The Field Museum in Chicago has recently made headlines by covering up several display cases containing Native American cultural items. This decision comes in response to new federal regulations that require museums to obtain consent from Native American tribes before exhibiting objects related to their heritage. The move reflects a broader effort in the museum world to address historical injustices and repatriate items linked to grave robbing, archaeological excavation, and development on burial grounds. In this article, we will explore the implications of these new regulations and the Field Museum’s response.

The Overhaul of Federal Regulations

The federal government has initiated a significant overhaul of regulations established in the 1990s, aiming to expedite the repatriation process of Native American remains and cultural patrimony. This process has long been criticized for its sluggish pace by tribal officials and repatriation advocates. The new regulations, set to take effect shortly, bring a more rigorous approach to museums and institutions housing these cultural items.

The Key Provision: “Free, Prior, and Informed Consent”

One of the central provisions of the new regulations requires institutions to secure “free, prior, and informed consent” from tribes before displaying cultural items or human remains or permitting research on them. This requirement has presented museums with a challenging decision: leave Native objects on display and risk violating the new rules or remove the items while embarking on a potentially lengthy process of obtaining tribal consent.

The Field Museum’s Response

The Field Museum’s response to this dilemma was announced recently on its website. The museum has chosen to cover up display cases containing cultural items that might fall under these new regulations. However, the specific items obscured and the tribes to be consulted have not been disclosed, leaving room for further clarification from the museum. It’s important to note that the Field Museum does not display human remains.

What Lies Ahead

Many other institutions across the United States that exhibit Native American cultural items, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, have yet to announce how their exhibitions will be affected by the new regulations.

The urgency surrounding repatriation has grown in recent years, driven by efforts to rectify historical wrongs and fueled by the Biden administration’s commitment to accelerate the repatriation process. Over 96,000 Native American individuals’ remains are still held in various institutions, from large museums to small local historical societies.

The new regulations put an end to practices that had previously delayed repatriation, such as labeling remains as “culturally unidentifiable.” They also aim to address longstanding concerns about how much consideration tribes receive regarding exhibitions and research involving their cultural heritage.

Challenges and Controversies

While these regulations have been welcomed by tribal communities and advocates of repatriation, they have sparked some controversy in the museum and archaeology worlds. Critics argue that the rules infringe on museums’ autonomy in managing their collections and that the government’s power to issue fines for non-compliance is excessive.

Conclusion

The Field Museum’s decision to cover up display cases containing Native American cultural items in response to new federal regulations is a reflection of the changing landscape in the museum world. As museums grapple with these regulations, they must find a delicate balance between preserving cultural heritage and respecting tribal sovereignty. These developments mark a significant step towards addressing historical injustices and ensuring that Native American communities are actively involved in decisions related to their heritage.

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