Field Museum Covers Some Native Displays as New Rules Take Effect

The Field Museum in Chicago has covered up several display cases that feature Native American cultural items in response to new federal regulations that require museums to obtain consent from tribes before exhibiting objects connected to their heritage.

Museums across the country have been preparing for the new regulations, which go into effect on Friday, with officials consulting lawyers as curators scramble to read through rules that will influence staffing and budgets for years to come.

The federal government overhauled rules that were established in the 1990s, hoping to accelerate the repatriation of Native American remains and cultural patrimony — a process that tribal officials and repatriation advocates have long criticized for moving too slowly.

The Field Museum’s decision relates to a provision that requires institutions to “obtain free, prior and informed consent” from tribes before exhibiting cultural items or human remains, or allowing research of them. 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.

The decision by the Field Museum, which was announced this week on its website, applies to display cases in its halls of the ancient Americas, focused on civilizations in the Western Hemisphere spanning 13,000 years, and in a hall about 10 Native nations in the Pacific Northwest.

“Pending consultation with the represented communities, we have covered all cases that we believe contain cultural items that could be subject to these regulations,” said the museum, which noted it does not display human remains.

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