dioramas showing traditional native American life.

The human remains, which may have been sourced through grave robbing, were not on display.

While the museums says it has been in dialogue with tribal authorities, the non-profit umbrella Association of American Indian Affairs told the New York Post that the objects remain in the display cabinets, albeit with the galleries closed to visitors.

‘They have been among the biggest, most horrible holdouts of all of the institutions, and they are still woefully out of compliance,’ the Post quotes the association’s chief executive and attorney Shannon O’Loughlin.

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