Field Museum Covers Native American Displays to Comply With New Regulations

The federal rules require museums to obtain consent from tribal leaders before displaying or researching cultural heritage items

Field Museum exterior in Chicago
Chicago's Field Museum announced its decision to cover certain display cases several days before new federal regulations went into effect. © Field Museum / Lucy Hewett

Chicago’s Field Museum has covered some of the Native American artifacts it had on view to comply with federal rules that took effect on Friday.

Staffers blocked off display cases in areas that focus on Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest and ancient civilizations of the Western Hemisphere, according to a statement from the museum.

The move comes amid new regulations—which the Interior Department announced in December—that require museums to “obtain free, prior and informed consent” from tribal leaders before displaying ancestral heritage items. Museums, universities, art institutions and similar venues will need to make necessary updates within the next five years.

The Field Museum “appears to be the first to publicly acknowledge its compliance with the new regulations,” writes Artnet’s Adam Schrader.

“Pending consultation with the represented communities, we have covered all cases that we believe contain cultural items that could be subject to these regulations,” according to the museum. Officials haven’t yet indicated which artifacts are located in these display cases.

The regulations are an update to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which was signed into law in the 1990s. They are part of the federal government’s attempt to hasten the repatriation of Native American remains, funerary objects and sacred items, report the New York Times’ Julia Jacobs and Zachary Small.

“Museums have had to decide whether to leave Native objects on display and risk violating the new rules, or to remove the objects while engaging in what might be a lengthy process of requesting tribal consent,” writes the Times.

Founded in 1894, the Field Museum has a long history of exhibiting Native American artifacts—and it’s become increasingly invested in grappling with that legacy. In its announcement, the museum insists it’s committed “not only to compliance with NAGPRA but to consultation and collaboration with affiliated communities whose heritage is represented in our galleries.”

In spring 2022, the Field Museum opened a new permanent exhibition created in collaboration with Native American community members from 105 tribes. Titled “Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories,” the show replaced the museum’s longstanding Native American exhibition, which had been in place since the 1950s and was criticized as outdated and misrepresentative, per WBEZ’s Lauren Frost.

The original exhibition had traced Indigenous narratives primarily from a European perspective. Additionally, staffers had assembled it without input from Native American groups, which led to a number of mistakes—such as displaying garments and artifacts backwards or upside down. 

“What was told in the old hall was facts of a kind,” Alaka Wali, the museum’s curator emeritus of North American anthropology, told WBEZ in 2022. “[It did not reflect] how Native peoples themselves understand their own story.”

The museum also opened a new exhibition earlier this year honoring the long legacy of hula in Chicago. Looking ahead, officials plan to review its records on the artifacts in the covered display cases and “contact affiliated tribes and [Native Hawaiian organizations] for their input.”

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